With all of geekdom still reeling from Comic-Con International in San Diego, Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation unleashed its latest DC Universe animated original PG-13 movie today, “Batman: Under the Red Hood.”
The movie is based on Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke’s game-changing 2005 comic book storyline, “Batman: Under the Red Hood,” which sees the Dark Knight face off against a new foe in Gotham. But is Red Hood a hero or a villain? With a willingness to kill, it doesn’t matter for Batman; Red Hood needs to be stopped.
Winick returned to the story and wrote the animated adaptation’s script while animation living legend Bruce Timm served as executive producer. The voice cast includes Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek”) as Batman, Jensen Ackles (“Supernatural”) as Red Hood and Neil Patrick Harris (“How I Met Your Mother”) as Nightwing. Animation veteran John DiMaggio (“Futurama”) also stars as The Joker.
CBR News spoke with “Batman: Under the Red Hood” director Brandon Vietti (“Superman/Doomsday”), who not only shared his thoughts about “Batman: Under the Red Hood,” but also teased a few tidbits about his next project, the animated series, “Young Justice.”
CBR News: Before you landed at Warner Bros. Animation, were you a fan of the DCU?
Brandon Vietti: Oh, yeah definitely. I collected “Batman” and “Detective Comics” when I was a kid. Those were my favorites, and I was a “Super Friends” guy when I was a little guy. And of course, “Batman: The Animated Series” was sort of a life-changing event for me. It was like, “Wow. This is how you can do cartoons? I didn’t know that!” So that was a big inspiration for me. At first, I was trying to get a job doing an animated style much like Bruce’s, in the comics, actually. I wanted to do comic for the longest time. Eventually, I just started drawing so much like Bruce, I sent my portfolio into Warner Bros. Animation on a whim and that’s how I got my first gig.
Were you familiar with Red Hood’s story before this project transpired?
Yes, I was. I enjoyed the comic. Again, as a Batman fan, I try to read as many of the Batman stories as I can.
What makes Red Hood different than other foes and rogues Batman has faced before?
What makes it so different for Bruce is that this isn’t just another case. It’s personal. A new character shows up in Gotham and challenges Batman’s code of ethics and Batman’s way of dealing with crime. Red Hood is this character, and as it turns out, there is more to Red Hood than meets the eye. There is a personal connection to Batman.
And while Batman is dealing with Red Hood, The Joker is lurking, too, correct?
Well, I think that most people know that this movie opens with the death of Robin at the hands of The Joker. That really is just the beginning. In this [version of the story], Joker’s story works as Death, really. He’s Fate, in a way. There’s nothing personal about what he does. He’s more of a force of nature in this story, which drives the movie, actually. Everything that happens in this movie takes place based on his actions, and then he comes into play at the end of the movie, falling into the balance between Red Hood and Batman.
Animation-wise, does this film have that now-classic Bruce Timm look and feel?
Well, I think it’s slightly different. I can definitely say that Bruce Timm’s Batman was an influence on me and that was an influence I certainly enjoyed getting into the show. The old “Batman: The Animated Series” had a very strong film noir feeling. Art Deco was a very strong influence on the background designs. But we kind of stripped that out. We didn’t want it to feel like a period piece with Deco buildings, we wanted it to fell very modern, so we sort of modernized all of the buildings and tried to make them as realistic, as possible.
I think the Christopher Nolan movies were definitely an influence on me, as well. I love the realistic depiction of Batman that Nolan has. I’m a big fan of manga artist Kia Asamiya, who did a Batman story. I loved his take on Gotham City and all of Batman’s gadgets.
Beyond the look, what were your influences for Batman in terms of his character and personality?
That’s a good question. He’s sort of an older Batman. It’s a little further along in his career. He’s gone through his second Robin, so to speak, so he’s been around for a little and I think that comes across in how he deals with things.
I think Bruce Greenwood really brought a lot to the role in that respect. I think one of my favorite things about Bruce’s voice in his portrayal of Batman and Bruce Wayne is that not only does he have the strength in his voice to be the scary dark avenger but he also has the depth to really play a grieving father and that’s sort of an aspect you don’t get to see a lot of with Batman.
He’s usually the Dark Knight, or maybe within the Justice League, he’s the general that has the master plan. But in this one, you see another side of Batman that is pretty much grieving the loss of a son and dealing with regrets and what he could have done to prevent it. He’s dealing with his own failure. It’s a deeper side of Batman that we haven’t really seen before, and again, I can’t speak highly enough about how Bruce Greenwood portrayed that.
Actually, including Bruce Greenwood, you’ve assembled a pretty amazing cast.
