Warner Bros. // 2010 // 75 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 15th, 2010
Dare to look beneath the hood.
"I've done enough to him already."
Throughout most of Batman's career, The Dark Knight has had a Robin by his side. The first Robin was Dick Grayson, a former circus performer who dubbed himself "Nightwing" after he grew out of the Robin role. Next in line was Jason Todd, whose career as The Boy Wonder was cut tragically short after a deadly encounter with the Joker.
Fast forward a decade or so. Batman (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek (2009)) is working alone, though every now and then he'll begrudgingly accept help from Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother). Still, he prefers to work alone. He doesn't want anyone else around him to get hurt.
Batman's latest challenge is dealing with a new menace known as The Red Hood (Jensen Eckles, Supernatural). The name rings familiar to our hero, as that particular title belonged to The Joker (John DiMaggio, Futurama) before he went insane. The Red Hood is simultaneously partnering with and wiping out loads of gangsters in Gotham City, seemingly staging a takeover of sorts. It's up to Batman to find out what The Red Hood is up to and who he is.
When I heard that the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie was going to be an adaptation of Judd Winick's Under the Hood, I couldn't help but raise my eyebrows. Of all the Batman stories out there, they really wanted to tell that story? Not that it's a bad story, mind you...sure, it took some criticism from many comic book fans, but I found it a rather enjoyable yarn. However, the story played heavily on the death of Jason Todd (an event that takes a good deal of explaining to begin with) and the conclusion was a bit of cosmic wildness that directly tied in to DC's Infinite Crisis event. Surely there was no way they were going to try to stuff that into this little stand-alone animated movie?
Fortunately, Winick did a nice re-write of the saga specifically for this format, giving us a version of the story that's leaner, grittier and (dare I say?) more persuasive than the original. While some may roll their eyes at the prospect of yet another one of these installments putting the spotlight on Batman (DC has decided to play it safe in the wake of Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight flopping), I have to say that Batman: Under the Red Hood is one of the most impressive entries in the series to date.
In a way, I'm kind of surprised that they chose to adapt Under the Hood rather than the more popular (and easier-to-adapt) A Death in the Family, which tells the complete story of Jason Todd's death. Though they certainly use the latter story as a springboard, the focus is most definitely on the events of the former tale. In case you aren't familiar with the whole Jason Todd debacle, the character was created by DC in an attempt to give Batman an edgier, more rebellious partner. Todd certainly fit the bill, but fans hated him with a passion. DC then did something groundbreaking and slightly disturbing: they hold a poll to determine whether the character should live or die. Readers paid a small fee to call a 1-800 number, cast their votes and awaited the outcome. Sure enough, the majority wanted Todd dead, giving us one of the first really noteworthy character deaths in the history of mainstream comics (now it seems like they're killing someone off every other month). Todd was quickly replaced with the chipper Tim Drake, and all returned to normal.
Batman: Under the Red Hood messes with the comic book continuity in a positive way, pretending that Drake doesn't exist and giving us the hard-edged loner version of Batman. It drops a number of peripheral characters (Mr. Freeze, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.), adds Ra's Al Ghul and reconfigures the details of the story quite well. Upon seeing Winick's new version, I wonder if he wouldn't have been better off telling this version of the story all along. It's a grim, moody tale that draws heavily on the pain of the past; an emotionally mature adventure that's closer in tone to The Dark Knight than to most of the other DC Universe Animated outings.
Even so, don't let me give you the impression that Batman: Under the Red Hood is some sort of Bergmanesque tale of inner conflict. The film is first and foremost an explosive action movie, as Batman, Nightwing, and The Red Hood are thrown into one violent conflict after another. The animators do a particularly superb job in this department this time around, delivering clean, swift imagery that really packs a punch. Despite a large cast, the movie does a fine job of maintaining a sturdy narrative and brisk pace (as opposed to the recent Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, which sometimes felt too much like an overstuffed cameo-fest).
The voice casting is also spot-on. While I still maintain that Kevin Conroy is the definitive voice of Batman, Bruce Greenwood makes a mighty fine substitute. While Greenwood veers a little far in the Christian Bale direction every now and then, he mostly does an excellent job and proves far more persuasive than some of the other recent Batman voices (William Baldwin, Jeremy Sisto). Neil Patrick Harris provides breezy counterpoint as the more easy-going Nightwing, while Jensen Eckles brings a lot of bitter smarm to The Red Hood. The biggest surprise is probably John DiMaggio as The Joker, who draws a bit from Heath Ledger and Mark Hamill but still turns in a unique performance. It's a genuinely creepy turn, as DiMaggio performs the part with unwavering gusto. Finally, Jason Isaacs has a couple of strong scenes as the villainous Ra's Al Ghul.
I should also mention that while all of the DC Animated Universe films thus far have been PG-13, most of them haven't really earned that rating. In most of the films, the scenes of violence added to the occasional usage of mild swear words felt unconvincing. This time, such material seems organic to the world of the film. This is a genuinely dark little movie, meaning that parents might want to take the rating a bit more seriously than they would with the other installments.
The hi-def transfer is predictably excellent, with superb detail and depth throughout. While obviously this isn't going to be a knockout on the level of something like Wall-E, it gets the job done about as well as one could hope. The color palette is moody and dour with occasional dashes of vibrant color, which is an effective approach. Audio is excellent as well, as the action scenes really pack quite an aural punch. The sound design is immersive and professional, blending nicely with the dialogue and Christopher Drake's solid score.
The supplemental department ranges from the fascinating to the bland. The most noteworthy extra is an original "DC Showcase" animated short spotlighting Jonah Hex (11 minutes). It's a lean little tale based on one of the comics that came out a few years ago, and it's far more effective in establishing the identity of Hex and his world than the abominable feature film that came out just before this release. Interestingly, Thomas Jane (who desperately wanted the role of Hex in the feature film and failed to get it) provides the voice for the title character. It's not a pleasant story, but few Jonah Hex tales are. I'm really digging these shorts and hope DC continues to produce them.
Next, we have two Robin-centric featurettes: "Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson" (24 minutes) and "Robin's Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd" (21 minutes). These will be interesting to those who know little about the characters, but comic book fans will be disappointed that these pretty much focus on well-known stuff. You also get a 12-minute sneak peek at the upcoming Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, which is very EPK-type stuff. Finally, there are four bonus episodes from Batman: The Animated Series ("Robin's Reckoning Part I & II," "The Laughing Fish," and "Mad Love") and a digital copy. Not a bad package, but somewhat lacking in comparison to other releases. I really wish DC would return to including audio commentaries on these films, which they've stopped doing recently.
I think that Nightwing's role in this saga is somewhat underwritten. Judge Mac McEntire is spot-on when he suggests that it feels like there was meant to be more drawing on his history as the first Robin. Though the character is well-portrayed, his presence isn't as justified as it ought to be. Additionally, I found the portrayal of Black Mask (including Wade Williams' ranting voice performance) fairly bland and conventional.
A gritty, involving story gets re-worked impressively in Batman: Under the Red Hood. It's a strong outing from a strong line, so pick it up without hesistation.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
* German (SDH)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Short Film
* Bonus Episodes
* Sneak Peek
* Digital Copy