Batman: Under The Red Hood DVD review
The Caped Crusader heads straight to DVD in Batman: Under The Red Hood. But is it any good? James checks it out…
Adapted by Judd Winick from his 2005/6 ‘Under The Hood’ storyline, Batman: Under The Red Hood is a, theoretically, more streamlined version of the arc that saw the resurrection of Jason Todd, the ill-fated second incarnation of Batman’s sidekick, Robin, who was killed off in the (in)famous 1988 storyline ‘A Death in the Family’.
A semi-sequel to that story, Winick’s ‘Under The Hood’, it would be fair to say, is not generally seen as a high point within the overall Batman canon and was overshadowed on release by Marvel using a similar storyline in their Captain America title (with the return of Cap’s famously long dead sidekick, Bucky Barnes) which eclipsed Jason’s return in both short-term impact and long-term importance.
Of course, none of this would matter if the movie that the comic book inspired was a strong and valid piece of work in its own right, but unfortunately, like the comic that spawned it, it’s a very uncertain affair.
Things start promisingly enough with a Dark Knight-inspired race against time that manages to compress the first two issues of 1988’s ‘A Death in the Family’ into an exciting and propulsive prologue, culminating in Jason’s death at the hands of The Joker and a hint of intrigue relating to the involvement of Ra’s Al Ghul.
From here the action jumps forward five years and we’re thrown into the middle of a gang war that the mysterious Red Hood is engineering between himself and Gotham’s top crime lord, the Black Mask. From this setup a number of questions inevitably spring forth: Who is the Red Hood? (Guess). Why has he come to Gotham? (Why’d you think?) What does he want? (Are you sure you can’t guess?) And is this story really as predictable as it sounds? (Yes).
Now, if the film had focused on the gang war aspect of the story and kept a tight reign on things we could have been in for a moderately diverting 70 minute Batman yarn about the Dark Knight’s greatest failure coming back to haunt him. Unfortunately, what we get is a sliver of that story overlaid with way too many narrative cul-de-sacs and a whole mess of fanboy-pleasing ‘cool’ moments that turn a potentially interesting retelling of a flawed storyline into a mish-mash of missed opportunities and thwarted potential.
The best example of this is probably the rather ham-fisted way that Ra’s Al Ghul is utilised. Set up at the outset as being implicitly involved in proceedings, it turns out Ra’s is actually just there to deliver a bunch of flat and prosaic exposition, before shuffling off into the shadows again. Not a problem, per se, but the fact it’s so dull that even Ra’s sounds like he’s having trouble staying awake while delivering the lines is a problem.
But beyond the rather baggy and very crude use of exposition (would a bunch of low level criminals really know that Nightwing was, in fact, the first Robin, or is ‘Who’s Who in the DCU’ required reading for the potential Gotham criminal class?), there’s also a problem with the tone of the film.
Like so many modern superhero comic books and their attendant media spin-offs, Under The Red Hood seems to want to prove that it’s a ‘serious’ and ‘adult’ piece of work by showing us more violence, blood and death than is usual for a release of this type. In a way, the tone is oddly reminiscent of the first series of Torchwood, which also lurched from violent blood letting to schmaltzy sentimentality with nary a blink of an eye and came across, for the most part, as being adolescent at best, wilfully ‘provocative’ at worst, and anything but adult about ninety-eight percent of the time.
But what of the positives? Well, the biggest thing Under The Red Hood has going for it is the direction by Brandon Vietti. Certainly, if you enjoy superhero stories purely for the action spectacle, Vietti manages to choreograph and juggle the numerous fight sequences with real style and panache and injects a sense of momentum and urgency into proceedings that helps push the, admittedly thin, drama forward for its 70 minute run time.
Aside from the direction, the score by Christopher Drake is strong and moody, while the animation style is an evocative and effective blend of the now-classic ‘Bruce Timm Style’ and the sleeker Jeff Matsuda-inspired designs used in The Batman Strikes! It’s a striking look and gives the film a sharper edge than some of the other recent movies.
Sadly, less effective than the visuals is the voice casting. Bruce Greenwood gives a solid, if somewhat perfunctory performance as Batman, while both Jensen Ackles and Neil Patrick Harris (as the Red Hood and Nightwing, respectively) give decent, but unmemorable turns as the two former sidekicks. Ackles, in particular, is saddled with some appalling dialogue that he struggles to bring to life, especially towards the end of the film.
Nor do the villains fare much better with Futurama stalwart John DiMaggio’s Joker being a real disappointment. His performance lacks any real sense of light and shade and he gives us a take on The Joker that’s frustratingly one-dimensional and which pales badly in comparison with Mark Hamill’s classic vocal work.
The same can also be said for Jason Isaacs turn as Ra’s Al Ghul, which suffers next to both Liam Neeson’s live action turn as The Demon’s Head, but also the David Warner incarnation from the classic Batman: The Animated Series. Only Wade Williams, as the ludicrously over the top Black Mask, brings any real life or fun to the villains. Black Mask is in no sense a ‘good’ character, but at least he injects a bit of anarchy into the otherwise very stodgy dialogue scenes.
But the overriding sense one gets from watching Batman: Under The Red Hood can be summed up in three words: What’s the point? And that’s a criticism that goes back to the original comic book.
Watching the film and seeing the numerous nods and flashbacks to Jim Starlin/Jim Aparo’s ‘A Death in the Family’, you can’t help but feel that an adaptation of that story would have made for a far better and more interesting movie.
The Starlin/Aparo book may not be a truly great, or even particularly good comic book, but it is without doubt an important one that has a great hook, some decent set pieces, a clearly defined villain (in the form of The Joker), a decent star cameo (from Superman) and a clear beginning, middle and end.
‘A Death in the Family’ also ends with Jason Todd’s body buried deep within the soil of Wayne Manor. Having now witnessed his return in two different mediums, it’s pretty obvious that under the ground is where he should have stayed.
Batman: Under The Red Hood is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.