In a change of pace, I am co-reviewing the Batman: Under the Red Hood DVD with Gary Miller (make sure to bookmark his blog, http://delusionalhonesty.blogspot.com, by the way).
Please note that while Gary and I tried our best to keep our comments spoiler-free there may be some surprises, so be warned.
Daily P.O.P.: In 1983, Jason Todd was introduced as the new Robin. Nearly a carbon copy of the first Robin, Dick Grayson, Todd was very unpopular with fans. Presented with the opportunity to recreate the character in the wake of the timeline-changing event Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC recast Todd as a wild, rebellious teen who charged head first into danger. In 1988, Jason Todd was brutally murdered and blown to pieces by the Joker and the reading public of Batman, who paid for each vote needed to kill him. In 2005, “Under the Hood” continued the story of Batman’s loss in a very unique way.
Judd Winick’s “Under The Hood” was equal parts brilliant and unreadable. The marks against it came about from crossovers that broke the narrative flow, and an overpriced special issue that explained the mystery that was raised in nearly every issue of the story in the Batman title.
Gary: That’s right. I remember the Superboy reality-altering punch that allowed Jason to be brought back. (Say what?) Jason’s whole return stemmed from an issue of Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s “Hush” storyline in which Clayface disguised himself as an older Jason Todd and fought Batman before being found out. He was never, ever intended to really be Jason, but they retconned it so it was. (Don’t ask.)
DP: “Under the Hood” sought to connect the many story beats that lay between 1983 and 2005, a daunting task that sadly resulted in a character that DC Editorial has no real purpose for. Winick’s story has always troubled me because it took up a nearly impossible task and it never got a fair deal. When he pitched the idea to Bruce Timm as an animated feature, it was another chance to tell his story as he wanted to.
Yesterday, the finished product, an animated feature film called Under the Red Hood, written by Winick, was released. It fixes many of the problems that I had with the comic and retains the emotional impact and thrilling action from the printed version. Neither a direct adaptation of the comic nor a continuation of the award-winning animated series universe, it is quite jarring to connect emotionally and logically to the continuity of the story. I knew going into this film that was going to be a problem. A similar challenge faced the animation team with the adaptation of Superman/Doomsday and that proved to be a near disaster. In this case, however, the project was an astounding success… That said, the challenges were many.
Gary: First, I have to say, this definitely wasn’t Batman: TAS.
DP: No, the level of violence was striking in this overall. Something that may startle fans of the cartoon world. From the Black Mask to the Joker and the duffle bag full of severed heads.
Gary: I liked the leaner, meaner version of the story that showed up in this film. It was stripped down to its essence, and at the same time, there was a surprising amount of nuance to the plot. I don’t think the history was hard to follow at all. You had the Joker, Ra’s Al Ghul, and even the Riddler as part of the backstory, which included quick and dirty flashbacks to the sagas that influenced the storyline. The flashbacks weren’t so long they took you out of the story, which was a definite plus. The only clunky bit of the story I could see was the bit involving Dick Grayson, the original Robin who’d since taken up the mantle of Nightwing. To have him involved in the story from the beginning gave the illusion that he was still Batman’s partner, that somehow after Jason’s death, he’d taken on this other costumed identity and returned to Batman’s side to fight crime. As anyone reading the comics knows, they may help each other on occasion, but they are definitely their own people.
DP: I agree on the Nightwing bit. Not only that, but the character was superfluous. Even the script recognized this! All those scenes where Nightwing realizes there s no reason for him to be there except to act as an audience to Batman.
Gary: That point echoes the DVD’s documentary on Dick Grayson, which suggested the original impetus for the creation of Robin was to have someone to whom Batman could explain his detective work.
DP: True. It really bugged me (nerd horns showing) that much of the artwork in that doc was of Tim Drake. But it was very revealing to show how so many creators (from Bill Finger to Len Wein, Denny O’Neil and even Winick) had vastly different opinions on what function Robin served. The story of Jason Todd, the second Robin, is different in many ways to the training of Dick Grayson, the first Robin. Todd is full of anger and hatred, making him nearly untrainable in the ways of Batman’s ethics. We are presented with several sequences that show Todd crossing the line while Batman watches powerless to intercede. This is used so well to explore just what Batman is doing in his fight against crime as the Red Hood, a vigilante who has no qualms about crossing the line that separates hero and villain.
Gary: Conceivably I can see the point of including Nightwing–you have to have him in the narrative to show the good soldier Batman helped create and shape, to contrast the bad soldier, where Batman had erred. But the Ra’s Al Ghul flashback muddies the waters in suggesting that, when Jason was brought back, he wasn’t all there. Hence, he may not have made the same choice to be the Red Hood or a similar villainous character had he not died.
DP: It basically excuses his actions. Just like Johns provided an out for Hal Jordan by saying he was possessed by Parallax. In this case, Todd was overcome by the Lazarus Pit’s influence. I like the idea (primarily because it is so much more logical than the comic), but it gets a little muddled toward the end of the film when Red Hood points out he may have ended up the same way if he hadn’t died at all.
Gary: I like the Jason Todd character. I remember reading “A Death in the Family” back in the late 1980s around the time of the first “Batman” movie. I thought that, thematically, the story of Jason’s return was solid. In the comics, it broke down in the details because of DC’s overbearing continuity. Here, in Batman: Under the Red Hood, the lack of continuity restraints and the direction of one writer fulfill the story’s original promise.
DP: The film seemed to understand the narrative path of the character moreso than the comic (something that the interviews with the creators made very evident as they could not agree why Robin existed at all). It was very satisfying.
