The Dark Knight Rejuvenated
DC Animated Universe has to date shown a near-flawless track record for animated adaptations of DC heroes. With the exception of the middling Green Lantern: First Flight, they have, under the production tutelage of legendary animator Bruce Timm, thrived and continually impressed viewers and essentially cornered the direct-to-DVD superhero market. Their newest endeavor, Batman: Under The Red Hood may well be their finest work to date. A bold statement to be sure, but certainly a true one.
First and foremost: it is difficult to review this film without spoiling some of it -- I've already done so with the header pic, but I'll try... try... to keep any further spoilers to a minimum. That said, much of the content of the film is taken from the already-established Batman comic book canon (namely A Death In The Family and Under The Hood), so it won't be too much of a shock to regular comic book readers.
Batman: Under The Red Hood starts with a depiction of one of the more controversial moments in Batman history -- the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, at the hands of the Joker. It's a surprisingly brutal scene, based on the comic storyline of A Death In The Family, although it's given an independent twist. It takes place in Sarajevo, where the Joker (John Di Maggio) has captured Robin and methodically beats him to near-death with a crowbar, and then blows up the building he's in before Batman (Bruce Greenwood) can arrive to save him. We quickly cut to five years later, where Batman is still haunted by that night in Bosnia, the Joker is locked up tight in Arkham Asylum, and Gotham is still a hotbed of organized crime.
Shorty thereafter, a new player shows up named The Red Hood (Jensen Ackles), a red-masked, steel-tempered individual intent on wresting control of Gotham's criminal element from the manic, disfigured crime lord, Black Mask (Wade Williams). What follows next is a breathless visual assault as Batman tries to stop both Black Mask and Red Hood, before their escalating war brings the city to its knees. However, there's more at play than meets the eye, and soon several of Batman's old ghosts are coming back to torment him. Batman, with the assistance of the always-steady Alfred (Jim Piddock) and the Dick Grayson, the original Robin now called Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), must get to the bottom of it all and try to (as usual) save the city.
Under The Red Hood is unquestionably one of the darkest entries in DC Animated's repertoire. It's a grim, harsh look that focuses on Batman's scarred psyche and the demons that drive him. Typical of DC Animated fare, it's a relatively mature take on the material -- not as rough as The Dark Knight, but it certainly spends a good amount of time in PG-13 territory. Batman, especially the modern, post-Crisis On Infinite Earths incarnation, is one of DC's more complex characters, a morose, almost psychotically driven hero who, rightfully or not, takes every mistake as a personal failure, adding to the ammunition of his drive for justice. It's smartly explored here, and Bruce Greenwood's voice talent is pitch-perfect. Taking a page from Christian Bale no doubt, his depiction is smart, rough, harsh -- though lacks the near-incomprehensible growl that Bale used under the cowl. The remaining talent is equally spectacular -- Ackles's performance surprised me, given that I've always thought him to be something of a dimwitted prettyboy (based on limited exposure, I'll concede). However, he brings a wealth of depth to the unusual character of The Red Hood -- a sociopathic crimnial who seems to believe that he's actually working for the greater good, though he's got more to his agenda than that.
Neil Patrick Harris's Nightwing is unsurprisingly fantastic, and brings some much-needed levity to an overall grim picture. Perhaps most impressive though was John Di Maggio's Joker -- it's a chilling yet disturbingly amusing depiction that captures the madness of the Joker perfectly. He certainly leans towards the Heath Ledger end of the dial -- a complete and utter lunatic who kills without hesitation, sometimes with purpose, sometimes simply out of boredom or to amuse himself. At the same time, his cracked voice and gleeful crowing is just right -- there's enough of "The Clown Prince Of Crime" there to satisfy those who don't see the Joker as the twitching madman that he was in Nolan's universe. With all due respect to Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill, it may well be the second-best depiction of the Joker I've witnessed.
The animation is as is typical of DC Animated's efforts -- superb. It abandons the overly stylized, muscle-heavy drawing of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and instead returns to the technique reminiscent of Wonder Woman or the superlative Superman: Doomsday. However, its lines and shading seemed more striking, the setting darker and more intense -- fitting, given the subject matter -- but still, it was a lively, gorgeous film. Directed by Brandon Vietti (Superman: Doomsday) and written by Judd Winick, it's a strong entry into DC's ongoing series of films. The action scenes are fast-paced and hard-hitting, but it's (thankfully) not over-edited, enabling the viewer to see clearly what's going on. The fighting is at times amazing graceful, and at others gritty and dirty, just what one wants from a Batman film. And while Batman's gadgets are as impressive and varied as always, they are never allowed to take center stage.
Batman: Under The Red Hood is easily one of DC's best efforts, which is high praise indeed. It features top-notch animation that we've become accustomed to, and clever, slick writing and direction. There's not a weak spot to be found among the voice actors, and it features an excellent assortment of classic and new characters -- in addition to Batman, Robin, Nightwing, the Joker and Alfred, it also features appearances by The Riddler (voiced by Bruce Timm himself) and Ra's al Ghul (the suitably menacing Jason Isaacs). It's yet another solid entry into the animated pantheon, and this particular Batman fan found it to be resoundingly satisfying.
TK writes about music and movies for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.