Bruce Greenwood - Batman/Bruce Wayne
Jensen Ackles - Red Hood/Jason Todd
John DiMaggio - The Joker
Wade Williams - Black Mask
Neil Patrick Harris - Nightwing
Jason Issacs - Ra's Al Ghul
Jim Piddock - Alfred Pennyworth
Kelly Hu - Ms. Li
Genre - Action/Crime/Drama/Fantasy/Comic Book/Animated
Running Time - 76 Minutes
PLOT - Based on the the Batman story arcs, A Death in the Family and Under the Hood, the film begins with the second Robin, Jason Todd (Jensen Ackles), being brutally beaten by the Joker (John DiMaggio) in an abandoned warehouse. Batman (Bruce Greenwood), on his Batcycle, races to save Jason but is too late as the warehouse explodes and Jason is killed. This has haunted Batman for years, claiming that Jason's death is his greatest failure.
Five years have passed and Gotham City's crime world has been making some noise due to a masked vigilante calling himself the Red Hood, one of the monikers The Joker had used years back. Due to his ruthlessness, many drug lords decide to work with the Red Hood out of fear and respect. This new alliance doesn't sit well with Gotham City's kingpin of crime, Black Mask (Wade Williams), who decides to have a war with the Red Hood to prove his dominance.
Obviously, Batman gets involved and catches the ire of the Red Hood. However, Batman notices that Red Hood's fighting maneuvers are familiar. After a fight, Batman finds some of Red Hood's spilt blood and analyzes it. Batman is shocked to learn that the Red Hood is a resurrected Jason Todd, who wants revenge on The Joker.
STORY - BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD is an animated film that takes the major plot points of two of Batman's most historic story arcs, A Death in the Family and Under the Hood, and puts them together in a neat 76 minute package. A Death in the Family (1988 & 1989) is one of the biggest comic book stories of all time, dealing with the death of Jason Todd, who was the second person to use the Robin name after Dick Grayson had graduated into the hero, Nightwing. While well-liked in the beginning, Jason Todd lost his appeal after his origin was changed in the continuity revamp after Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986. DC Comics decided that it was make-or-break time by setting up a 1-900 number for fans to call in where they could decide whether Jason Todd would live or die. Even though there have been debates about the legitimacy of the votes [some claim the calls were rigged], the results showed that the fans wanted Todd dead at the hands of The Joker. This incident would effect Batman's life for years until 2005 where comic book writer and former The Real World: San Francisco star, Judd Winick [who also adapted his work for this film], brought Jason Todd back from the dead and turned him into the Red Hood. It was a very controversial move, with many fans feeling it was unnecessary to bring him back. Still the story was a big success and Winick was offered the opportunity to turn it into an animated feature.
Winick, already familiar with his own work, writes a very solid screenplay that showcases the most important moments of the two arcs. For a cartoon, BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD doesn't play for children, but rather adults who probably remembered the A Death in the Family and teenagers/younger adults who know Under the Hood. After all, the first scene deals with a teenager getting beaten to death by a crowbar with glee. A lot of the scenes carry some strong, intense writing that sometimes make you forget that you're watching an animated film. My favorite scene happened to be towards the end, where Jason sets up a situation where he tries to force Batman to kill the Joker for killing him and hurting others, questioning Batman as to why he hadn't done so already. The back-and-forth dialogue and the delivery of all parties involved really created tension and drama I appreciated. Scenes like this are sprinkled all over the film, bringing a much needed weight to the narrative.
I also liked the struggle internally between both Batman and Red Hood. Both beat the hell out of each other. Both debate about what's wrong or right. Both are trying to fight crime in Gotham, but doing it with different philosophies. It makes you question who's making the better choices when it comes to this crime filled city, as well with the Joker. Is Batman too old hat to change with the times and make some serious moves to clean up Gotham? Is Red Hood too violent in his approach that seems to actually change things? It's just classic stuff between two foils who have the same idea, but have different methods and beliefs in making it come to life. It's like Shakespeare sometimes, but with men dressed in costumes. I dug it.
I also thought the whodunit angle was handled quite well. Let's be honest: there is no mystery as to who the Red Hood is. From how it begins, it's quite obvious Jason Todd is using the alias to get closer to Batman and The Joker. This allows the film to focus less on the mystery and more on the characters and the action surrounding the narrative. There's no twist. There's no surprise. We know what's going on and it allows the viewer to be more invested in the actual plot. Smart move.
I also thought the characters were absolutely true to their comic counterparts. Batman is a smart detective who still has a soft spot for Jason. Even when he knows he's the Red Hood, he still wants to help him get back to who he was. He also has great banter with Dick Grayson/Nightwing that's actually pretty funny and showcases their relationship quite clearly. I also thought The Joker was maniacal as usual, beating up poor defenseless teenage sidekicks and enjoying the chaos around him, as well as the strained relationship between Red Hood and Batman. So true to his character. Black Mask, Ra's Al Ghul, and Nightwing were also cool additions, supporting the main players in the story well.
