Saturday, July 24, 2010

Movie Review: Batman: Under the Red Hood

When I first heard that the next DC animated feature was going to be Batman: Under the Red Hood, I wondered how the film would pull off a story incorporating critical details from The Killing Joke, A Death in the Family, and Infinite Crisis. Apparently, Bruce Timm had similar concerns, or so he confessed at the San Diego Comic Con panel that premiered the film. Fortunately, writer Judd Winick pitched the film thoroughly and excitedly enough (via telephone conference from San Francisco to Burbank, to boot) to earn the green light. As a fan that always prefers the source material to cinematic adaptation, I must say, Under the Red Hood is the exception, and not because of what Winick managed to cram from decades' worth of comics into a mere 70 minutes.

It's because of what he didn't.

First of all, the story of Jason Todd is a cornerstone to my comic book collecting career. I vividly remember buying a Batman comic book three-pack from K-Mart when I was a kid, perhaps even before the box of comics my dad scored at his moving job that changed everything, and, anyway, those three comics were Batman #408-410. On the heels of Year One, which I knew nothing about at the time, the origin of Jason Todd was rebooted to boast more humble beginnings as an orphan surviving in the streets of Crime Alley. As a child on the verge of adolescence, I loved this interpretation, and especially its contrast from Dick Grayson's Robin -- while the Dynamic Duo was still a team, their relationship was truly dynamic now, truly multi-dimensional.

Then, Jason died.

I knew Jason was going to die, because I'd seen issues of A Death in the Family on newsstands a few years prior, but I never knew the whole story: how he and Batman met, his controversial role as the second Robin, and the circumstances around his death. The trade paperback of A Death in the Family cleared up everything, and as a young person still developing his concept of death, not to mention how these make-believe superheroes affected my real life, I cherished these tales. As I grew familiar with the flakiness of death in comics, I grew particularly fond of writer/editor Denny O'Neil's quote on the back of the trade: "It would be a really sleazy stunt to bring him back." That's how I knew; Jason was dead, and death carries permanent consequences. It's everybody else's job to live with those consequences.

Then, Jason returned.

Through a series of convoluted cosmic circumstances, DC Comics found a way to bring Batman's second ward back, but it wasn't as quick as that beloved four issue story that killed him. No, DC took years to hint at Jason's resurrection, first in the high profile Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee collaboration Hush, then through a series of stories and finally an annual that offered the final piece of the mystery to Robin's defiance of death. Ready? When an angry Superboy from a parallel earth punched the multiverse (the hub of endless multiple realities), Jason Todd from a realm where he survived slipped into our world -- that is, the one where he was six feet under. He clawed his way out of the grave, was recovered by Ra's Al Ghul, and after a maddening jolt from a Lazarus Pit, when a bit nuts and became him own man. I told you they were convoluted circumstances.

For Under the Red Hood, Judd Winick put that story on a diet. First of all, no cosmic crises. Too much indigestion. Secondly, he kept the return to Jason Todd linear, without offshoots like Hush getting in the way. He presents the story as chronologically as possible: Batman has a new partner, Robin was captured and murdered by the Joker, then a mysterious man wearing a Red Hood (like the Joker did before he became the Clown Prince of Crime) rapidly takes over Gotham's underworld. I won't elaborate and spoil the minute details, but stripping this story to its bare bones makes it much more emotionally effective, and from a marketing perspective, more universally approachable.

That the action kicks butt certainly helps. The Red Hood is very explosion-happy, but the fisticuffs are what makes this cartoon not your daddy's Batman. From Batman and Nightwing's scrap with Amazo (one of my favorite recent comic book bouts, and one I'm grateful made the transition to film) to the climatic battle royale between Batman, the Red Hood, and the Joker, every blow has fluidity, purpose, and impact. The fighting actually moves the story along, rather than breaks it up to keep your interest, and since both elements are good independently, watching them work together was even better.

I will say, though, that I was amused by how every action sequence ended with a shot of a tight-lipped Batman, trying to process it all. It became redundant and therein kind of hilarious.

The film is quick witted, too, thanks in no small part to Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing. When you think about it, Dick Grayson is comics' first and most prominent child star, and like NPH he has found a career in adulthood independent of that image. I wasn't as nuts about Joe DiMaggio's Joker as the crowd at the screening was, probably because I, like many others, am used to Mark Hamill's high-pitched inflection and cackle. DiMaggio's Joker was a bit more understated and even-toned; in short, it was masculine, as only DiMaggio could be, and I've never perceived the Joker as something less than a force of nature before.

Now, I'm a sucker for last lines. Forget Dickens' "best of times, worst of times" shtick; anybody can write a poignant first line. I'm most interested in all-encompassing last lines, those that sum up the tone of the piece perfectly, and maybe leave you a bit wanting. I won't ruin it, but Under the Red Hood has it. I feared the typical pan upward toward the Gotham skyline, or the standard swinging superhero sequence, but Winick was wise enough to give us something more, something that practically explains the entire motivation behind the film, not to mention the Batman/Robin partnership. Further, the way he pulls it off really couldn't have been done in the comics, not in established continuity. So, I'm grateful for this retelling. It doesn't make bringing back Jason Todd any less of a stunt . . .

. . . but now it seems a little less sleazy.

Batman: Under the Red Hood will be released on DVD, BluRay, and On Demand July 27.

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