Sunday, July 25, 2010

Advance Movie Review - Batman : Under the Red Hood

When DC had announced a while back that the next Direct to DVD animated release would be based on Judd Winnick’s controversial Under the Hood story in Batman, many fans let out a collective “What?” I’m honestly a fan of this story and Winnick’s work in general so I’m a little biased but I recently had an opportunity to check out the animated version and I have to say….it is pretty awesome. You can purchase it on Blu-Ray and DVD this Tuesday, July 27th.  There may be spoilers below if you haven’t read the story or seen the movie so beware. Click below for more:

Batman : Under the Red Hood
Written by Judd Winick
Directed by Brandon Vietti

Why was this story controversial you ask? Two words : Jason Todd. Way back in 1988-1989 DC held a publicity stunt where the Joker beat the second Robin near to death and left him in a building that then exploded. On that cliffhanger, fans could call a 900 number to vote if Robin lives or dies. By a small margin (5,343 votes to kill him versus 5,271 to save him) Jason Todd, the second Robin, was dead. This caused much pain for Bruce and led us to a darker Batman until the arrival of the third Robin, and my personal favorite, Tim Drake.

So where is the controversy? In the comic version of Under the Hood, Winnick brings Jason back from the dead through an extremely complicated series of events, some more ridiculous than others (Superboy punch!) to confront Bruce. I personally like this, because it is Batman’s greatest failure come back to haunt him. But many fans felt cheated, especially those that voted for his death back in ’89, and didn’t want him back. I still stand by it, and enjoy the fact that Jason is running around doing his own thing and annoying Bruce. Anyway, on to the movie.

If you want a straight-up, action-packed Batman story then this is clearly what fans have been waiting for. From the beginning to the end it is jammed full of spectacular acrobatic fight and chase sequences, some of the most intense battles in any DC animated movie and some great performances by extremely talented voice actors.

Let’s get one of the very few bad points that I found out of the way. DC is going for a more “mature” road on these animated movies, and I definitely applaud them on that. But if you’re going to go PG-13, step up the consequences of the violence a bit. The movie opens with the famous sequence from Death in the Family where Joker is beating Robin (Jason Todd) with a crowbar. It’s intensely violent but there is barely any blood on Robin! Also, for some reason Jason Todd is wearing Tim Drake’s new Robin costume, but I can get over that. It seems that whenever someone is getting beaten near to death in a fight, there is a little trickle of blood in the corner of their mouth, and that’s it. I’m not asking for a total gore-fest, but a little more realistic battle damage would be nice.

Other than that one nitpick, the movie is excellent. I’m coming close to calling it the best one yet from DC, but I may have to watch it a few more times. One big issue that fans have had with these movies is the length. This one is so packed with action and content that it seems like a feature-length 90 minute movie even though it clocks in at around 75 minutes. The writers and director have also done a bang-up job of cutting out all of the unnecessary filler in Winnick’s original story. The comic is a bit convoluted and confusing to first time readers, but the movie is surprisingly streamlined. This does mean making some changes to the story but the changes really do work. One welcome change is the trimming down of how Jason actually comes back; it’s thoroughly simplified and fits the movie.

On the action front, it’s everything a Bat-fan could want. The fluidity of the fight sequences is fast and intense, and the animation does justice to the acrobatic nature of the main characters.

The plot is a combination of the first and second part of the Red Hood story which follows Jason’s return from volume 1 and includes his revenge against the Joker for killing him from volume 2. Many great scenes and lines of dialog from the original story are retained including Red Hood casually waving to Black Mask from a neighboring rooftop before launching a rocket into his office and Jason getting his revenge by beating Joker repeatedly with a crowbar.

The casting in this movie is superb. The only miss I found was Black Mask but I can’t really pinpoint why he’s not as enjoyable as the others. I don’t think it’s the actor, I think it’s more the part in general was envisioned the wrong way, or just contrary to how I imagined it would be. Let’s take a look at the rest of the main cast:

Batman (Bruce Greenwood) – After the poor performance turned in by Billy Baldwin as Batman in Justice League : Crisis on Two Earths, I was thinking that maybe no one but Kevin Conroy could ever be the voice of Batman again. I was wrong. Greenwood plays it a bit lighter than Conroy most of the time but it fits this movie so well. He has to play a range from caring father figure to Jason all the way up to Batman enraged when he realizes the mistakes that he made in the past. Conroy is still #1, but Greenwood is like #1.1 :-)

Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris) – I now want an entire Nightwing movie because NPH just owns this role. The joking and playful tone of Dick Grayson, even while facing an extremely powerful foe like Amazo, is handled perfectly by Harris and provides a nice contrast against this very dark portrayal of Batman. You honestly wish he were in the film more, but when he’s there he basically steals the scene. I just wanted him to say “Suit Up!”….just once.

Red Hood (Jensen Ackles) – Love him or hate him, Red Hood is a viable villain now. With all the training of Batman or Nightwing, but he has an extra edge…a ton of rage which he is willing to unleash on criminals. Jensen Ackles does a great job of letting this rage out at key moments and at some points it just spills freely.

Joker (John DiMaggio) – To me, there is no Joker voice but Mark Hamill. Somehow, John DiMaggio pulls off a combination of Mark Hamill’s frantic laughing Joker and Heath Ledger’s psychotic disturbed version. The pitch is a little low but it’s not too bad. The Joker plays a much larger part in the movie than he does in the book so there is a good bit of screen time with him.

In the end, the movie really works on all of the levels that I wanted it to work on. I’m a bit biased because I am a fan of the source material, and although the changes are numerous they do work in this particular instance. For me, it’s the best DC Animated movie so far…..there, I said it. Some may disagree, but I was smiling ear to ear the whole time and I had to watch it again right away. This is what mature animated comic book movies should be and Bat-fans have finally received their DC animated movie.

As a side note, which Batman story would you guys (and girls) like to see animated next? If I had to choose three it would be Hush, Dark Knight Returns and maybe Long Halloween. An animated short of Killing Joke would be pretty sweet too, the origin of Joker and Oracle in the same piece?

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