Batman: Under the Red Hood (DVD Review)

Batman: Under the Red Hood cover

Batman: Under the Red Hood is the latest original DC Animated movie, written by Judd Winick based on his graphic novel telling the story of a new, more violent vigilante. The Red Hood challenges Batman’s methods for cleaning up Gotham City, but what is the historical connection between the two?

There’s nothing like sitting down to watch a superhero cartoon and opening on a scene of a demented clown beating a teen boy to near-death with a crowbar, then blowing him up. That’s a bit unfair of me — these movies, rated PG-13, aren’t for kids. Especially given the scenes of torture and murder, this is not a family film; it’s aimed squarely at adults. That does make me wonder about the short running time, though. The movie is only an hour fifteen minutes, although adults have a longer attention span.

The Joker and Robin

At first, I didn’t care for the voice of the Joker (John DiMaggio, who also plays Futurama‘s Bender) — it wasn’t distinctive enough for me — but by the end, I was very impressed with what he’d done. But that’s all introduction to the real story here: a grown-up Jason Todd Robin, instead of being dead, has returned as a new vigilante with uncertain loyalties, calling himself the Red Hood (voiced by Jensen Ackles, Supernatural).

The Red Hood

Batman: Under the Red Hood cover

Looking at the rest of the cast, Bruce Greenwood, playing Batman, does a good job with some truly difficult lines, as when he’s threatening punks with clichés or dropping exposition to explain some new villain. Neil Patrick Harris was my favorite as Nightwing, “the pretty boy in a leotard”, who was allowed to have a sense of humor and thus a bit more humanity in his voice. He combines professionalism with youthful exuberance well. He’s what kept the movie watchable for me, tweaking super-grim Batman every so often. I think he should have been drawn cuter, but this generic art approach isn’t distinctive in a lot of ways. It’s better than the last couple of animated films, though, and it has the proper sense of setting for Gotham City.

How boring would it be to be Batman, who has already thought of everything? His plane even has a button to reduce wingspan so it can fly through a traffic tunnel. (One of my favorite moments, since I was looking for lightness in this grim story.) And when he scowls, his mask’s eyebrows make a little bat on his head. This animated film aims for more artistic effect than some of the previous, which just wanted to tell adventure, often origin, stories.

Batman in Under the Red Hood

Batman’s grimness in this film serves a couple of important points — it better distinguishes him from Nightwing, who otherwise is a carbon copy with more blue highlights and no cape, and it reminds us of the effect of Jason’s death. Which we get fully explained to us 50 minutes in, although I’d already guessed what the main outline was going to be. (Hint: Ever seen Pet Semetary? And there’s a continuity glitch there that I don’t want to talk about because it will spoil things, but it involves the standard operating procedure of Magic Plot Device not being different from what we see, even though we’re told this time is different.)

I admit, I don’t pay 100% attention to these movies while they’re on, but I did find the use of flashbacks confusing at points. The movie jumps into them without much warning, and at times, we wondered which kid Robin we were seeing. As viewers, we were in a difficult situation, but one I believe most viewers will share — we know the important Batman comic stories, but we’re not sure we read the one this movie is based on, and we got mixed up between what we remember from the comics and what we’re seeing here. The structure here is ambitious and rewards close attention.

Batman and Robin in Under the Red Hood

Fanboys will quite enjoy the climactic confrontation, which turns into a “should heroes kill?” debate, but I was unsatisfied. The lack of conclusion regarding one character frustrated me, and I found the circumstances so extreme (and some of the actions so unbelievable) that I was disappointed. It’s not an honest way of approaching the topic, but a stacked deck. In a comic book, I’d be looking forward to the next collection to find out what happened to that character, but here? There’s nowhere else to find out.

On the bright side, the movie spurred KC and I to have fun talking about the Titans story where Dick first became Nightwing and that glorious disco collar costume. And laughing at how Jason wears a mask under his mask. And trying to remember what the comics did with the Black Mask.

One last gripe: Continuing from the last original DC animated movie, I really hate the tendency of these films to introduce second- or third-tier bad guys who look vaguely familiar from the comics, but without bothering to explain or name them. In this case, who was the chick with the red ponytail and glowing swords who was part of the armorered ninja squadron?

