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"Batman: Under the Red Hood": Art of Darkness

by on July 27, 2010

Taut, dramatic, and beautiful to behold, Batman: Under the Red Hood is the stuff of fanboy dreams. In many ways it’s a throwback to the glory days of the producers’ Batman: The Animated Series, but even better is the way it raises the bar for future direct-to-video releases. That may actually be a bit of a problem for the guys at Warner Premiere: This new movie of theirs is so good that future releases may vanish beneath its dark, dark shadow.

Under the Red Hood is sensational at every level and in every respect, starting with a powerful story that takes almost sadistic glee at twisting the screws into its already tortured characters. The film opens in Sarajevo, where the Joker has captured Robin; this Robin is Jason Todd, so you can guess that’s one little party that hasn’t got a happy ending. Five years later, Batman is still carrying around the guilt of that misadventure, but it’s not like he hasn’t other distractions. A new adversary has come to Gotham, and in the guise of “Red Hood” he is taking down the Black Mask’s criminal organization. The new guy is one tough cookie, and he eludes Batman (and special guest star Nightwing) despite the latter’s best efforts. Eventually the past—that haunted land never distant in a Batman story—makes its claims on the present, and unburied ghosts are soon stalking the rooftops of Gotham.

It’s hard to say more about the plot without blowing some major spoilers. On the other hand, all the really big twists get revealed by the halfway point, and only really slow viewers won’t have seen them coming. Under the Red Hood isn’t really structured as a mystery, then, except of the dramatic sort. Too many superhero stories—especially Batman stories—cheat by avoiding the really hard scenes and conflicts. But this one keeps you on the edge of your seat because you know it is taking its characters into some very dark and unpleasant places, and you have no very clear idea about what they are going to do when they get there. Again, at the risk of making some premature revelations:

Longtime fans have often debated Batman’s ethics. Is his moral code really as admirable as it appears to be? Often the Dark Knight is criticized for being a vigilante, but there’s a respectable minority opinion that says he’s not nearly tough enough. Gotham never gets clean, and too often Batman’s ethic turns his war on crime into a desperate race to bail the bloodied water out of a rapidly flooding ship. Red Hood, though, has more complicated ideas, which involve terrorizing those criminals who can be terrorized, co-opting those who can be co-opted, and murdering those who won’t knuckle under; and the movie doesn’t shy from suggesting that he’s dented crime far more seriously than Batman ever did.

There’s also the problem of the psychos: Why does Batman keep letting Joker walk away instead of ending that nightmare once and for all? Red Hood has a solution there, too. I won’t tell you what that solution is, except that it climaxes in a scene that, in its own way, is even more harrowing than the infamous “kid Joker” flashback in Return of the Joker, because of the way it paints moral corruption as both insidious and tempting.

But Under the Red Hood really shines for the way it body-slams its characters against each other. This was something that Batman: The Animated Series and its successor series really couldn’t do because they couldn’t really risk rupturing the relationship between Batman and his various allies. But this story uncorks all the pent up anger and resentment you can imagine boiling away between its characters. The best dramas erupt from stories about the fights between friends and lovers and fathers and brothers, and Red Hood doesn’t flinch from telling this kind of tale. There is a scene near the end where two characters go at each other, fighting dirty all the way. Schematically, it’s a war between ideologies; emotionally, it’s a battle between estranged friends. And it climaxes in a searing moment of choice that you cannot believe won’t end without at least one traumatic casualty.

It’s also the kind of story that could bog down in any number of traps—in chatty exposition and argument or in a lot of mindless fisticuffs—but Judd Winick’s script deftly unspools its themes through action and implication, and the battles establish and amplify the psychological stakes. It also moves at a strong but not breathless pace from one set piece to the next, and even its moments of rest pulse like suspensions of action rather than breaks from it. From the very first moments, which juxtapose the Joker’s brutal beating on Jason against Batman’s sleek motorcycle race through the broken streets of Sarajevo, Under the Red Hood is gripping.

This is also the best-looking Batman story (with the special exception of Gotham Knight) I’ve ever seen. The animated property established its bona fides early in The Animated Series with its beautifully and meticulously rendered architectural backgrounds, but over the years the DC animated universe has lost more than a little of that luster. Under the Red Hood, though, will knock your eyes out. It took me almost two hours to finish this 75-minute special because I kept stopping the player to admire yet another view of Gotham City or its buildings. Skyscrapers, plazas, bridges, even Arkham Asylum have never looked better; graphically, this movie is just one money shot after another. But if the film looks like BTAS on triple the backgrounds budget, it moves with far greater grace and power. Director Brandon Vietti and his storyboarders frame and execute the chases and the fights with astonishing ease and clarity, so that you’re never at a loss to know who is doing what to whom. Bravura moments range from the intently kinetic—as with the aforementioned climax—to such clever little toss-away moments as the Red Hood using a passing police dirigible as a stepping stone between sky-high parapets. CG-generated elements—if they are there—are integrated so seamlessly into the regular footage that they are scarcely noticeable.

Winick has a sure sense of story construction—he knows enough, as I said, to unmask his title character long before the movie is over—but his moment-by-moment dialogue is also crisp. He is especially good with the Joker at the end, giving him wisecracks that are more nervy than funny. Joe DiMaggio does a very good job at bringing this off-kilter interpretation to life: he won’t make anyone forget Mark Hamill, but it is a different and unique version of the clown prince, and one well-suited to this story. Similarly, Bruce Greenwood won’t obliterate anyone’s memory of Kevin Conroy, but he gives Batman the hard but slightly brittle tone of a man walking around with a hollow place next to his heart. I had a harder time getting used to Jensen Ackles as Red Hood—he’s too much the smart-mouth early in the movie—but he really comes into his own during the powerful emotional scenes later in the story. Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Isaacs also contribute memorable turns, but Wade Williams comes closest to stealing the show as Black Mask. Whether by chance, design, or intuition, Williams is almost deliriously entertaining as a maniac who becomes increasingly, comically impotent with rage as the story progresses. One of the lunatic high points of the story has him pacing his vast office while punching out his incompetent lieutenants.

The two-disc special edition comes with several bonus features. The ten-minute “Jonah Hex” short isn’t much of a story, but it is a nice little bit of nastiness from Joe R. Lansdale, and it looks very good. There is also an “advance look” at Superman/Batman: Apocalypse that doesn’t show much except a succession of talking heads, comic book snapshots, and storyboards. The second disc includes a very dry 30-minute featurette on Robin/Dick Grayson, and the two-part BTAS episode “Robin’s Reckoning.” If you already have the latter as part of the series set then “Jonah Hex” is the only reason to get the special edition, but I’m not convinced it’s sufficient for the extra cost.

The animated Batman hasn’t been on the big screen since Mask of the Phantasm, and there is no point in fantasizing that Warner Bros. will repeat that noble but failed experiment. But Under the Red Hood is the first DC Animated Universe movie in a long time that I think could and should have been put on movie screens. The story more than holds its own dramatically, and the visuals are a knockout. It’s too bad the late Gene Siskel isn’t still around to lobby for this feature as he did for Phantasm, because all the praise that movie got applies far more to this one.

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