Film Review: Batman: Under the Red Hood
The latest DC Universe Animated Original Movie winds up being not so bad, despite starting from source material that could hardly be worse, and losing its way after a strong beginning. It succeeds to the extent that it does thanks to a strong voice cast, and well designed, well animated characters. A couple of the DCUA direct-to-video features — Justice League: New Frontier and Superman: Doomsday — have been excellent; a few — like last year’s Superman/Batman: Public Enemies — have been fun, though not great; and one — Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths — has been awful. Under the Red Hood slips through the grating and lands amongst the titles in the series I haven’t bothered to review — Green Lantern: First Flight and Wonder Woman. It has its moments. It’s not terrible. But that’s the best I can say for it.
The producers, in choosing to adapt Judd Winick’s “Under the Hood” storyline from Batman a few years back, are coming to bat with two strikes already against them. As I mentioned in a comic book review three years ago, “Under the Hood” is one of the worst Batman stories I’ve ever read. (I’m talking Batman: Year Two shitty.) The story involves the resurrection of Jason Todd, the second Robin, who was murdered by the Joker way back in 1988 — or about five years ago, comic time. Winick’s mistake as the writer was to start with a bad idea and expand it into a cluttered, boring, pointless, and really, really terrible story.
His screenplay is a slight improvement. There is a half-hearted attempt to explore the effect of Jason Todd’s death on Batman, and a terrific ending that flashes back to the day when young Jason, brash and exuberant, with Batman smiling proudly at his side, first puts on the Robin costume. Nightwing is given a supporting role, and is one of the highlights of the movie before disappearing for most of the final act, never to be mentioned again. And this film’s version of the Joker is the best animated take on the character yet, one of the only times outside of the comics (and The Dark Knight) that the character has been allowed to seem truly threatening.
My compliments to the screenplay have to end there. For all that it does right, too much of Under the Red Hood’s slim 75-minute running time is taken up by lengthy fight scenes pitting Batman, Nightwing and Red Hood against randomly drawn adversaries like Amazo and the Fearsome Hand of Four. Given how crowded the film feels, Winick and his fellow creators (including Bruce Timm and the usual suspects at DCUA) would have been better off trimming the gratuitous action in favor of spending more time with the characters. Rã’s al Ghũl (voiced by Jason Isaacs) is particularly under-utilized. There’s also, as I mentioned before, the unexplained disappearance of Nightwing. Even a “Fuck this, I’m going back to Bludhaven” would have been better than nothing.
Enough bitching. It’s not all bad. Bruce Greenwood, one of my very favorite actors ever, voices Batman — and a very good goddamn job he does of it, too. Seriously, you can all stick Kevin Conroy up your asses. Fuck him dead. Greenwood is the man — not my first choice to play Batman in live action, certainly, but an inspired choice for animation. Alongside him as Nightwing (until he drops off the face of the Earth never to be seen again) is Neil Patrick Harris, who also does a fine job. I think this is the first time a DC animated production has ever gotten Nightwing just right. He’s very nicely animated — noticeably more acrobatic and light on his feet than Batman, befitting his circus background — and well written, too, like Spider-Man without the webs — oh, and instead of Aunt May he’s got fucking Batman.
John DiMaggio (that’s Bender from Futurama) makes a good Joker, and I already mentioned Jason Isaacs as Rã’s al Ghũl — blink and you’ll miss him. The Red Hood/Jason Todd is voiced by Jensen Ackles, who does as well as anyone might have with the part, but still can’t quite make Jason into anything more than a whiny punk kid — a whiny punk kid with a hard-on for murdering drug dealers, but nevertheless . . .
Wade Williams does well as Black Mask, who was the only highlight of Winick’s comic book storyline and gets a few laughs here. Phil LaMarr and Gary Cole are in here somewhere, too, though not as anyone important.
I’ll call this a swing and a miss, but not a bad cut. The animators and the voice cast do some good work here. Unfortunately, it’s at the service of a story that’s dull and stupid. The next DCUA feature to be released is another Superman/Batman team-up, Apocalypse, with Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy reprising their roles from the animated series again, and Andre Braugher(!) as Darkseid. I’m not usually a fan of the “Supes flies to the other side of the universe to fight aliens” subgenre of Superman stories, but I don’t remember hating the comic on which it’s based.
And fuck — if nothing else, at least someday, when I’m lying in bed, waiting for death, I can say that I once saw Bruce Greenwood play Batman. And it will have been a good life.
Eh. Good enough.