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Batman: Under the Red Hood

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // July 27, 2010 // Region 0
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 17, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Robin, the Boy Wonder! There was a sunnier, more optimistic time when hearing that name brought to mind a wide-eyed kid acrobatically bounding around, getting the drop on some colorful, relatively harmless badnik like the Penguin as he tried to knock over a museum or something. Those days are dead, and just a few short minutes into Under the Red Hood, so too is Robin. The Joker had mercilessly beaten the teenaged boy with a crowbar and left him for dead. As desperately as Batman had tried to race to the scene, it was too late. He was left to carry the battered, broken corpse of Jason Todd out of the smoldering remains of some remote warehouse. Even five years later, those wounds have not yet healed. No one else grabbed another green domino mask to pick up where the last Robin had left off. The original Robin had long since struck out on his own as Nightwing, and this colder, more detached Batman has no interest whatsoever in reliving their glory days fighting alongside each other. His is a solitary life focused on nothing but eradicating the criminal element that's infested the open sewer of Gotham City.

For several years now, the sticky underbelly of Gotham has been reigned over by a disfigured crimelord known only as Black Mask. There's a new player in town, though...someone who's seizing hold of Gotham's drug trade. This masked man -- the latest in a long series to have taken the mantle of The Red Hood -- institutes his own set of rules. He demands a massive cut of the profits, and anyone caught selling to kids will be gunned down, no questions asked. It's still a better deal than the competition is offering...enough to throttle Black Mask's plans to claw his way up to the big leagues as an international arms smuggler. None of this escapes Batman, but strangely, even though the Red Hood has a strangehold on the distribution of drugs in Gotham City, crime as a whole has dropped. It's as if Red Hood has established himself as the new Dark Knight, but rather than stamping out every trace of crime he comes across, he's allowing it to exist on his own terms. He has the razor-sharp intellect, startlingly fast reflexes, and impressive arsenal of Batman but without a moral compass to stand in the way. Whoever's underneath the hood has some connection to that night five years the murder of Jason Todd, but who...? Is it the Joker, the first man to torment Gotham as the Red Hood? International terrorist Ra's al Ghul? A nameless flunky who happened to be in the right place at the right time and has only now decided to dethrone Black Mask? Whoever it is, he's out for blood, and many will die before it's all over...

Under the Red Hood shouldn't be shrugged off as a kids' movie, wholly earning its PG-13 rating. Literally a minute into the film, a teenage boy is savagely beaten with a crowbar. Later, an assassin's masked head explodes. One thug is wholly engulfed in flames, and another has his eyes gouged out. The Red Hood makes his first entrance by throwing down a duffle bag filled with severed heads. Blood is caked across the ground and walls. The body count is massive. Nothing in the DC animated universe has approached this sort of brutality since Return of the Joker ten full years ago. I'm glad that DC doesn't lean on the grim and gritty for their animated titles the way they do with their comics -- it seems like you can barely crack open any of the publisher's books without stumbling onto someone being raped, dismembered, or eviscerated -- but when their movies do march down such a dark path,
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it makes an enormous impression. On the other hand, some may complain that the brutality here doesn't go far enough. Two characters are beaten near-death with crowbars, but their faces aren't disfigured...their bodies aren't mangled. Being savagely attacked with a crowbar over and over and over doesn't look any different than being slugged in the face bare-knuckled three or four times. Putting that aside, which is understandable given the allure of an animated Batman to a younger audience, Under the Red Hood removes the safety net. There is the sense that its characters can die...that there isn't the guarantee of a triumphant, last second rescue.

