By Paula R. Stiles
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010). Director: Brandon Vietti. Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, John Di Maggio, Neil Patrick Harris. Country: USA.
Batman’s teenage sidekick Jason Todd (as the second Robin) is murdered by the Joker. Five years later, a new vigilante, calling himself the “Red Hood”, arrives in Gotham. He’s highly trained, knows all of Batman’s moves, and even knows Batman’s true identity, Bruce Wayne. Who is he and why is he “cleaning up” Gotham, one dead crime lord at a time?
You can probably dope out the central mystery even from the above synopsis. And since Jason Todd dies in the very first scene, the film doesn’t exactly try to hide the revelation to that mystery – Jason Todd is the Red Hood. This is more of a howdoneit and a whydoneit than a whodoneit. Under the Red Hood focuses instead on how and when Batman finds out, as well as what Red Hood’s ultimate plan is.
I reviewed this one on a Friday because it stars Jensen Ackles (Dean Winchester in Supernatural) as the voice for the Red Hood. The voicework for the main characters in the movie (with one exception) is excellent. Veteran casting director Andrea Romano is my new goddess. She really knows how to pick good actors for these cartoons, people you would never think would even want to get into voice acting.
Ackles is her latest surprise find. He’s very believable as Red Hood, switching (but not randomly) from funny and sarcastic, to angry, to mad as a hatter, to hurt and lost. He puts a lot of heart into Red Hood, which is critical to our wanting to watch Red Hood kick Batman’s butt and even root for the anti-hero. If Ackles didn’t get us on Red Hood’s side and persuade us to feel that Batman deserves at least a little of that pain, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Ackles portrays a very different Robin from Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the first Robin), or even the Boy Wonder flashbacks to his own character – someone who is lost and broken, but at the same time, is very dangerous and quite capable of taking care of himself. Plus, he gets some great lines, like the way he delivers the phrase “drug-peddling scumbags” early on, or Red Hood’s later bemused comment about crime lord Black Mask’s rat-like ability to escape certain death. His light touch makes the character sound more intelligent than the thug Red Hood initially appears to be, and makes the plummet into heavy angst more dramatic toward the end.
Bruce Greenwood is also excellent as Batman, filling the role with gravitas and grief. Kevin Conroy, who usually does Batman, is good, but so is Greenwood. He and Ackles probably didn’t record their voices together, but you sure couldn’t tell from their voicework. There’s a lot of twisted father-son chemistry there. Neil Patrick Harris gives some much-needed camaraderie and snark to the dark proceedings as the infodumpy Nightwing (I loved his assertion that the best part of working with Batman is “the toys”. So true), who helps Batman track Red Hood through the first part of the picture. All three actors look nothing like their characters in the movie, yet knowing that didn’t blow the suspension of disbelief for me. Neither did the fact that Ackles and Harris are older than their characters. There’s also some good voicework from Jason Isaacs (Ra’s al Ghul) and Wade Williams (Black Mask) at critical points in the story, and Kelly Hu makes the most of a small part as Black Mask’s unflappable assistant. I’ll get to the one exception in a moment.
The drawings and animation are, overall, wonderful, with colours ranging from cheerful to moody, and lots of use of blues and greens. Aside from a few clunky moments (usually when characters are gesturing for no reason while talking, or walking along, flatfooted, as if they’re on a Hanna-Barbara production), the action’s done very well. The more kinetic the scene, the better the animators do, making the action exciting and almost balletic. There are some really beautiful backgrounds, especially Ra’s al Ghul’s arabesque, mountaintop fortress and Gotham’s nightscape. The music is also moody and appropriate.
I have to compliment the writer, Judd Winick, for taking some flawed and confused source material, rife with an unfortunate amount of fanservice (killing off an unpopular character for “shock value”) and comics cliches (especially of the “We can’t kill the bad guy just because” and “randomly back from the dead” varieties), and making a tight, hour-and-ten script out of it full of moral ambiguity and emotion. I really felt for these characters and enjoyed my time with them. Good job.
Unfortunately, the problem with cartoon adaptations of comics is that, as tie-ins, they are nearly as limited in adherence to source material as tie-in novels. This lets the film down in a few places, as does one of the voice roles. The one character who really does not work for me is the Joker. Admittedly, the Joker has never much worked for me, as he’s a one-note villain about seventy years past his sellby date. He’s a psycho who kills because he enjoys it and writers struggle with that. Usually, we get an uncaring bastard who has a plan that he covers up with an appearance of random madness (notably in the recent The Dark Knight), which means that Joker stories tend to drag on and on and ooooooonnnnn. Since we know the Joker will never die for real, and will always return to murder more innocents while Batman wrings his wings, it undercuts any emotional investment in chasing him down.
I got the impression from some of the expressions of fear and discomfort on the Joker’s face toward the climax that the writer and animators were going for a confrontation at the end that was three-way – not just between Batman and Red Hood, or Batman and the Joker, but between Red Hood and the Joker. There’s an interesting idea, as played out in the animation of the Joker’s expressions in this climactic scene, of Joker finally being put at the mercy of one of his victims, someone he’s finally managed to drive over the edge and who is now willing to fulfill his fondest wish – to die. So, there’s a progression for Joker where he has a few moments of fear and understanding that he has put himself into this situation, and it’s not nearly as much fun as he thought it would be. Unfortunately, this idea is ruined every time the character opens his mouth by Di Maggio’s unfeeling-whackjob take on the Joker. It doesn’t fit. You have all of these other characters facing cold, hard truths all over the place and here’s the Joker, showing about as much personality and self-awareness as a refrigerator. It makes him look uncharacteristically stupid and boring, because he just doesn’t have an arc. He’s in the same place at the end as at the beginning.
