"Batman: Under the Red Hood" Blu-ray: "Better" Isn't "Good"
I found the original Batman: Under the Hood graphic novel to be a jumbled, near-incoherent mess that generated what emotional resonance it had by carefully undoing a story that was over 20 years old. Considering my issues with both the letter and the spirit of the source material, I freely admit that I started watching the animated adaptation, Batman: Under the Red Hood, with incredibly low expectations. These expectations were not helped by the fact that the preview on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths seemed to pitch the story as a mystery and then gave away the mystery right from the set-up. However, I also held out hope that the same organization that turned the ridiculous “Death of Superman” storyline into the good-to-great Superman: Doomsday could significantly improve on Judd Winick and Doug Mankhe’s comics.
The good news is that Batman: Under the Red Hood does indeed improve on its source material. The bad news is that “better” does not imply “good.” Under the Red Hood is still not a very good movie, and far from the best that has come from Warner Bros. Animation.
In the Gothic canyons of Gotham City, a new crime lord calling himself the Red Hood is flexing his muscles and cutting away the power base of the Black Mask, the disfigured overlord of the Gotham underworld. It doesn’t take long before Batman is on the Red Hood’s trail, but the Red Hood soon proves capable of taking on Batman as well as the Black Mask on their own terms. The three-way duel soon takes on a fourth player, as the Joker is eventually injected into the game. Entropy mounts as secrets are revealed, the past comes back to haunt everyone, and Gotham is caught in the crossfire.
The best parts of Batman: Under the Red Hood are those we’ve come to expect from the DC/Warner Bros. line of direct-to-video movies. It looks and sounds stunning. In design it beautifully melds the styles of the earlier animated series, the recent Christopher Nolan live-action movies, Doug Mankhe’s gritty art from the original graphic novel, and even the original Tim Burton Batman movie. Character designs are more realistic, nicely reinforcing the more street-level plot while still playing up the more over-the-top comic book elements like the Joker or the Black Mask. Action junkies will find it a feast for the eyes with its series of beautifully animated hard-edged battles. They move with lightning quickness and are never jumbled or hard to follow, and they’re also loaded with grace notes like the direct, efficient fighting style of Batman against the more acrobatic fighting style of Nightwing, the former Robin the Boy Wonder. Of special note are a team-up of necessity between Batman and the Red Hood against four super-powered assassins, and the brutal, ugly brawl between Batman and the Red Hood that is the climax of the third act. Thematically and visually, this movie definitely earns its PG-13 rating.
Batman: Under the Red Hood also does an excellent job with its casting; no small feat, considering how many times some of these characters have been cast by now. Bruce Greenwood’s Batman starts off feeling a bit too underplayed, making him seem like a shadow of other, more memorable Batman voice actors like Kevin Conroy or The New Frontier‘s Jeremy Sisto. However, it becomes clear as the movie wears on that this is a deliberate choice, with Greenwood turning in some excellent and sensitive work by the movie’s third act. There is some marvelously subtle and effective work as Greenwood lets some of Batman’s emotional reserve crack as he faces strains almost too much for even him to bear. Veteran voice actor John DiMaggio is terrific as the Joker, presenting a memorably psychotic version of the character that is still distinct from the many other renowned screen portrayals. I am unfamiliar with Jensen Ackles’ work, but his strong performance as the Red Hood has a hard edge and just enough instability to make us question his sanity (a relative term for a story set in Gotham City, of course). Neil Patrick Harris’ Nightwing is terrific enough that it’s a genuine disappointment that he isn’t in the movie more; pair him with a good script and I’d be more than willing to watch a movie with his character as the headliner.
All these superbly executed elements are almost successful at masking how threadbare the story is. The sound and the fury on screen are easy on the eyes and successful at hitting emotional hot buttons, but it’s all ultimately a distraction from the Fridge Logic that infests and undermines the entire plot. Unfortunately, it also seems that many of the weaknesses of Under the Red Hood are either inherent in the premise or transplanted from the source comics. The original graphic novel was a large story told in 22-page monthly installments, all meant to tie in to larger events in the DC Universe as a whole, so the result was understandably messy. Characters appeared and vanished with little sense of purpose; events of seemingly enormous portent were quickly forgotten (sometimes because they were resolved in other comics, sometimes because of sloppy writing); some asides only diffuse the focus on the main event; and the whole story relies on one of the stupidest deus ex machina plot devices ever created. Under the Red Hood improves on many of the flaws in the original comics, primarily by throwing away all that extraneous crossover stuff, but while this makes the story much more focused, it also leaves a simplistic crime melodrama driven by a mystery that isn’t one.
I’ve deliberately avoided even vaguely describing the event in DC Comics’ history that formed the basis of the original comics and this DTV movie. Partially, this is because the mystery is gone so quickly and I’d rather not rob newcomers of even that much suspense, but also because dodging it makes it clear that the movie has ample flaws even without the controversy among comic book fans over reversing that event. The comics could wring suspense out of that story because it was so old and had been enshrined in Batman’s comics history for such an long period of time. This luxury is not available to Under the Red Hood, which must act as a self-contained story and has to deliver its setup during the pre-credits tease. Doing so makes it abundantly easy to figure out who the Red Hood is when he appears in the movie’s opening scenes, and yet the movie insists on continuing to play it like a mystery for 30 minutes as the Red Hood upsets Gotham City’s underworld and dodges both Batman and the Black Mask. That stalling for time is meant to communicate the Red Hood’s competence, but instead only succeeds at making both Batman and the Black Mask look ineffectual.
