Chris Sims Reviews: ‘Batman: Under the Red Hood’
This week saw the release of DC’s latest animated feature, “Batman: Under the Red Hood,” and I’ve got the feeling that if I’d seen it when I was 15, I would’ve absolutely loved it.
As it stands, though, at 27, I was a little more apprehensive going in. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of the original comic book story it was based on, although I’m more than willing to concede that Judd Winick’s work on “Batman” is far and away the best thing he’s done in super-hero comics. I remember him saying in an interview that as a fan, he was a little let down by the fact that the reveal of Jason Todd as the villain behind “Hush” (which made absolutely no sense beyond just shock value) turned out to be a fake-out and wanted to do a real return of Jason Todd using that as a springboard.
For me, though, that’s flawed right from the start. Even putting aside the fact that the fans pretty much had their say on the matter thanks to a 1-900 number, “Death in the Family,” the story where Jason Todd is killed, this is such an important moment for Batman, Much like the way I feel about Barry Allen, I don’t think you can get more storytelling potential out of bringing him back than you already have from his death.
Of course, if you’d asked me in 2004, I probably would’ve said the same thing about Captain America’s sidekick Bucky, but Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting did a pretty solid job of bringing him back. But his death — which happened off-panel and was revealed in flashback, not as the centerpiece of a story — is a different matter. Either way, I went in with opinions that the average viewer might not have, and unfortunately, the movie didn’t do a whole lot to sway my opinion.It’s problematic in a lot of areas, one of the more notable among them being that there’s never any doubt that the Red Hood is, in fact, Jason Todd, which we know because the first five minutes are an abbreviated recap of “Death in the Family” in which Jason gets crowbarred and exploded, serving no other purpose than to set up his return.
It’s actually done pretty well from a storytelling standpoint, although it lacks the sort of visceral impact of the comic, mostly because the TV-friendly lack of blood makes Robin look more “Battle Damaged” than “Beaten To Death.” It’s compressed to the high notes that make up All You Really Need To Know: The Joker kills Robin and Batman doesn’t get there in time to save him.
It does, however, beg the question of why they just didn’t go ahead and do a “Death in the Family” movie. To me, it seems like DC’s animated films are geared towards either original stories (like the “Wonder Woman” and “Green Lantern: First Flight” films) or modifying more recent comics (“New Frontier,” the “Superman/Batman” films, and the recently announced “All Star Superman”), so maybe it’s just a matter of “Death in the Family” being too old, despite the fact that the comic still sells pretty well in paperback.
Even if the goal is to make the movies stand on their own, a “Death in the Family” would at least provide a wider context, and there’s more to it than just the death of Robin. But instead, we’ve just got “Under the Red Hood,” and while there wasn’t much of a mystery to the comic (other than the “oh man, are they actually going to bring back Jason Todd?!” questions raised by the teases and solicitations), it was an aspect of it that’s done away with here, which leads to long, boring scenes of Batman running DNA tests and wondering if it’s really him while the audience waits patiently for Batman to catch up.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but the average TV viewer should probably never be able to reach a conclusion faster than the World’s Greatest Detective. Just a thought.
Worse than that, though, is the movie’s dialogue, which reaches its absolute nadir when Nightwing shows up.
The major problem here is that I can see no other reason for Nightwing to be in this movie other than to provide ascendant geek icon Neil Patrick Harris with a role. Winick, who wrote the movie as well as the original comics, gives him nothing to say but the obvious. In one of the opening sequences, he and Batman team up to fight Amazo, and when Amazo starts flying, Nightwing asks “did you know he could fly?” When Amazo shoots lasers out of his eyes, Nightwing says “Lasers! He’s got lasers!” We know, dude. We can see it.
Eventually, Nightwing hurts his leg, wraps it up in bandages, and then is never seen again, as though the movie itself gets fed up with having him around. It’s a shame, too: Harris is a solid voice actor and does a pretty good job with what he’s given; it’s just that what he’s given is pretty terrible.
But it’s not limited to him. A good three-quarters of the dialogue in this thing feels like it comes straight from the Batman Character Cliche Generator, and the exposition is an absolute chore to listen to. Does Batman really need to explain to a gang of thugs that Amazo is “a highly advanced cybernetic android equipped with the ability to absorb the power of super-humans?” Of course he doesn’t. But someone needs to explain it to us, and they’re the characters in the scene, so that’s that. At one point, during a sequence where Ra’s al-Ghul talks about bringing Jason Todd back from the dead, he even starts a sentence with “as you know….” If Batman already knows it, why are you saying it to him?
It’s exposition that feels like exposition, and it’s one of the most noticeable things that can pull a viewer right out of the story.
There are also scenes that are genuinely hilarious that I’m pretty sure aren’t meant to be, like Jason’s emergence from the Lazarus pit:
It’s never really explained why he’s dressed like a mummy, and the scene where he spazzes out and starts poking dudes in the eye could’ve been lifted straight from “the Venture Brothers.” Not sure that was the desired effect.
But before you get the idea that I absolutely hated it, there’s a lot to like about the movie. As I mentioned above with Harris, the voice acting’s solid: Bruce Greenwood as Batman suffers by not being Kevin Conroy and the same goes for Jason Isaacs as Ra’s al-Ghul not being David Warner, but Jensen Ackles does a fine job as the Red Hood and John DiMaggio (who plays Aquaman on “Batman: The Brave and the Bold”) is a real standout as the Joker.
More importantly, though, the action scenes are fantastic. The DC animated movies that I’ve seen have all had top-notch quality as far as animation, and the fight scenes are fluid and dynamic with excellent choreography. They really feel like there’s some emotional weight to them, too, and they do a lot to counteract the effect of the dialogue by making it seem exciting. Plus, really neat set pieces, like Batman jumping through a car that gets thrown at him (which I believe was lifted from “Batman vs. the Incredible Hulk”) and slapping miniature jet engines on things and people to make them shoot down alleys into walls. So goofy, but so fun.
And there’s even some really good characterization. I absolutely loved this movie’s version of Black Mask, as he is essentially Gotham City’s Tony Montana. There’s even a running gag of him employing lieutenants for the sole purpose of punching out whenever he gets mad at Batman that’s actually really funny, and very reminiscent of the “Old” (read: pre-super-hero comics) Judd Winick:
In the end, though, it all evens out to something that just feels like a long — but not too long, it’s only 75 minutes — and mediocre dream-sequence episode of “Justice League.” I’ve been waiting since the start of DC’s direct-to-video animated movies to hit the one that I feel like I need to own rather than just give a watch whenever it shows up on Netflix, and sadly, this isn’t it.
But hey, there’s always “All Star Superman.”