Man in Black Review: Under the Red Hood

Today I’m looking at a story of brutal murder, perceived betrayals and a young hero turned criminal.

The Red Hood is gone. All semblance of humanity in the being that is now called the Joker is gone, along with his old alias and costume. Now, the Joker is in confinement, and it’s only fitting that a new Red Hood is there to take the Joker’s place as the man running crime in Gotham. To what end?

Under The Red Hood is a 2010 animated feature that tackles a storyline surrounding one of the most controversial and poorly handled things in the DC universe- the deaths of Robins. This doesn’t really feature the most controversial- though it seems the controversy has led to a retcon of Stephanie Brown’s own death at the hands of this film’s third antagonist- but there was certainly a bit of controversy around the death of Jason Todd, which is shown in the prologue to this film. That’s what’s going to happen when the latest, albeit unpopular, incarnation of a popular hero is brutally beaten to death as a result of a fan poll.

Yeah, I thought the opening was dark, too. Unlike the comics, however, this film set to things with a purpose. There was no “let’s ask the fans how much we should hurt Jason”, nor was there a twenty-seven year lag preceding the whiniest villain in all of comics punching time and bringing back the dead. You think this is satire, but it’s not. That’s how it really went down in the comics.

Anyway, since Warner Bros wasn’t fool enough to bring that son of a bitch Prime into their series, the retcon was relegated into the territory of Ra’s al Ghul, long-lived enemy of Batman, who appears briefly in the prologue of Under the Red Hood. Apparently Lazarus Pits are now the Pet Semetary.

In addition to being dark, the prologue sets a few other first impressions. One of these is that, much like other feature length adaptations of cartoons, Under the Red Hood features the same animation style used in the popular Batman after school series- amped up to the 10th degree. It really does look amazing. Great job here.

The next is the voices. Specifically, the Joker. Now, I grew up with Mark Hamill’s Joker. To me, Hamill will always be the voice of the Joker, and I know I’m not alone. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger share second, with Cesar Romero’s performance existing as the bridge. How does John Di Maggio fare as “Mister J”?

Picture Jack Nicholson from Batman, except without the maniacal tinge that Nicholson brings to every one of his performances. Now take that Joker, run him through several decades of the fast life, and retire him. There are elements of this that work, but needless to say, when the visuals suggest Mark Hamill’s own Romero-inspired voice, a poor Nicholson impression doesn’t cut it. This was a poor decision by a talented voice actor and somewhat mars an otherwise great film.

The rest of the voice acting is either straight out of the cartoon, or sounds like it could be. IMDb implies that Bruce Greenwood is new to the voice of Batman, which means that he is good enough at impersonating other actors to have convinced me to look it up. Also of interest is the fact that Red Hood and Nightwing share very similar voices, though whether that was an intentional decision or more a result of chance is a question to me. Speaking of the Robins, I was disappointed to discover that despite fighting the Red Hood in the comic version of this movie, Tim Drake as Robin was not to feature in this movie at all. Too bad- when Nightwing joined in the fight, I had hoped this would serve as a Robin Reunion of sorts. Really, why go to the trouble to feature (without showcasing) the legendary Dick Grayson with Jason Todd if you’re not going to bring up Tim Drake and The Spoiler (the latter of which was killed shortly before this saga and is referenced in the comics)? I was almost disappointed that they didn’t use Scott Menville from Teen Titans to voice Nightwing, but I got over it quickly. What I didn’t get over was Nightwing asking dumb questions like “what kind of superhumans?”

As for the Red Hood himself, he steals characteristics from Jango Fett, assassinating a group of thugs for revealing that they work for him, as well as proving himself a master sniper and a skilled escape artist. In fact, after he acts the part of Fett, Red Hood finds himself the Zam Wessel of a chase scene that I was convinced was going to end in a bar with Nightwing searching for him and Batman slicing off his arm.

When he’s not half-heartedly trying to convince Batman that he’s helping Gotham or trying to escape him, Red Hood acts a lot like his namesake. Under the Red Hood combines two backstories for the Joker, creating one in which Joker was originally the last of numerous thieves to wear the mantle, until that fateful day when he became the Joker. Like the Joker, Red Hood calls Gotham’s crime lords to convene in large, otherwise abandoned buildings (does anybody do anything else- other than meet on rooftops- in Gotham?) before revealing himself and demonstrating bloodily why they answer to him now.

Batman, of course, is not a fan of controlling crime by organizing it, and begins to come to some conclusions about who the Red Hood is, complete with flashbacks of Robin showing no regret over accidentally injuring somebody who was trying to kill him. That’s how we know that he was destined to become a psychopath and murderer.

The Red Hood shows the audience bits of backstory via hologram as he terrorizes Black Mask until the desperate crime lord breaks into prison (What, no Arkham?) to hire Joker to take out this new boss- who, thanks to Batman’s interrogation, the Joker was already aware of. Joker accepts Black Mask’s offer, but the lunatic sets fire to Black Mask and his henchmen while still intending to honor the deal. (For some reason, this wasn’t enough to kill Black Mask.) The Red Hood captures Joker and beats him until Batman arrives, and Hood explains that the most offensive thing about the situation, to him, is that Batman never killed the Joker for what he did to him.

Thankfully, other than the questionable (only questionable, mind) Joker, everybody here acts in character. Batman is cool and calm about the whole situation, knowing by now that he will never be able to clue his former protege in to his ethics. He leaves to let Hood take his revenge, but the obsessive Red Hood, predictably, tries to shoot Batman, which results in him taking a batarang for his troubles.

As I said before, the characterization through all of this is spot on. While Nightwing is still the epic character we’ve come to know and love, when he’s on screen he’s also the comic relief for the no-nonsense Batman. Red Hood is consistent, as is the megalomaniacal Black Mask, the one character I had never heard of before this movie (at least, not by name- some of his exploits I knew of, and I later learned that he killed Stephanie shortly before this saga in the comics). It’s an emotional story of a lost friend and his return as something unfriendly, of Batman’s guilt and failures alongside his success. To be short, it’s the sort of story that every television to movie adaptation should hope to be, with very few shortcomings, none of which really detract from the film itself.

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