The streamlining of the story has also made characters like Black Mask and Nightwing so vestigial that the story might have benefited by dropping both. Nightwing is a blast, but he’s in and out quickly and never plays much of a role in the movie at all. It might be that he’s meant to stand with Batman as another point of contrast to the Red Hood, but if that was the intent, he’s just not on screen long enough for any such comparison to take root. As for the Black Mask, the comics had several months of build-up trying to elevate him alongside Batman’s more memorable rogues. Regardless of how successful they were, the original comic book story could at least ride on that build-up. The movie gets no such build-up, reducing Black Mask to a loud, volatile, dime-a-dozen stereotypical mob boss with a grotesque gimmick—a Dick Tracy villain played depressingly straight, with an unadventurous sense of dark comedy and absolutely no sense of subtlety. The movie even seems to notice his pointlessness late in the game and tries to make him more important by shoehorning him into the Red Hood’s plans, but this attempt falls flat in the face of the Red Hood’s obvious resources and the well-documented ease of corrupting most citizens of Gotham City. Making the Black Mask critical to the plot only reveals that the “plan” had far too much unnecessary complexity and reliance on coincidence.
There are other changes that directly translate disappointing story elements, or simply replace one silly thing with a different one. The movie faithfully re-creates Batman and Nightwing’s battle with Amazo, an android that duplicates big-league super powered beings (and who also feels wildly out of place in this more grounded Gotham City). The fight would be more thrilling if it didn’t include all the unconvincing tricks the duo use to take the robot down. If we’re supposed to believe a robot can seriously challenge Superman while he’s accompanied by the rest of the Justice League, it’s impossible to accept that the tactics used would succeed when even the relatively depowered Superman of the animated series would shrug them all off. The movie replaces a truly ridiculous plot point involving a coffin with one that hinges on Batman not being able to distinguish between a corpse and a latex dummy. So much for the World’s Greatest Detective. The worst is saved for last: the movie manages to replace one completely unsatisfying ending with a slightly different but equally unsatisfying ending. In both cases, the story doesn’t end so much as it just stops, with little sense of resolution or closure. The comics could at least fall back on the excuse of the ongoing monthly soap opera, since nothing truly ends in a monthly comic book. The movie’s ending is clearly intended to be poignant and meaningful, but I don’t think it succeeds, especially since it relies on a permanence to death that is completely undermined by the rest of the movie. There isn’t even the sense that they’re setting up for a sequel.
The Blu-ray presentations of the DC direct-to-video movies have not disappointed in the past, and Batman: Under the Red Hood mostly continues with this tradition (although my Toonzone colleague Adam Tyner has more to say about the flaws in the high-definition transfer in his review of this movie at DVD Talk). Under the Red Hood is the first of the DC DTVs to come with a high-definition soundtrack, which uses surround and low-frequency bass sparingly but effectively. We’re also treated to a new DC Showcase short film, “Jonah Hex,” starring DC’s Old West anti-hero. It’s an unmitigated success—it even upstages the feature—with stylish animation that mimics a dusty camera, well-choreographed and exciting action sequences, a wonderful soundtrack by the Track Team, and a straightforward, brutally effective story of bad people doing bad things to each other. There is an advance preview of the next DTV, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, that looks like fun. Two featurettes look at the partners in Batman’s past history. The first focuses on Dick Grayson’s Robin, and it is fine as history until it saddles DC’s superheroes with much more metaphorical heft than they can comfortably carry. The second, exclusive to the Blu-ray disc, focuses on the history of that one pivotal event that drives this story, which is better for focusing more intently on the history and the controversy that resulted. It only loses its way once it attempts to justify the decision to reverse that story. It’s not a bad featurette, but those who haven’t gone high-def yet aren’t missing much. There are four bonus episodes of Batman the Animated Series included as well: the two-part “Robin’s Reckoning” and the Joker-centric “The Laughing Fish” and “Mad Love.” They’re all superb episodes of the series, although the standard definition transfer is a disappointment made even keener by the poor condition the print seems to be in. A round of trailers and older featurettes for other DTVs plus a Windows-only digital copy round out the special features.
In a strange way, Batman: Under the Red Hood reminds me of Toy Story 3—the tremendous technical skill of the filmmakers succeeds admirably in hiding the flaws just under the surface, but those flaws come bubbling out as soon as you start thinking about them. In both cases, their earlier successes did not have such abundant flaws, and one can’t help but feel a little cheated after the end credits roll, no matter how easy it is to get caught up in the moment while watching the movie. At least Toy Story 3 could ride on its affable characters and our past emotional connection to them, and I believe its flaws come from a loss of nerve to really answer the questions it raises. Batman: Under the Red Hood does not lack for ambition, but its standalone nature undermines its links to history, and the script undermines the rest.