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 ago...to 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,
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 agony...is 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
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 growl...it 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
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.
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.
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.