THE LEGACY OF BATMAN ON THE SCREEN
To start off with, I am one of the biggest Batman fans ever. The character has been a favorite of mine since I first watched the 1989 Tim Burton Batman when it was released on VHS at the age of two. From that point on, I caught every live action Batman movie in the theater and constantly watched the '90s animated series, which has gone on to become a classic show among us Bat fans. Batman has gone through many different incarnations throughout my lifetime. He was dark, mythic, and a loner in Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns. Then, WB wanted to lighten up the character to make him more kid friendly, so they hired a new crew and released Batman Forever in 1995. The live action franchise finally died in 1997 after the atrocious Batman & Robin. While the live action movies ran their course, there were animated movies that were made in the animated series world or as us Batman fans call the Timm universe of Batman, named after the animated series' producer Bruce W. Timm.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was the first of these Timm universe animated movies, which was released in theaters back in December of 1993, a year after Tim Burton's Batman Returns. In 1998, Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero was released on both DVD and VHS that wrapped up Mr. Freeze's story from the animated series. The late '90s brought on a revamped look of the animated series' characters, which was also named The New Batman Adventures. That series is still considered part of the original animated series, but can also be called a sequel of sorts to it. The New Adventures of Batman had Batman working with Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, a new Robin (Tim Drake), and sometimes Nightwing (the adult Dick Grayson who was the original Robin). Warner Bros. Animation also came out with a Superman animated series and released The Batman/ Superman Movie, which teamed up the two iconic DC Comics heroes to battle The Joker and Lex Luthor. In 1999, Batman: The Animated Series was cancelled and the producers were asked to make a series with a teenage Batman. Batman Beyond was made, which took place about 50 years into the future where an old and retired Bruce Wayne is a mentor to a teenager named Terry McGinnis who becomes Gotham's new Batman. The show ran for three seasons with a direct to DVD/VHS movie called Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and was cancelled in 2001.
The producers behind the Timm universe of DC Comics decided to then make a Justice League animated series, which ended back in 2006. Since then, we have seen two different other takes on Batman as an animated show with The Batman and the modern Batman: The Brave And The Bold, which are more campy takes on the characters and more of kid shows. In 2005, acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan reinvented the long dead Batman franchise with a fresh and even darker take with Batman Begins. The film told the origin story of Bruce Wayne's journey to become the iconic Batman and pitted him against both Ra's Al Ghul and The Scarecrow. Two years later, Nolan returned with his 2008 sequel The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, acclaimed DC Comics animation producer Bruce Timm put together a team to begin a series of animated movies based on various graphic novels from the DC universe, which were titled DC Universe Original Animated Movies. Beginning in 2007, DCUAM released Superman/Doomsday on DVD/Blue Ray. From that point on, we got about three DC Universe films a year. There was Justice League: A New Frontier, Batman: Gotham Knight, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: First Flight, Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and finally the movie in which I am about to review Batman: Under The Red Hood.
Batman: Under The Red Hood starts off with Batman on a race against time to find Robin who is being held captive by The Joker. Right as Batman is about to enter the warehouse where Robin is, the place blows up, killing the boy wonder. Five years later, a vigilante has arrived in Gotham going by the name Red Hood who wears a red hooded mask. Hood begins by taking over most of criminal kingpin Black Mask's goons and disposing of many in the criminal underworld by killing them. Pissed that Red Hood is taking over his turf, Black Mask breaks The Joker out of Arkham Asylum and hires him to kill Red Hood. Meanwhile, Batman and his oldest friend Nightwing team up to stop Red Hood. Could this be the original Red Hood who turned into The Joker after falling into a thing of chemicals ? This leads to painful memories resurfacing and old wounds reopening as Batman discovers that this new criminal kingpin may just be his old side kick back from the dead with a very vicious score to settle with both him and The Joker.
I will begin this review by saying that Batman: Under The Red Hood is the best animated Batman movie since Mask of the Phantasm from 1993 and may even surpass it a little bit. This DC Universe movie just blew me away and is definitely my favorite film in this series of animated direct to video comic book adaptations. It's also a rare occasion where the movie surpasses the source material that it is based on. The story and screenplay are smartly written. Under The Red Hood ain't no kid friendly animated superhero flick. This movie is a straight up adult incarnation of Batman that will appeal probably more towards the older audiences than the kids. Judd Winick who also wrote the graphic novel, does an amazing job with the screenplay. These sound like real people with real emotion and it doesn't even feel like a cartoon, but a motion comic book with audio treatment.