Gary: I was eating the dialogue up, especially in the climactic Jason/Batman scene. “I’m talking about him, just him. And doing it because….because he took me away from you.”
DP: Yeah, all the pieces of that emotional story were in Winick’s comic more or less but it just gels better in the film. One thing I walked away from in regards to the comic that I didn’t find in the film was that Batman sees himself mainly as a warden, looking after the crazies of Gotham. Jason Todd sees the crooks as a problem that needs to be solved. Batman’s approach is nearly infantile in comparison. But of course Todd is deeply deeply scarred and full of righteous rage at the criminal element. Batman seems to think that he can afford to be more intellectual.
Gary: In the film, Jason’s twisted logic is interesting to watch–becoming a crimelord to solve the crime problem. “Someone will always be in charge of crime in Gotham, so it might as well be me.”
DP: Right, it puts Batman in his place too. Bruce is shown as being conflicted and tormented in that last scene. By contrast, Todd is directed and sure. Even the Joker seems to have a better grasp on the situation. The bit where he is overjoyed that all three of them are due to get blown up is brilliant.
Gary: This film revels in the moral grays, and that’s a good thing.
Given our accolades about the story, I’m still not sure how wise it was to have Judd Winick, the original writer of the “Under the Hood” storyline that resurrected Jason, write the animated version of the storyline. While it affords a certain similarity to the comics version to have the comics writer convert his own tale, it may have ultimately served the story better to have someone unaffiliated with the original work penning the script.
DP: Or at least heavily edit the story, remove the Amazo and Nightwing sequences entirely.
Gary: Right. Now, I’m not saying the script was bad–quite the opposite, since I really did find the film enjoyable–but there were obviously pieces of the narrative the original writer was too close to. Yes, the Amazo and Nightwing sequences were largely superfluous. (There’s that word again.)
DP: At the same time, streamlining “A Death in the Family” into “Under the Hood” by making it a collaboration between Ra’s Al Ghul and the Joker worked wonders for the story. Todd was trained by the League of Assassins in the comic, wasn’t he? Didn’t he just get up out of his grave and wander over to Ra’s’ place?
Gary: Something like that. Winick had to take a lot of liberties with “A Death in the Family,” but I think all of them were to the benefit of the story. Even as nonsensical as Ra’s Al Ghul allying himself with the psychopathic Joker is, it still clears the clutter and is presented well.
DP: It’s incredibly odd that two characters ally themselves with the Joker and both get burned, isn’t it? Doesn’t anyone check his references??
Gary: Heh, really!
DP: How about the voice cast? The voice acting cast is brand new to the Batman mythology, something that I am forced to concede does take the viewer out of the experience. I agree with Warner Bros. that different voices can be used for these classic heroes but we have to face the fact that Kevin Conroy IS the voice of Batman.
Gary: Bruce Greenwood was a serviceable Batman, smart and savvy, having to play the part of the father figure, pleased at his “son” Nightwing, unsettled by his perceived failures of his other “son,” Jason.
DP: Yeah, I like Greenwood a lot, but it took a while to get used to his voice.
GM: I really liked Jensen Ackles as the Red Hood. He has a natural attitude that I’ve seen in his TV roles that translates well to the angst of Jason Todd.
DP: Yes, it wasn’t an easy character to convey. I think he did very well. He was both chilling and charismatic, and his voice blended into the film effortlessly.
Gary: DiMaggio’s Joker seemed to have been inspired by Heath Ledger’s Joker to a substantial degree, but there was enough of the comics’ Joker in there to make it different.
DP: DiMaggio as the Joker really stole the show for me. DiMaggio (of “Futurama” fame) brought so much life to a character that in his animated form had (for me) become boring and predictable. I have to admit that most of the time I had no idea what he was going to say next! Personally, and i may get pelted by online tomatoes for saying this, I am tired of Mark Hamill’s Joker. DiMaggio brought the character back for me.
Gary: Oh, I’m right there with you about Hamill. The Joker’s theatrics in the comics had faded by the mid-1980s as result of Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” No reason to keep them around here. (An interesting continuity note: Judd Winick did include an homage to “The Killing Joke” with the reference to multiple criminals assuming the Red Hood’s identity over the years. Great!)
DP: Yes, that was a clever nod to the comic.
Gary: Perhaps the biggest name in the voice cast, Neil Patrick Harris (of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”) seemed to be the weakest link as Nightwing. He didn’t do badly, but I don’t think he did anything to especially distinguish himself in the role. It may have been the limitations of the script, but maybe not.
DP: I agree that Neil Patrick Harris was unimpressive. Poor dialog, little reason for the character to be there and his tone was very distracting too. His sense of humor eventually won me over, but it was a hard road. That said, I really enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris as the Flash in New Frontier.
As I have noted in other releases, especially Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, the animation is superb. Never have the fight sequences and chase scenes through Gotham City’s towering edifices been so well portrayed. These are images that have been drawn and animated many times over, making them very difficult to appear new and interesting but Under the Red Hood accomplishes this easily.
I have to admit that when I learned of yet another Batman animated movie scheduled for release, I inwardly groaned. The character has saturated the market for decades, what more could said? Batman: Under The Red Hood proved me wrong (happily). This has to be the finest animated Batman story I have seen in a very long time, perhaps ever and that is high accolades from this reviewer. I think that this release will go over quite well with fans of the cartoon and comics, as well as anyone who remembers liking the 90’s animated series and gets wrapped up in the impulse buy.
Gary: I’m inclined to agree. I’ve already watched it twice, and it just improves. Absolutely terrific work all around by WB Animation this time out.
DP: Grab a copy today.