I couldn’t be happier, to be honest. They all did amazing work. I could run on for days about each guy. One guy is Wade Williams (“Prison Break”), who is the Black Mask. I hadn’t worked with him before, and, wow, I was totally blown away by his performance in this. The energy that he brought in was amazing. You’ll notice this when you’re watching the movie, but Black Mask is yelling a lot. You have to imagine, when you’re sitting in the booth and this actor is yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs through the whole recording and by the end of it, sweat was just pouring off of him because he was so into the role. It was so great to see him so enthused about it, just so into it. And I think that all comes across on screen.
What about Jensen Ackles as Red Hood?
He’s powerful. I wasn’t totally surprised, I’ve got to say. It was just great to see the range that he has. For being the tough bad guy, he really goes far towards the end – without giving too much away – and gets into some really dramatic and moving stuff. By the end of the movie, it’s all about performance. There’s such a dramatic confrontation at the end, you really have to have guys who can emote without getting too sappy and he totally just balances that perfectly at the end. He couldn’t have done any better. And it was quite a thing to watch him in the booth too – controlling that range, masterfully.
Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing was an inspired choice. Does he add some comic relief to the movie, or does he play the role of Dick Grayson pretty straight?
He actually comes in and is a lot of fun. You need that element. We’re dealing with so many dark themes, so many realistic, troubling problems for our characters, you kind of need that little beam of light coming in and that’s Nightwing. That’s Neil Patrick Harris. He just comes in, he lightens it, he’s so fun in all of his appearances on screen and it’s one of those things that keeps the movie rolling along. You need somebody that can handle that fun element and he’s just the perfect guy for that.
I’ll ask you to talk about one more major player, and that’s John Dimaggio as The Joker.
I don’t think I’m saying anything new here by pointing out that everybody loves the Mark Hamill Joker. So you’re right away, for anybody coming in to play The Joker, sort of working in his shadow. And John came in, and he is so far out from that shadow. He did his own thing, he had tremendous range. He played the threatening Joker, he played the funny Joker and he just created his own unique take on The Joker. I was impressed because I think it was a difficult role to play and he just did it. He didn’t really need a lot of direction. He just found it – he’s really, really remarkable.
Is that a tough choice, to go away from the tried and true combination of Mark Hamill as The Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman? The two have become so synonymous with the characters.
I guess it’s just one of those problems that you face when you’re doing this line of work. With every new project, you want each one to find its own identity. One of the ways we do that is to find a new cast each time. You just kind of need to do that. Honestly, as a fan even, I don’t think I would want everything to be exactly the same. I think it’s just more interesting and it helps transport me from one movie to the next and it makes each movie become its own thing, or each TV show its own thing. I like that variety, myself, and I like the variety a range of voice actors will bring to each project. It makes each project more unique and allows each one to stand on its merits.
I guess it also acts as a separation for this one and the other movies and TV shows set in that shared DCA Universe.
Yeah, I think so. And again, I prefer that, personally. Each project has its own stamp and it allows you to do more things, too. You can’t have everything take place in the same timeline. It just doesn’t work out with the nature of some of the stories we’re telling. So, again, you need some kind of separation and the voice actors really help in giving each project its own weight and merit.
When doing a story like this, how do you bring viewers, who are perhaps not regular comic book readers, up-to-speed quickly on a story that really is just a fraction of Batman’s long, 70-plus year history?
That’s a tough one. I think this one stands by itself. As you go through the movie, it almost acts as a history lesson. It gives you the backstory that there was a Robin #1 and that there was a Robin #2 and how it ended for him. So I think, as you go through the movie, you get that history as it unfolds. And it’s done in an interesting way because it’s non-linear. And I hope that those that aren’t familiar with some of the intricacies of Batman’s history will enjoy this movie because of that. They will be able to learn more about the characters that they didn’t know.
Quickly, can you give us any updates on your next project, “Young Justice”?
We don’t have an actual solid release date yet but some announcements will be coming on that, so either by the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011.
This is a new lineup for DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation. Is showcasing the young guns like Robin, Superboy, Kid Flash, Miss Martian, Artemis and Aqualad just as enjoyable as working with the heavyweights like Superman and Batman?
I’m plotting all of these stories out with Greg Weisman, who is an amazing writer. I think people know him from “Gargoyles” and most recently from “The Spectacular Spider-Man” series. As we were discussing before, we try to get each series to stand on its own merit. So we’ve had great fun crafting this as a brand-new DCU superhero series.
You get to feature Aqualad, who has enjoyed all kinds of attention of late since his debut in “Brightest Day” Is he a character to watch?
You’ll want to keep your eye on Jackson Hyde, for sure. Like you said, he has a role in “Brightest Day” and he certainly plays an important role in “Young Justice” too. So good times are ahead for Aqualad. He’s certainly in the spotlight. That’s for sure.