With its emphasis so intensely oriented around action, the pacing throughout Under the Red Hood screams from the first frame to the last. The movie doesn't have the same sort of rich emotional core that makes Mask of the Phantasm and Return of the Joker such exceptional stories, no, but its approach to action is second to none. Bolstered by its impressively fluid animation, the fights showcased throughout Under the Red Hood are spectacularly well-choreographed. Two sequences stand out in particular. In the first, The Red Hood engineers a brawl in which he teams up with Batman against four of Black Mask's assassins. It's an impressively acrobatic fight -- at one point, a car is flung at Batman, who dives clean through an open door to make his next move -- that flawlessly reproduces the sort of animated adrenaline rush I'd so frequently get from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's Batman series on the small screen. The brutal, blood-spattered conclusion to the fight announces that this is a very different story than anything that aired on Saturday morning, though. The movie climaxes with a frantic chase between Batman and the Red Hood, and its final moments are set in the crumbling bathroom of an apartment building. Both have had their bleeding-edge arsenals stripped away, so they're left with their physical prowess and whatever they can get their hands on...even something as seemingly harmless as shattered bathroom tile can become a fatal weapon in their hands.

Under the Red Hood doesn't get too distracted by the whodunnit angle. Anyone who's been reading any of the Batman books over the past few years already knows whose face it is under the mask, and considering the way the movie opens, there's really only one person it could be. The identity of the current Red Hood is essentially revealed a half-hour in and is definitively confirmed ten minutes later. That's a wise move, allowing the movie to better focus on developing strengths elsewhere rather than hinging too heavily on a last-minute twist. There's a lot going on here -- a fairly large cast...a story that spans quite a number of years -- and the writing's sharp enough to juggle it all without ever feeling excessively dense or overwhelming.

There are just so many terrific touches on display here. The character designs are heightened versions of what we've come to love from earlier DC animated projects, and I especially like the additional detail that gives the Joker's face more of a thoughtful menace than what's been seen in years past. The animation is wonderfully fluid and expressive as well; the way Jason Todd lumbers around after being so savagely beaten...the weakness, the so flawlessly rendered that these moments are even more difficult to watch than the vicious attack that prompted them. I'm also impressed by the flashbacks to Jason Todd's earliest days as Robin. We catch a glimpse of him squaring off against the Riddler and his henchmen in a bright, wide-eyed, Saturday morning brawl: all vivid colors, Spandex, and snarky one-liners. This immediately cuts to Jason in his teenage years...older and in an updated, edgier costume. Here there are no clever nicknames or domino masks on the bad guys. They're gun-toting drug dealers holed up in a dingy flophouse, and the way Under the Red Hood so quickly shifts from the infectiously buoyant fun of the Riddler assault to this dark, gritty, and far more realistic attack greatly impressed me. That loss of innocence is one of the defining aspects of the story.

Aside from Gotham Knight, which was more of an anthology with a running thread, there hasn't been a dedicated animated film with this Batman since 2003. I've gotten so used to seeing Batman
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teaming up or as part of a larger group that I'd almost forgotten what it was like to see him as a loner again. The fact that he doesn't want to fight alongside anyone -- that he has such an adversarial relationship with Nightwing, even though all his former sidekick wants to do is lend a hand -- also makes perfect sense in the confines of this story as well.

The voicework of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill defined how I look at Batman and the Joker. Whenever I flip through a comic with either of those two characters, it's their voices I hear. There's a very vocal contingent of fans that seems like it's going to break out into a riot whenever the news breaks that a new DC project recasts either of those roles. Me...? I can deal with change as long as it's handled well. I thought William Baldwin put in a solid performance as the Dark Knight in Crisis on Two Earths, for instance. Bruce Greenwood does a passable job under the cowl here, but he doesn't escape into the character nearly as deftly as I would have liked. He seems to be trying too hard to channel Conroy's whispered comes off almost as an impression rather than making the role his own. His performance doesn't crackle with the sort of intensity or even the sincerity that Conroy does. Even though this Batman is meant to be cold and aloof, Greenwood takes that too far, struggling to find the heart of the character. Conroy has a gift for making the emotions resonate...the shock and horror he's so frequently subjected to...but Greenwood's voice acting falls flatter in that sense. The death of Jason Todd is meant to represent Batman's most profound loss since his parents were butchered before his eyes, and Greenwood's performance doesn't strike those powerful lows...doesn't make it feel as if the wound cuts anywhere near that deep. I did settle into his take on the Caped Crusader the more Under the Red Hood went along, but it did make the first fifteen or twenty minutes more difficult to appreciate. I was fully invested in Greenwood by the end, though, and Batman's explanation why he's never killed The Joker -- a madman who will always escape to kill again -- is remarkably powerful.

