Rated PG-13 for violent content and some drug references.
Running time: 75 minutes
Directed by: Brandon Vietti
Written by: Judd Winick
Featuring the voices of: Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, Neil Patrick Harris, Kelly Hu, Gary Cole, Jason Isaacs, John Di Maggio
Listen up, Batman fans. This one is for you.
Adopting the PG-13 rating of the recent crop of DC Comics’ animated films, Batman: Under the Red Hood actually justifies the more adult designation with a mature, thrilling and decidedly dark adventure that has strong echoes to Nolan’s recent big-screen iterations. This Batman may have the bold, clean lines and eye-popping colors of a kid-friendly animation, but it’s anything but a tale for the tykes.
Under the Red Hood hearkens back to the darker, more morally conflicted Batman of the comic books, a figure even more self-possessed and haunted than Bale’s gravel-voiced avenger. Although he’s drawn in much the same square-jawed fashion as his popular and well-concieved small screen persona, this dark knight—voiced with dramatic intensity and variation by Bruce Greenwood—spends as much time grappling with the inherent contradictions of his vigilante existence as he does battling an endless array of villains.
Those foes include but are not limited to The Joker, The Riddler, Amazo the robot, Ra’s al Ghul and two new diametrically opposed forces; the Black Mask and the Red Hood. Comic afficiandos familiar with all iterations of the Batman mythos will well know that the Red Hood was the pre-transformation criminal identity of Bruce Wayne’s most famous nemesis, The Joker. Here, the Hood is a seperate character from the clown prince of crime, not exactly a villain, but an anti-hero, prepared to cross those moral boundaries that have long defined the Batman.
If you are one of the Batman die-hards, then it is likely you will recognize not just the Red Hood reference but also the two main storylines from which this brisk 75-minute actioner draws its narrative. Comic scribe Judd Winick (Pedro and Me, Blood and Water) adapts his own 2005 arc, Under The Red Hood, and incorporates direct passages from A Death in the Family, the saga infamously known for killing the second Robin, Jason Todd. The film version of Red Hood even opens with a harrowing scene; the Joker has the young Todd tied up, beating him repeatedly with a crowbar. Todd’s death, implied off-screen, hits Bruce Wayne hard and he never fully recovers from it.
Flash-forward five years later to the present-day events of Red Hood, where Batman roams the streets of Gotham, occassionally teaming up with Nightwing—the first Robin, Dick Grayson, who has set out on his own path as a superhero—and battling the ruthless kingpin known as the Black Mask. To add fuel to the fire, a mysterious new player going by the moniker Red Hood has arrived in town and sets up a meeting with all of the high-level dealers and criminals in Gotham. Reminiscent of a similar sequence in The Dark Knight involving the Joker, the Hood announces that he has killed all of their second-tier thugs and appoints himself their new leader, requiring they give him 40% of earnings and do not ply their drugs on the youth of the city.
This set-up leads to a mystery-thriller involving Batman and Nightwing racing to uncover the identity of Red Hood, learning he is equipped with similar weaponry and shares a similar cause. They both must also acknowledge the fact that through his own unconventional methods, the Hood is actually lowering the crime rate in Gotham, a feat that the Batman alone could never accomplish. The plot stretches back through time and includes a number of familiar faces, including a visit to the Joker in Arkham and a late-in-the-game revelation by Ra’s Al Gul who still feels regret over his hand in Todd’s death.
Although,Under the Red Hood is filled with character depth and a more sturdy philosophical bent than any of the previous Batman pictures—it’s exploration of Wayne’s code of justice is surprisingly intensive—it’s still primarily an action adventure. There are more than enough thrilling chase scenes, roof-top battles, and city-shaking explosions here to satisfy fans looking to Batman and Nightwing for a more dynamic duo. The smooth, vividly realized animation lends emotion and credibility to the story, taking what could be a painfully obvious guess-the-villian plot and establishing it as an engrossing, pulpy potboiler. Winick, streamlining and restructuring his own tale, has actually improved it, making it less clumsy and more immediate and psychologically compelling than its comic-book counterpart.
As a kid who grew up reading Batman, Dectective Comics, and Shadow of the Bat in the mid 80s to early 90’s, I’ve always been a bit disappointed by the visual world of the character we’ve been given on the big screen. My imagination was initially stirred by Anton Furst’s grand gothic structures in the 89 Batman, but Burton’s fabulist take on the story, while interesting, never really matched ethos of the character. Nolan’s exhilirating move towards a more real-world Gotham—while retaining residiual traces of Burton’s grand fantasy—was closer to my own imaginings. To be honest though, it is the graphically complex and kinetic world of Batman: The Animated Series that has always felt the most like the Gotham I’m used to.
Taking a page from the Max Fleischer Superman comics, and borrowing the aesthetics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (those hovering blimps and looming spires) and M (the leering faces of the criminal underworld glimpsed from shadowy alleys), the animated Batman provides a Gotham that isn’t just visually impressive but a natural expression of the characters that inhabit it. The character design is iconic and menacing, matched by terrific voicework. Greenwood replaces Kevin Conroy here, and instead of mere imitation, he builds a weary resignation into the Dark Knight. As Nightwing, Neil Patrick Harris functions mostly as acerbic comic relief, but he also draws out the father/son relationship that has always nominally existed between Wayne and the Robins. John Di Maggio is perfectly loony as the Joker, Kelly Hu and Jason Isaacs aristocratically devious as the Ghuls, and Gary Cole makes a satisfying Commisioner Gordon. The standout stealing the show is Jensen Ackles, the eldest Winchester on WB’s superb Supernatural, as the Red Hood, mixing tough, saracastic wit with inner stores of pragmatic resolve.
Although it cuts a strong dramatic figure, Batman: Under the Red Hood still suffers significantly from it’s slight running time, which requires a rather meaty story to be condensed into its most exciting highlights. The result is lively and entertaining, but deducts one of Batman’s best attributes; his faculities as a detective. Although we see Bats, Alfred and Grayson struggling to determine the identity of the Red Hood, the mystery is rather obvious and it makes Wayne look like a bit of a putz when he’s literally the last to figure it out. A longer film could have clued the audience in later and added another layer of crime-solving, that in turn might have better cemented the thematic plot point of Batman’s relationship to his young charges. This would have provided more impact when those relationships play as counterpoint to internal contradictions within the dark avenger.
Although ostensibly a hero, here Batman must actually come to grips with the facet of his character everyone takes for granted; his obstinate resolve to obstain from murder even when it means innocents, like his parents and Todd, may later come under the knife. When Batman and the Red Hood participate in a two-way physical and verbal battle of wills, the film boasts some of the strongest writing of any on-screen interations. Essentially championing their two view points, ironically over the fate of the cruel and twisted Joker, Batman and the Hood burrow through to the soulful core of the Batman dilemma.
Wayne’s reasons for abstaining from murder are less about ‘simple justice’ and instead part of the fundamental psychological architecture of being Batman. The darkness he strives against and fights to conquer were born out of personal loss, and if he ever inflicts that loss himself, he will cease to be. This one restriction defines him far more than the cowl, the signal, the car or the pointy ears. Without this line in the sand, there is only Bruce Wayne, broken victim of violence, not Batman.
That Batman: Under the Red Hood understands that distinction, honors it, and includes it in what could have a been a throwaway, crass commerical item is commendable. That it treats it with this much respect and canny crafting is reason to rejoice. Although it isn’t as satisfying overall as Nolan’s entries, or as delightful as 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm, Red Hood is more than worthy of its namesake and sure to be a pleasant surprise for fans of the caped crusader.