It seems to me that Winick was heavily inspired by both the '90s animated series and Nolan's more grim and character driven Batman movies. The characters in this movie are just awesome. Batman goes through things that the animated series and the other animated movies didn't really touch on. First off, I have to explain a few things to help out those people who are reading this and don't have much knowledge of the Batman comics. I'm sure many of you are freaking out at my plot synopsis that Robin is actually murdered by The Joker. There has been quite a few Robins throughout the Batman comic book world. I'm sure all of you know who Dick Grayson is. He's the kid who was a part of the circus and his parents fell to their deaths because a criminal cut the rope, which they were holding onto without the safety of a net. Bruce took in young Dick Grayson and he became Batman's side kick Robin. Most people know him as Robin since they have seen the original live action movie franchise and even the popular animated series.
Later in the comics, Dick Grayson decided to stop being Robin around the time that he graduated from college and becomes his own identity Nightwing. One night while Batman was on patrol, he catches a young boy trying to steal the tires off the bat mobile in an alley. It turns out that the kid is an orphan and that his father was murdered by Two-Face. Bruce takes this kid in who's name is Jason Todd and trains him to be the new Robin. Jason was very different from Dick because of the fact that he came from a really rough family. He basically talked back to Batman and most of the time would always get into trouble. In I think the '70s or '80s, there was an issue of comics where Jason was caught in an explosion after being viciously beaten to a pulp with a crow bar by The Joker. The story ended with a cliff hanger of the building blowing up with Jason trapped inside and Batman basically right at the front door. Did he live or did he die? DC Comics decided to do something new by having the fans decide on Jason's fate. If they called one number, he would survive the explosion. If they called another number, he would die. Since most fans hated Jason as the second Robin, he was killed off. That series of comics was put together into a graphic novel called A Death In The Family.
Batman: Under The Red Hood opens with the ending to A Death In The Family where the building explodes just as Batman is approaching it and he is holding Jason's dead body before the opening credits scroll. This has got to be the most intense opening to a Batman film that I've ever seen. The movie really touches base on the psychology of these characters. This is Batman ultimate failure and we can see how torn up he is over it. Ra's Al Ghul plays a small part in this movie. Apparently, he had hired The Joker to cause a distraction for Batman and Robin, so they wouldn't ruin one of his plans to "save" the world from criminality. Ra's actually feels bad for Batman, which is major change for the character. Most of the time, he is out to wipe out those he thinks are criminals or enemies no matter what the cost or even if the innocent suffer too. Nightwing comes to Batman's side again and is still the fun guy that he's always been. Dick has always kept Bruce from falling totally into the darkness, so I thought it was great having him in this specific story. The Joker is dark as hell in this movie. He's like if you took The Joker that Mark Hamill played in the animated series and mixed him with Ledger's iconic portrayal of sinisterness. The guy is an absolute maniac, which he should be. I really love what he does with a glass of water. I think it was Denny O' Neil who said that The Joker is the best trickster character ever and that is exactly the kinda character he has always been. Joker is a combination of a comedian and a vicious killer. Plus, he gets the best lines of dialogue in the movie such as:
" I'm going to need something to wear and a very big truck. I'm also going to need some guys. Not these guys though because well, they're kinda dead."
" Oh, a sleepover. I've packed my tooth brush."
" Oh, how about a picture! First, one of you and me. Then, one of the kid. And let's get one of the crow bar."
Black Mask was awesome as well. I love how angry this dude gets when things don't go his way. There's a very funny scene where he gets so angry that he literally punches out all of his goons. Very fun mob boss. For those who don't know who Black Mask is, he was a crime lord who was caught in a fire while wearing a skull mask and the mask got melted to his head and is now his permanent face. Red Hood is all sorts of awesome. It's actually pretty obvious as to who Red Hood turns out to be, which is why I'm not going to really worry about spoiling his true identity since it is pretty much given away right from the beginning of the film. The mystery is not who it is under the hood, but how it was possible for that person to be alive. The truth is that an adult Jason Todd is Red Hood. Call it obvious all you want, but I like the fact that it's him. I love the fact that he is using all of the fighting skills that Batman taught him as Robin and is actually using them against Batman. Now, he's not actually out to kill Batman, but to clean up the streets by doing what Batman would never do, dispose of the criminals PERMANENTLY instead of handing them over to the Police or Arkham for treatment. The story of how Jason came back from beyond the grave is A LOT better in this movie than in the graphic novel. All I will say is Ra's Al Ghul plays a part in Jason's resurrection.