Also on Disc One

There’s a first look for Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. The news on that film somewhat took the steam out of this one, causing Under the Red Hood to be overlooked in the race to get to the new one later this year, since it introduces Supergirl. Plus, there are some additional trailers for some past DC animated films, the animated Lord of the Rings, and something called Legend of the Guardians about fighting owls.

Jonah Hex

The 11-minute Jonah Hex DC Showcase cartoon is a period Western, just what you’d expect, except I kept getting distracted by the way the women’s costumes looked more like typical superhero bathing-suit designs instead of something from the Old West. The title character is voiced by Thomas Jane, who does a superb job, ironically, since he should have had the movie role. (He also played the Punisher.) The music was great, very atmospheric.

I found it odd that instead of simply the usual “Interpol will get you for copyright violation” notice, there are an additional ten notices in varying languages and for different countries to let us know that it can’t be resold, distributed, or exported without a Warner license, nor can it be shown at “clubs, churches, hospitals, hotels, oil rigs, prisons, and schools.”

Disc Two: Special Features

The only significant special feature in the two-disc DVD package is the 24-minute “Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson”. Various talking heads, including Phil Cousineau (editor of The Hero’s Journey), writer Judd Winick, and DC execs Dan Didio and Paul Levitz, explain how Bill Finger, credited as Batman’s writer, reportedly found it hard to write Batman without someone to talk to or explain things to, so Robin was created to be the first sidekick. Then Levitz narrates Robin’s origin and Matthew Mahoney (from LA’s Golden Apple Comics) tells us that both Robin and Batman lost their parents.

Most anyone interested in this film would already know these things, I suspect. I wish instead we’d gotten people arguing about just how old Robin was when he started. Levitz suggests he was 15 or 16, but I always thought he was closer to 12 (but that causes child-protection issues to arise). I also wish we’d get art credits for the images they selected to show the character.

Len Wein and Dennis O’Neil weigh in later, and the heads (with the addition of Thomas Andrae, writer of Creators of the Superheroes and co-writer of Bob Kane’s autobiography Batman and Me) start talking about whether Batman and Robin were intended to have a relationship similar to father/son or closer to brotherly. They also discuss the costume design, including the brighter colors, and how they dealt with the character growing up, including the origin of Nightwing.

Also on this disc are two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, “Robin’s Reckoning Parts 1 and 2”. It tells the origin of the original Robin and, according to Wikipedia, “earned the series an Emmy for Most Outstanding Half Hour or Less Program and is considered to be one of the best episodes of the series.”

Missed Opportunities

There were a lot of opportunities for extras missed, I think, since there’s almost no making-of material. For instance, I’d liked to have known more about how the story was changed from the comic version. Since Judd Winick wrote both, it would have been interesting to have heard him talk about the changes he made and why.

Also, why not include the already-existing first look for this film (as seen on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths)? It includes footage of the voice actors and talks about why they chose this story, as well as showing a little of the original comic. It should have been included, since it functions well to fill the gap left by omitting the makings-of that used to be part of these packages.

This might be too fannish, but I would have loved to have seen someone discuss how Robin is the character that breaks the continuity timeline of the DC universe, because you can’t make his stories work within the framework of the rest. He and his Titans buddies aged up from young teen to adult while no one else grew older. Although some of the participants of the “Robin” feature talk about that aging, no one really touches on why they chose to let it happen or what that meant for the bigger picture.

Batman: Under the Red Hood cover

DC wants to keep their heroes under 30, in many cases, so as more stories happen, more events get squeezed into 12 years or less. When readers were kids in the 60s and 70s, they knew that the heroes were real adults. Now, those readers are firmly middle-aged or older, and the heroes seem like kids. That problem, and possible solutions, and whether it was the right thing to do with Robin — that would all have made for a much more interesting discussion than the story retellings we got. Robin is a fascinating character from so many perspectives, from the “Boy Hostage” brightly colored target to how his presence changed comics in historical ways. The extra touches on very little of what makes him interesting and doesn’t do the character justice.

Blu-ray Only

There’s a second feature, the 21-minute “Robin’s Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd”, that talks about the second Robin’s origin using much of the same voices from the other extra. I really thought it should have been included in this package as well, given how much the subject bears directly on the background of the film, and I could have used the reminders. According to those who’ve seen it, though, it covers material already known by comic fans.

Plus, there are two more cartoon episodes, the Joker-focused “Mad Love” and “The Laughing Fish”. (The studio provided a review copy.)


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