That's really the only stumbling block in the voice cast, though. Wade Williams steals every last scene he's in as Black Mask. To add some contrast to this
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unrelentingly grim, isolated Batman, Under the Red Hood brings in Neil Patrick Harris to voice Nightwing. Harris infuses the part with a smirking sense of humor, and having him onboard better explores just how much his mentor had changed in the years since they were last partners. Supernatural's Jensen Ackles gives the Red Hood the sort of simmering anger and immediately commanding presence that the role demands. Having so skillfully played a character like Dean Winchester who has that same sort of authoritative presence, internal torture, and darkly sarcastic sense of humor, Ackles is clearly an inspired choice. John Di Maggio wisely takes The Joker in a different direction than Mark Hamill...more restrained, frequently trying more to provoke an intense reaction rather than always being on the offensive. When he's unleashed, though... I really do get the sense here that the Joker is both brilliantly calculating and an unrepentant lunatic, and as much as I adore Mark Hamill's take on the character's voice, I don't think the Joker's genius shone through in quite this same way until now.

Some of this may be nitpicking, but there are a few things other than Bruce Greenwood's flat performance that drag Under the Red Hood down somewhat. The movie looks to be remarkably faithful to the original comics -- Judd Winick adapted the screenplay largely from issues he'd written himself -- but some of what works in print doesn't carry over to animation. One of the first action sequences in Under the Red Hood pits Batman and Nightwing against Amazo. The action itself is terrific. Amazo here is essentially a cybernetic take on Superman, and it's always a thrill to see Batman rely on his agility and ingenuity when so physically outmatched by an opponent like this. Still, having Batman have to explain with a straight face what "an Amazo robot" is, exactly, sounds ridiculously out-of-step with the tone of the rest of the movie. The character design doesn't gel either: a bare-chested, orange robot that still has the remnants of an oversized "A" on his belt...? There's also a gravedigging scene where Alfred makes a howlingly incompetent observation as a body that'd been under the ground for several years is unearthed. It's also disappointing that Nightwing abruptly disappears fairly early on, never popping up or even being casually mentioned again. It's integral that the third act pit Batman against the Red Hood singlehandedly, but with the reluctant-buddy-cop pairing being so prominent early on, it feels a bit strange to have Nightwing lopped off like this.

I'll admit to never having read the original "Under the Red Hood" arc in print, and I absolutely wouldn't consider myself to be a fan of most of Judd Winick's work in comics. I didn't go into Under the Red Hood with the highest of expectations, but no matter what I'd thought I would see, the movie trumps it. Even with a few nagging flaws, this is in the running as the best of this wave of DC's animated movies, and it's absolutely the best showing Batman's had in feature-length animation since Return of the Joker a full decade ago. Highly Recommended.

Under the Red Hood suffers from its share of technical hiccups, but the movie generally looks terrific on Blu-ray. The linework is exceptionally crisp and well-defined, bolstered further by a strikingly vivid palette and deep, robust blacks. Thanks to the use of digital ink and paint, the image is remarkably clean and clear as well. Not that there's anything wrong with film grain, but tackling so much of the production digitally obviously sidesteps all of that. Even with just a quick glance, it couldn't be clearer that this is a shiny, newly-minted Blu-ray disc, in a completely different league than anything a standard-def DVD could hope to hammer out. This is one of DC's most visually impressive animated efforts yet, and for the most part, it's presented spectacularly well on Blu-ray.