I like that Batman is basically battling himself a lot in this movie. He taught Jason all of his knowing and now that is coming back to haunt him. The truth is though that Batman has always been haunted by death. He is haunted by his parents, he is haunted by himself, he is haunted by his worst enemies, and he is haunted by crime in general. The final act of this movie is both sad and jolting at the same time. It kinda reminded me of the end of The Dark Knight where Two-Face is holding Gordon's kid hostage at gun point because he lost everything to The Joker. Well, Jason has lost everything he loved because of The Joker and wants to kill him for taking his life. There's a great moment where Batman explains to Jason why it is so important that he not cross the line between hero and vigilante.
" All this time, I've wanted to kill him. I wanted to subject him to the same horrendous torture that he has put onto others. And then, end him."
The animation is simply amazing to look at. It is like a combination of the animated series and a little bit of Nolan's Batman movies. Gotham is grim, dark, mythic, and filled the crime. I'm truly digging the design of all of the characters with The Joker being my favorite design. He really looks menacing as ever!
I think one of the best parts about this movie aside from great animation and a fantastic screenplay is the great selection of voice actors. Bruce Greenwood is amazingly awesome as Batman/Bruce Wayne. I've always loved the man's acting and he truly shines here. Greenwood makes the character dark and has a great intimidating Batman voice. He basically reminded me a lot of how Kevin Conroy (Batman: The Animated Series) played the character except lowered his voice even darker without over smoking it like Christian Bale kinda did in The Dark Knight. Bruce Greenwood is most welcome to play the voice of Batman anytime in my book. John DiMaggio was a lot of fun as The Joker, giving the character the most sinister portrayal in animation. While I will always love Mark Hamill's looney Joker voice, DiMaggio is definitely in the same boat. The guy knew how to be creepy and then make you laugh at all of the wrong times. Reminded me a lot of Ledger's take on the character in The Dark Knight, but DiMaggio made Joker his own. Jensen Ackles from tv's Supernatural and My Bloody Valentine 3D fame was marvelous as Red Hood/Jason Todd. I've always enjoyed watching this guy act and he truly has talent. He made Jason into the messed up and broken character that he truly is and was such a delight. Neil Patrick Harris is always awesome and delivered a fun portrayal of the old boy wonder Nightwing. He reminded me a lot of Loren Lester's portrayal of Dick Grayson in Batman: The Animated Series in how he could have funny dialogue in extreme situations to lighten the tension a bit. Jason Issacs was awesome as Ra's Al Ghul and made the guy almost a sorta good guy in this movie. I've always enjoyed Issacs too as an actor. The man definitely has range and played Ra's as having some sort of a heart instead of the determined vigilante/terrorist that he is portrayed as in the comics or like David Warner played him in the animated series and how Liam Neeson played Ra's in Batman Begins. Wade Williams was absolutely awesome and funny as the very grumpy Black Mask. I also enjoyed Jim Piddock as Alfred, Batman's trusted friend and butler. Very solid cast of great actors thanks to casting director Andrea Romano who has casted all of these DC Universe animated films. I know there will be fanboys crying out that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill weren't casted in this movie as Batman and Joker, but personally I thought that these actors were great on a different level. I don't compare or contrast actors and welcome new interpretations if I like them.
The direction by Brandon Vietti was also fantastic. Enough said. The very ending to the movie is sad in my opinion. I know some won't like that it basically ends on a flashback, but it worked for me.
Overall, Batman: Under The Red Hood is an amazing and visually stunning animated comic book adaptation. If you are a huge Batman fan, I couldn't recommend a movie more. I see where there will be a DC Universe animated movie for Batman: Year One in 2011. After seeing what they have done here, I'm very excited to see what happens with that project. I would like to see more Greenwood Batman and DiMaggio Joker. I guess we'll see. In the meantime, go buy or rent this movie now!