Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Batman: Under The Red Hood

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

Preconceptions: Alright, alright, I know I'm running a little late (even for me) on this review. But on the off chance you haven't already picked up the latest DC Animated movie lets give it a look. Bruce Timm, if you haven't heard about him in nerd circles yet, is the excellent producer of Batman the Animated Series (which played almost as big a part in my childhood as the Adam West Batman series), the Justice League and a host of other excellent cartoon series and the ugly but excellently written Arkham Asylum game. His (and his team's) take on Batman has informed my opinion on the character nearly as long as I wanted to buy a plastic mask and swoop around in a cape. Finally, Timm and his team (notably Paul Dini) brought us Harley Quinn who is my favourite super villain (though her "superness" is somewhat debatable). I could easily hose down a grown animator with the spittle from my gushing about Bruce Timm and the rest of his creative associates. Despite the huge amounts of saliva I've spent on these guys in the past, since they've moved from TV series onto straight to DVD movies, there has been a distinct drop in quality. This isn't to say that all the movies have been bad, in fact, the Wonder Woman movie was a good example of the streamlining and internal logic providing that these guys do so well (and given the messy nonsense, created by a fetishist psychologist, that is Wonder Woman, this is saying something). For every Wonder Woman there has been a Public Enemies, a stupid movie based on a stupid comic that was basically the story of Batman and Superman being insufferable and beating up and patronizing Power Girl for an hour and a half. Or a New Frontier, which cut so much of the plot from the source material that I'm not sure if it would have even made sense if you hadn't read the comic. Under the Hood, the Judd Winick comic that this flick was based on, was nearly as bad as the Public Enemies comic. The mystery was as poorly constructed as the Long Halloween or Hush, Batman called people "punks" and was generally lame (it takes a real effort to make me not take Batman seriously, I am a woman who is serious about her Batman).

Added to the poor subject material was the fact that the regular duo of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamil as the Joker (who have epitomized the roles for the last ten years) had been re-cast. Very nearly every time they have tried this it has ended in characters who sound like Bizzaro versions of themselves. Having just read the novel of my preconceptions you can see, my cupcakes, that I have a lot of baggage regarding Batman and not a lot of faith in this movie.

General Review: Well, just like Power Girl, I have received a pop in the mouth and have been shown my place. I owe a public apology to the people I scoffed at when they told me that Under the Red Hood was a good watch ("Under the Hood was terrible. And so is Jason Todd. And so are you." I would say to them) - so here it is: I was wrong. While I still contend that the original book is one of Winick's (who I've really enjoyed reading on other titles) worst efforts to date, the movie has that old Bruce Timm witchcraft. The Red Hood's identity isn't tossed around as some sort of big mystery (smart since at least half the people watching have already read the comic) and they made Nightwing likable. Yes, Batman's daddy issue having, mullet sporting, endlessly whining sometimes side-kick was great. There is a lot of credit to spread around on this massive improvement on one of my most hated comic characters (second only to Huntress, pictured dismembered here), the writing was solid and he was used for actual comic relief (not to be confused with the usual quipping comic relief so forced that it deserves the comedy hell that is a laugh track) in a dark, dark story.

It wasn't just the writing and good use of the character that improved Nightwing (watching him try and fail to keep up with Batman didn't get less funny), it was also the skilled voice acting of Neil Patrick Harris. Doogie has become a nerd icon since his performance in Harold and Kumar and Dr. Horrible, but this voice acting showed a pile more skill than I'd credited him with. Yes, the writing was mostly good, but he sold the weaker writing and the ridiculous super hero lines that I've seen more than one good actor flop. Speaking of selling difficult lines, Jensen Ackles, made me laugh at his gallows humour rather than rolling my eyes and waiting for the scene to end, which is too often my response to clumsy black comedy. Bruce Greenwood as Batman and John DiMaggio as the Joker were the first actors who haven't left me crossing my arms and shaking my head, refusing to accept that Conroy and Hamil aren't in the movie. While Greenwood didn't cause me to cry, stomp, scream and go red in the face, to be honest, this was mostly because he sounded a lot like Conroy's Batman, only a few years older. He was passable, but he didn't add anything to the role. But given the recent missteps with Batman's voice actors I'm painfully willing to give credit to a passable job. DiMaggio, however, surprised the ever loving stuffing out of me. Not only did he not cause a nerd girl hissy-fit, but he impressed. His Joker was less puckish than Hamil's, which meant that there wasn't as much of a juxtaposition between the gaiety and menace, but the overall threat was more consistent. I also liked the slightly effeminate touches. Plus, what a great laugh.

The art direction was also a pleasant surprise. Along with hating the gritty realistic giant pecs of the Arkham Asylum game, I hated the brightly coloured spandex-y giant pecs of Public Enemies (they went through the bad art choices of the 80's to the 90's between those two projects). They didn't just go back to the stripped down black on black style of the Animated series, either. This movie had substantially more shading and detail than I've seen in Bruce Timm's projects, but it still kept elements of his previous style choices. The city was more nuanced and so were facial expressions. They filled the Joker out, making him look more physically menacing, which worked in this more violent and bloody story (I still miss his red lips, though). The only major complaint I have is that the integration between the CG and the more animated style is jarringly bad. It looks easily ten years out of date. The car and plane chase sequences might as well be from a different movie, but are mercifully brief.

If you, like I, have ceased running out to get the next Bruce Timm and Co.'s next project because they've been a mixed bag, I'm telling you that Under the Red Hood is a good reason to move those haulting feet. It's effectively harsh, well voice acted and looks slick. You'll laugh with Nightwing rather than at him, be creeped by DiMaggio's Joker and give a damn about Jason Todd.

Aside: In case you're wondering, the drawing is by Dewey from several million years ago. I'm a fair sized fan girl of his funny, sci-fi web comic which you can get to here.


  1. Bender as Joker was great, it was a perfect cross of Hamil and Ledger, just enough menace and loony to make him unique and fun/
    sometimes i think i am The Huntress' only fan...

  2. I was shocked by just how good he was. I mean I love him as Bender (obviously) but this was something else again.

    And rightly so. She's as big a mess as Wonder Woman...though I did like her with the Question in JLU.

  3. have you ever read her original mini? it is pretty good for an 80's "gritty" dc book. question plays a big part in it too.

  4. *scrunches face* Indeed I have, which is where my hate began. I actually didn't give one care about the Question until he showed up in the JLU cartoon.