I do have issues with some of the screenplay, however. I think my major gripe is Winnick pretty much glossing over A Death in the Family, just giving the viewer pretty much the cliff notes version of that story while focusing mainly on the Under the Hood story. For comic book fans, this isn't an issue at all. Since I'm included in that, I already know the deal with Jason Todd, his death, and his resurrection at the hands of Ra's Al Ghul to make up for his alliance with The Joker at the time of Todd's death. Todd's relationship with Batman wasn't smooth sailing at times, which is seen in flashbacks thankfully - but I feel that their relationship should have more depth to really bring out the drama. And that's the problem - mainstream Batman fans who only know the character through television and film are going to be confused as to who Jason Todd is. On TV and in the movies, the Robin character have been portrayed mainly by Dick Grayson [1st Robin] and Tim Drake [3rd Robin]. The Jason Todd story has never been done in film form until now. I think the film should have taken the time to somehow reveal who Jason Todd was, his relationship with Batman, and why The Joker wanted to kill him. It would have made Batman's guilt and grief much more effective. Same goes with Jason's anger and frustration that Batman hadn't killed the Joker for what he did to him. Knowing the backstory with slightly more emphasis on the A Death in the Family arc would have helped viewers get an idea of who Jason Todd was and why he's so important in Batman's life. There wasn't enough of that.
Also, using more from A Death in the Family would have answered some questions for non-comic readers. Such as, why was Ra's Al Ghul working with the Joker and why did he regret doing so after Jason Todd's death? How did The Joker capture Jason Todd to begin with in order to murder him? It gets into the story a bit too quickly, leaving non-comic fans disoriented and confused as to why this is all going on.
Also, I felt like some of the character didn't get to do as much as they probably should have. Ra's Al Ghul's presence is just enough for viewers to understand why he's there and his scenes are quite effective. My main issue with with Black Mask, who has enough screen time to be a major antagonist like The Joker, but falls flat. He's there as merely a plot device - a gateway for Batman and Red Hood to confront The Joker again. Hell, Black Mask doesn't even confront Batman at all in this film, nor do we see him getting punished for his involvement in the whole mess. It's like he was forgotten when the climax set in. Also, I like the Nightwing character and wish he was in the film more. He's a pretty major presence in the first half, where you'd kind of expect him to battle Red Hood in the battle of the former Robins. But it never really happens. It would have been nice to see one fight between them and even their thoughts about each other. But at least they're in the film and it creates a nice universe that we would expect from a Batman film.
DIRECTION - Brandon Vietti does a great job with the visual portion of the film. The pacing is absolutely fantastic, as there's always action going on, making the film go by pretty fast. The action, itself, is visualized quite well and definitely feels like a comic book come to life. I liked the darker tone and atmosphere to the film, which reflects the actual story. It definitely looks like a more mature Batman: The Animated Series flick, as the characters look more realistic than they did in the actual cartoon series. I thought Vietti handled the film really nicely, even complimenting the storytelling with visual flair.
EDGE FACTOR - It's a Batman cartoon, so sexuality and language [there is some] isn't there. But BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD is a very violent film. There's blood, brutality, deaths by gunfire or explosions, and even realistic talk about drug smuggling. It's a very mature animated feature that young Batman fans shouldn't probably watch until they're 12 or 13 unless there's parent supervision. It's more in the tone of THE DARK KNIGHT rather than BATMAN & ROBIN.
ACTING - The voice acting is top notch. Bruce Greenwood does a very good job as Bruce Wayne/Batman, playing up to Batman's struggle between hero and vigilante. But I still prefer Kevin Conroy in the role. But Greenwood is a nice substitute. John DiMaggio isn't close to Mark Hamill's level as The Joker, as he sounds a bit too sane and normal for the character. He got better towards the end, as he was kind of rough for me in the beginning. I think he had a lot of pressure to live up to really, as Hamill is considered the best Joker to many Batman fans, so he felt like he had to come close to impersonating the voice rather than making it his own. He's not terrible in the slightest, but it's odd hearing the character's voice done by someone else. Jensen Ackles, by far, was the best voice actor as Red Hood. He gave the character a menace that was extremely believable. I thought he really shined here and stole every scene he did the voice acting for. Also nice to hear Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing and Kelly Hu as Ms. Li. Top notch voice acting for the most part.
THE FINAL HOWL
I usually don't watch many animated films these days, but BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD may be the start to get me watching them again. It isn't the greatest Batman adaptation out there and it may confuse mainstream Batman fans. But the adaptation of two memorable comic story arcs wrapped in a 76 minute package is done really well and the movie is a solid comic book action-adventure that will please Batman fans for sure. I would definitely watch more of these comic book animated films and give you my thoughts on this blog when I do. I hope they're as good as BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD.
3.5 Howls Outta 4