Hoodwinked: A review of 'Batman: Under the Red Hood'

When I heard that the next DC animated movie was going to be Batman: Under the Red Hood, I cringed. For one thing, I've never been a big fan of Judd Winick's writing. For another, when I originally heard that Jason Todd had come back from the dead, I did a facepalm. Must everything be constantly recycled in superhero comics for the sake of fanboy nostalgia? Can't we just leave some things be? Not that Death in the Family was some great masterpiece (it wasn't) but can't we look at least a little bit forward instead of constantly looking over our shoulder, building castle after castle on sand?

So no, I wasn't particularly excited to watch this latest Warner Bros. adaptation, expecting it to be something along the lines of that dreadful Superman/Batman affair or the horrid Wonder Woman film.

But I didn't get that. Instead, I got an enjoyable, well-done superhero film that, while it suffers from some of the same problems that plague the other movies in the DCU line, nevertheless remains a solid bit of entertainment that will please the average -- dare I say it, even casual -- Bat-fan.

The plot's pretty simple, which, considering how knotty and convoluted Batman's history has been in recent decades, is kind of an achievement in and of itself. While on a far-away mission, Jason Todd, aka Robin Vol. 2,  is kidnapped by the Joker and seemingly killed. Five years pass. Then a new villain, named the Red Hood, appears in Gotham City, slowly taking over the drug trade, currently operated by the venal Black Mask. Is he really a criminal kingpin or is he a vigilante attempting to bring down the criminal element from within? And how did he become so skilled a fighter and acrobat? Is it possible -- just possible -- that he is actually Jason Todd? Are you kidding me? No, it's Deputy Dawg -- of course it's Jason Todd! Sheesh.

Anyway, the film moves pretty briskly, with plenty of nicely staged action sequences (I particularly liked how they made the acrobatic seem fluid and graceful) and every character's motivations spelled out broadly enough to be understood with a minimum of effort, but not so broadly that you feel like you're watching excerpts from Inside the Animator's Studio: Overacting and Archetypes 101.

Honestly, considering the number of flashbacks, characters and plot threads the film has to juggle, it's rather impressive that the film is as sleek and straightforward as it is. The filmmakers wisely and deftly manage to avoid attempting to provide lengthy amounts of exposition and backstory. For example. good old Ra's Al Ghul makes an appearance 2/3 of the way through. Rather than delve into a lengthy explanation of who he is and what is relationship to the Caped Crusader is, only the basic details are given -- he's rich, he's powerful, he's a villain but has a strong sense of ethics and personal honor. As a result, my wife, who knows absolutely nothing about Batman mythos beyond the few basics (millionaire fights crime, has snarky butler) and rolls her eyes whenever I delve into the minutia, managed to follow along without once stopping to say "Wait, who's that?" (OK, she did look up Black Mask on Wikipedia, but that was out of mere curiosity more than anything else.)

It's not all peaches and gravy. The computer animated parts of the film look sloppy, like they were done circa 1992, ruining an early car chase sequence. And while I thought the voice acting was great over all, I didn't care much for John DiMaggio as the Joker. I found his choice to give the character a deep, baritone off-putting and seemed too heavily based on Ledger's iconic take.

The film also suffers from a lot of "Hey Wait" moments, as in "Hey wait, just how far away is Ra's citadel that Batman could get there and back to Gotham City in record time?" And "Hey, wait, Robin just got nearly beaten to death. Shouldn't he be bleeding more?"

It's that last one that bothers me the most. I've complained about it before, but I grow tired of Bruce Timm and company's attempts to have it both ways. They want to up the stakes and offer more violent content that both matches the source material and appeals to older fans, but don't want to get too gross or show too much blood. The end result, however, draws you out of the picture. Even after acknowledging that you're watching a superhero film where unrealistic things happen, it's hard to accept that a person can walk away from a severe beating with nary a bruise. I'd prefer they'd aim their films at more of an all-ages audience, but if you want your film to be PG-13, then make it PG-13. At the very least, if you're going to have a character get smacked in the face with a porcelain toilet bowl, show him losing a tooth or spitting out some blood or something.

The DVD comes with a Jonah Hex short that's just as anime-influenced, dull and misogynist as the previous Spectre short was. There's also an incredibly dull and pompous documentary about the history significance of Robin where some "expert" on mythology blathers on and on about the symbolism of masks and what the color green means. I wanted to punch him. There's also a preview of the upcoming Superman/Batman: Apocalypse film that pretty much dashed any hopes I had of it being good.

Ultimately, what I think I liked about Red Hood is how efficient it is. It didn't get tied down in endless bat lore, feel the need to cater to fans to the point of becoming fawning or make every single character "edgy" in a slipshod attempt at making the characters more interesting (Black Mask is more evil mob boss here than psychotic). By sidestepping these and other problems that plague a lot of the Batman books (OK, a lot of DC books in general) I find my initial complaints groundless. Red Hood cuts to the core of the story -- former disciple rebels against his mentor -- and never loses its focus. It did something I thought would never happen: It made me glad to see the return of Jason Todd.

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