By Jarrod Jones. This is RETROGRADING, where this is the best day of my life.
THE FILM: Batman: Under the Red Hood
THE YEAR: 2010, three years after Superman: Doomsday got weird with our expectations of what a comic book adaptation could be and a year before Warner Bros Animation went and fumbled All-Star Superman.
RECOLLECTIONS: There will always be a lot of talk about what makes a solid Batman film. For some, it will never get better than Tim Burton’s gothic and monstrous Batman. For others, the beginning and end of the argument rests with Christopher Nolan’s svelte yet morally dense The Dark Knight. Then there’s the small but vocal group that believes that the Caped Crusader had his greatest cinematic success in the downright majestic Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. It’s all open for debate, and it will always be a spirited one, mostly because when it comes to visceral badassery, there are few fictional characters who resonate bigger and badder than The Goddamned Batman.
The DC Universe Animated Original Movie series has enjoyed a fair amount of success since its humble beginnings (that would be 2007’s brutal and oddly macabre Superman: Doomsday), given unprecedented freedom to dissect popular comic book stories and retrofit them into polished animated endeavors. At the height of their daring, they have humbled themselves to adapt seemingly untouchable classics (to varied success) with The Dark Knight Returns and All-Star Superman, and at their lowest cash-grubbing impudence, they’ve scribbled out retreads of nonsense like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Justice League: Throne of Atlantis. (And now, their greatest critical smiting comes from their adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke.)
Unlikely and comparatively esoteric comic book storylines proved to be just as accessible when the DC animation gurus saw fit to adapt Batman: Under The Red Hood. Written by comic book scribe Judd Winick, transcribing his own Under The Hood storyline (from Batman #635-641, 645-650, and Annual #2), Under the Red Hood owed itself to Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s highly controversial A Death In The Family (in Batman #426-429), wherein Batman faced his greatest failure — the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. It begged the question: who would want to watch a cartoon that concerned itself with that?
There was an even more glaring issue with the film’s premise: Under The Hood was a story that arguably should never have been told. There was a particular reason why Jason Todd died, and morbidly enough he ultimately served a greater purpose dead. The costume Todd wore as Robin would forever be displayed in the Batcave as a memorial for Bruce Wayne, a reminder that in his war against criminality, there would be consequences, casualties that even he would not be able to prevent. The memory of Robin’s death would haunt Batman for the rest of his days, so to tell a story that brings the character back from the abyss after sixteen years seemed both unnecessary and contrived, even for a superhero story. And yet.
Fortunately, its film version trims all the fat from the 14-part saga into a tight 75 minute melodrama of the strongest caliber. Distilling over twenty years of DC Comics canon to its purest essence, Under The Red Hood sells its risky story effectively, sticking a lump in the throat of even its most passive viewer. The meat of the film isn’t found in its fight sequences (though they are a marvel to behold), but instead in the ruminations of its characters, the grief and memory they carry that won’t be denied. It’s the script by Judd Winick (who was in the 1995 season of The Real World, believe it or not) that propels the movie to its heart-breaking conclusion. Break out the hankies; this one will leave you blubbering like a baby.
THE DIRECTOR: Brandon Vietti is no stranger to DC Comics. In fact, the man has been involved in some of the company’s more popular adaptations: as producer, Vietti stood behind one of fandom’s most beloved animated series, Young Justice (he even wrote an episode or two), and as director, oversaw many episodes of the so-good-it’s-criminal Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Warner Bros Animation obviously saw something in the man, and Under the Red Hood is richer because Vietti was at the helm.
The shock of Under the Red Hood isn’t its adult themes, or its violence — it’s that there’s real emotion to be found here, nearly eclipsing the film’s frequently kinetic action. Vietti (who, it should be noted, also co-directed Superman: Doomsday) keeps the sequences flowing from action set piece to action set piece, all the while interweaving the mystery of the Red Hood, the history that moniker informs, and the inevitable showdown between two men — the Batman and, yup, the enigmatic Red Hood — who must answer for the nightly punishments they’ve dished out and received in equal measure. Through Vietti’s direction, the fallout is enormous.
THE CAST: Voicing The Batman and The Joker can be a thankless task after all the work Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill accomplished over twenty years of service, but DC Animation’s casting director Andrea Romano has always had a gift in deriving a great performance from her actors. Here is no exception: Bruce Greenwood (The Sweet Hereafter, Star Trek Into Darkness) has a gravelly drawl that lends to Batman a jaded confidence, a “been there, done that” saunter that barely hides the monumental grief that powers his crusade. It’s a strong performance in a film filled with strong performances. If you pay close enough attention (and ignore the opening title crawl), you’ll hear the aw-shucks timbre of none other than Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing. (It’s one of my absolute favorite vocal performances. Harris isn’t in this movie nearly enough.)
John DiMaggio (Futurama) takes on the Clown Prince Of Crime with a tobacco-scorched gusto, never overplaying his hand in a role meant as a mere plot device for the reckoning between The Batman and his newfound nemesis, The Red Hood. And speaking of the Red Hood, voiced by animation newcomer Jensen Ackles (Supernatural, Smallville), Jason Todd is given a cynical malice that doesn’t bother shrouding the disappointment he has towards his former mentor. The performances take the film to a prestigious height rarely entertained by an animation division that primarily involves itself in giving movement to superhero fisticuffs. It’s a top-flight cast that definitely deserves a reunion.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE: Batman: Under the Red Hood is an unqualified dramatic success, doling out the fisticuffs only when it needs to and never once forgetting that Gotham City is the saddest place on earth. (That final Batcave sequence… I mean, fuhgeddaboudit.)
RETROGRADE: 8.5 out of 10