Another big problem (and again, this stems from the source material) is that Batman comes out of this looking very unsympathetic. He never really faces up to his own guilt and responsibility in Jason Todd’s death (except, maybe, very briefly near the end). Instead, he engages in “Bait and Switch”, “Strawman Argument” and “Blame the Victim” with his former protege. Batman tells himself (and Alfred) that he feels responsible for Jason’s death, and angsts over it a great deal, but then he goes on to say that Jason had something dark inside of him and that Batman couldn’t save him from going evil. Um…no, Big Batdude, what you couldn’t save Jason from was his getting killed by your mortal enemy, who murdered him just as a way to get at you. Regardless of how Jason might have grown up, with or without Batman, he’s clearly shown in the beginning not to be responsible for his own death (That is the Joker’s fault for killing him and Batman’s for not protecting him from the Joker). Nor is he responsible for his botched resurrection, which only he believes didn’t drive him completely insane. So, his past as a little hoodlum, his growing anger in his teens, are just red herrings. They don’t have a thing to do with what he’s doing in the film.
You’d think Alfred would point this out to Batman, as he points out to him in “Robin’s Reckoning” (one of the cartoon extras in the second of the two-disk set) that his quest for revenge isn’t doing Dick Grayson any good. But nope. As in the comics, Jason Todd gets blamed for having a few loose screws…by the people who knocked them loose. I suppose that’s in keeping with the Batman (and DC comics in general) title’s ugly and deeply rooted viewpoint that insanity=evil. This is a comic about a vigilante driven a little nuts by revenge, after all, and the main way they’ve kept that under wraps during the comics code days has been to give Batman a very weird and hypocritical code of his own that doesn’t make any sense outside the Batmanverse, but gives them the excuse that everything he does is A-okay because he doesn’t actually kill anyone. Not deliberately, anyway. There are exceptions, but this film certainly takes that traditional view, treating Jason Todd’s few onscreen kills as bad, while ignoring the Joker’s nonstop carnage because, hey, he’s the Joker and he’s a villain, so what do you expect?
Yet another problem is that what Red Hood ultimately wants is pretty clear to anyone not named “Batman”, but Batman really doesn’t get it. Jason wants to be rescued; he wants to be saved. He wants his mentor to get it right this time. Jason is convinced that Batman can only do this by killing the Joker (which is probably the reason why Jason won’t kill the Joker himself, even after several chances to do so). If Batman managed to instead save Jason in a way that didn’t involve murder, then ol’ Bruce Wayne might actually score a moral victory here. But he doesn’t.
Jason sets up multiple scenarios for Batman to “save” him and instead, Batman beats the crap out of him to “save” the Joker and then offers to get Jason help. Okay, let me get this straight – Batman’s code of honour forbids him from killing someone, even to prevent the deaths of thousands of people over decades and that of his protege, but he’s okay with beating the crap out of people and even crippling them? Even people he supposedly loves? How does that work? In fact, how are we supposed to see Batman as the ultimate hero of the story when, half the time in the film, he only “wins” because Jason doesn’t want to kill him or even beat him, but to provoke him down a certain path? I suppose that’s the best thing about this flick, that it’s a straight-to-video cartoon intended for teens (The language, violence and drug references are a bit much for younger kids), and yet, it leaves you with all sorts of moral questions. I just wish they’d had the latitude to answer a few in a way that didn’t make their hero look like a jerk.
There are two ways to buy this title in DVD – single-disc and two-disc. Disc 1 has the movie, a noirish Jonah Hex short in which Jonah tangles with an evil madam (voiced by a sultry Linda Hamilton) who murders and robs her clients, and four trailers (short, ten-minute documentaries, really), along with three two-minute promos for upcoming DC cartoons. Well, five DC cartoons, a trailer for Legend of the Guardians, and one announcement that the Apocalypse has occurred and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings is being issued on DVD. As someone who persuaded her grandfather to go see it when it first came out in the theatre (He fell asleep. After twenty minutes, I seriously considered waking him up so we could leave early), I’m all for avoiding ever watching it again, let alone buying it on DVD.
Disk 2 has a 10-minute documentary about the evolution of the first Robin (Dick Grayson) and then a two-part story about Dick Grayson’s origin story, “Robin’s Reckoning”. This is a nice little addition if you are into comics (as I am), or are curious about how Conroy’s version differs from Greenwood’s. If all you’re looking for is Jensen Ackles content, however, there’s none here. For Ackles fans, the single-disc version is probably good enough.
Finally, I picked this up from Best Buy when it first came out, so I managed to get a copy with the Red Hood doll and he is pretty awesome, for all that he’s about three inches tall. He can’t move his legs (He’s on a little stand), but he can move his arms. I’ll admit these little extras bring out my inner geek.
You can buy Batman: Under the Red Hood from Amazon.com.