I don't understand the sloppy authoring, though. In particular, Under the Red Hood is plagued by some of the most excessive banding I've ever suffered through on Blu-ray. Also, the opening credits don't fade from one image to the next so much as devolve into a bunch of posterized blobs. Almost any sort of gradient winds up looking massively distorted. On the upside, the nasty macroblocking that crept into Crisis on Two Earths doesn't rear its head this time around. There are, however, moments where I could very clearly spot light artifacting around the edges of the linework. Look at the inner pattern on Red Hood's mask in this screengrab, for instance. To be fair, though, that's infrequent and shouldn't be particularly distracting to anyone who's not watching on a 65"+ display. The banding and posterization are frustrating but aren't at all dealbreakers either, and I'm clearly still walking away with a very, very positive opinion overall. I just wish more effort had been invested into polishing the presentation, and no one at any point in the chain should've put a stamp of approval with banding this distracting.
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Under the Red Hood is presented on Blu-ray at its intended aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and the video has been encoded with VC-1. The movie and its extras are served up on a single layer Blu-ray disc.

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all of DC's animated titles up to this point have been limited to Dolby Digital 5.1 only. Boasting a six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, Under the Red Hood at long last breaks that streak, and the difference is immediately apparent. From the very first frame -- belting out a wave of colossal, foundation-rattling bass -- the fidelity and clarity offered by this lossless soundtrack far outclass all of the other DCAU titles on Blu-ray. The LFE in particular stands out. Under the Red Hood isn't timid about unleashing the pyrotechnics, and with a few hundred pounds of C4 and more than a couple of buildings being leveled, the subwoofer is constantly on the attack. All of the left hooks, kicks, cracks of gunfire, and bodies being flung around are backed by a tight, punchy low-end as well.

Considering the staggering amount of action on display throughout Under the Red Hood, I'm kind of surprised that the surround channels are as timid as they are. They're so sparse that I even stopped at one point to make sure all of my speaker wire was still tightly and snugly plugged-in. The rears prefer to punctuate the action rather than reinforce it, frequently swooping in at the tail end of an effect. The surround channels absolutely have their moments, though: the screams of the insane ringing through Arkham and the constant sprays of gunfire in particular stand out. There are also some impressive pans, such as a terrified thug darting from the front mains to the right rear speaker and, as a brawl breaks out with some heavily armed mercs, the Red Hood sliding from one channel to the next. I do kind of wish the sound design were more aggressive with the surrounds, but this is otherwise a phenomenal soundtrack. Under the Red Hood is backed by an impressively cinematic score, its sound effects are rich and full-bodied, and the voice acting couldn't be cleaner or clearer. Even with the staggering scale of all the chaos unleashed throughout the movie, its dialogue is never once overwhelmed in the mix.

Under the Red Hood also includes Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs (640kbps) in German, Portuguese, and Castilian Spanish. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, German, Spanish, Castilian Spanish and Portuguese.

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enough, there's nothing about the actual making of Under the Red Hood anywhere on this Blu-ray disc. You'll have to grab the Crisis on Two Earths Blu-ray disc off the shelf for anything close to that.
  • DC Showcase: Jonah Hex (12 min.; HD): Oh, if only the live-action flick were anywhere in this league... Following up the outstanding Spectre short from Crisis on Two Earths, this second DC Showcase is an animated Spaghetti western, complete with a brilliant Sergio Leone-inspired score and a bleak, unflinchingly cruel worldview. Again, the short was penned by several of the same writers behind the Jonah Hex comic, and it hasn't been watered down in the slightest. It's better not to spell out too much about the premise, which seems to be setting up one villain but yanks out the rug as it veers off in a very different direction. Suffice it to say that there's a hell of a lot of action -- plenty of shootouts and even a brawl with an axe -- and Hex is every bit as much of a badass on-screen as he is in the comics. Director Joaquim Dos Santos, returning from the Spectre short, has an amazing sense of style. Hex' character design is disfigured and appropriately horrific, and the soft glow and sepia tint immediately evoke the proper sort of mood. The short also features a fantastic cast, including Linda Hamilton and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer's Michael Rooker. As much as I love Under the Red Hood, this Jonah Hex short comes very close to stealing the show.

  • Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson (24 min.; SD): It's kind of a thrill to put on these featurettes and see longtime heroes like Len Wein and Denny O'Neill in front of the camera. "Robin" starts off by exploring what prompted the creation of the character in the first place...not to make Batman more accessible to the junior set but just that having someone else to talk to made writing dialogue easier. The discussion about the character is frequently more psychological in nature rather than just a blow-by-blow recap...more fascinated by what Robin represents rather than rattling off key plot points from over the years. There's also a good bit of discussion about the history and mythology of the hero/sidekick relationship, and even Robin's bright, colorful costume winds up being explored at length.

  • Robin's Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd (21 min.; SD): The second featurette briefly recaps the creation of Jason Todd: a sidekick who started off indistinguishable from Dick Grayson in his younger days but was quickly reworked into a completely unlikeable snot. "Requiem" really isn't interested in the life of Robin #2 so much as his death, and many of the same folks from the other Robin featurette chat about the 1-900 numbers that empowered fans to decide if the punk should live or die. There's plenty of discussion about the backlash that followed, the ballot stuffing that nudged the narrow race into "kill him!" territory, and the longstanding decision that Jason Todd's death should be permanent. 'Course, the events of more recent years are discussed here as well...

  • Bruce Timm's Top Picks (88 min.; SD): Four episodes from Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures have
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    also been included: the two-parter "Robin's Reckoning" that recaps the Boy Wonder's origin, "The Laughing Fish" that strings together some of my favorite Batman comics from the '70s, and Harley Quinn grabbing hold of the spotlight in "Mad Love". They're great episodes straight across the board, but the quality is really rough. Don't expect an upgrade over what you already have on the shelf on DVD.

  • A First Look at Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (12 min.; SD): Also included is a lengthy preview for the next DCAU title: an adaptation of the arc that reintroduced Supergirl to the DC Universe. A slew of the talent on both sides of the microphone speak about the allure of this story, such as family representing a weakness for Superman that hasn't been explored in these movies and the fascination of watching a character struggle to come to terms with such indescribable power. Among the other topics are the process of adapting comics so heavy on internal monologue and the translation of Michael Turner's distinctive artwork to animation. Along with a slew of storyboards and peeks at the printed comic art, "A First Look..." also showcases footage of voice actors Andre Braugher, Tim Daly, Kevin Conroy, and Summer Glau at work.

Also on the promotional end of things are a slew of trailers for other animated Warner titles. Under the Red Hood comes packaged in a glossy, embossed cardboard sleeve, along with a digital copy of the movie. The digital copy is only for use on Windows Media-powered devices, though, so the Mac and iTunes crowd is out of luck this time around.

The Final Word
As much as I've enjoyed so many of DC's recent animated movies -- the four-color adventure of Wonder Woman and Crisis on Two Earths in particular -- the gold standards for me have still been Mask of the Phantasm and Return of the Joker. Batman at his most psychologically tortured...facing a psychopath where the stakes are staggeringly high...these aren't kids' movies. They're smart, artfully crafted, unflinchingly dark, and unrelentingly intense. I'm glad that DC isn't trying to be this grim and gritty with all of their animated films, but when they do it, they do it well. Under the Red Hood is so much better than anything I could've hoped to see, and even though it doesn't quite approach the dizzying heights of Mask of the Phantasm or Return of the Joker, it's very much their spiritual successor. There hasn't been an animated Batman movie anywhere near this strong in a full decade, and Under the Red Hood ranks among the best of the DC Animated Universe titles overall since the launch of the current line. Parents are cautioned that this is a movie that absolutely earns its PG-13 rating, but otherwise, Under the Red Hood very much comes Highly Recommended.
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