BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD (***1/2)
This character-driven animated feature reminded me of the landmark BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. The production from Warner Premiere takes the "Under the Hood" story arc from the comics and creates the best filmic treatment of the relationship between Batman and Robin.
Shockingly the story begins with The Joker (John DiMaggio, TV’s FUTURAMA) beating Robin with a crowbar. Batman (Bruce Greenwood, STAR TREK) races to save him, but as he arrives and explosion rocks the building and he carries out the body of his dead ward Jason Todd (Jensen Ackles, TV’s SUPERNATURAL). Struggling to cope with the loss, Batman continues his crusade against the underbelly of Gotham City. However, he’s more brutal and cold than ever. His original ward Dick Grayson (Neil Patrick Harris, TV’s HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER), who moved on from being Robin to don the identity of Nightwing, can’t even get him to open up.
Black Mask (Wade Williams, TV’s PRISON BREAK) has a strong arm on the drug trade in Gotham, but a new killer has moved into the picture. Red Hood is a vigilante trying to take over the crime operations of the entire city. Batman and Nightwing had a run-in with a version of Red Hood before, but this new enemy is extremely skilled and seems to know their every move. As they get deeper into their investigation, Batman will have to confront his past and look for the truth with his enemy Ra’s Al Ghul (Jason Isaacs, HARRY POTTER).
For non-fans, the way the story begins might disorient them in how it throws the viewer right into a tragedy. But even for those that don’t know the backstory of Dick Grayson and Jason Todd will get the emotional picture through the flashbacks woven into the production. For the uninitiated the opening might actually work as a shocking hook.
The story touches on the core of who Batman is as a hero. Jason is dead, but he has left the Joker alive. With Dick becoming Nightwing and Jason falling at the hands of one of his archenemies, he struggles with whether he has provided the best life for his apprentices. Batman’s guilt over how the lives of his wards have turned out is touching.
One can easily see the influence of THE DARK KNIGHT on the film, especially the performances. Greenwood gives Batman a hard edge much like Christian Bale’s interaction with Heath Ledger’s Joker. Speaking of the Joker, DiMaggio makes the iconic character unique, combining some of Ledger’s anarchic madman with Mark Hamill’s crazed hyena from THE ANIMATED SERIES and adding in his own droll approach to the character’s morbid humor. Harris is a genius stroke as Nightwing adding a nice dose of sarcastic humor to the otherwise somber tone.
Director Brandon Vietti gets a big advantage over his other DC Direct title, SUPERMAN DOOMSDAY, with Judd Winick’s script. DOOMSDAY felt too rushed, while RED HOOD is satisfying. The fact that I wanted more isn’t a complaint that anything crucial was lacking, but that what was there was so good I wanted more. For instance, a juxtaposition of Batman’s relationship with Dick versus Jason would have been interesting. Nightwing does disappear from the story too early.
In the end, the film does a compelling job capturing the complex relationship between Batman and his wards, especially Jason Todd. Part mentor, part father, Batman/Bruce Wayne finds his own inner demons flowing over to Dick and then Jason. The guilt grows into anger, but will it change his soul and push him over the edge into becoming one of the villains he fights against. Both Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale said they are not interested in doing any BATMAN films with Robin. If they see this, it could change their minds.