It seems like it’s been awhile since our last DC Universe outing. Though I suppose that’s because it kind of has been—the gap between the previous film, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and this one was about five months. After the rapid release that we got with Superman/Batman: Public Enemies I got kind of spoiled with watching three of these films in 2009 and we’re only just getting our second of 2010 with Under the Red Hood (though we’ll get another Superman/Batman film in September, rounding out our third of the year for 2010). I realize this is all par for the course, but when you run a website that, for the most part, lives and breathes these films it gets to be a bit much and you expect these things to come out faster than they do. In any case, here we are with Under the Red Hood which is yet another comic book adaptation tweaked for home video. Those familiar with the original story know that it was going to be an interesting adaptation for home video, simply because Superboy punching a hole in whatever wasn’t going to fly for a seventy-five minute film.
Batman faces his ultimate challenge as the mysterious Red Hood takes Gotham City by firestorm. One part vigilante, one part criminal kingpin, Red Hood begins cleaning up Gotham with the efficiency of Batman, but without following the same ethical code. Killing is an option. And when the Joker falls in the balance between the two, hard truths are revealed and old wounds are reopened.
From the outset I was pretty opposed to this film. I found the whole rejuvenation of Jason Todd in the comics to be nothing short of a swift kick to the pants of comic book fans everywhere. The Todd story, of fans actually voting to kill the guy via a 1-900 number setup by DC Comics, was something that was such an iconic piece of comic book lore that to play with it just seemed immoral and wrong. By the time they pulled this bit of shenanigans in the comic book world I’d long since stopped reading (kind of lost my reason to go to the comic shop after they cancelled Batman Adventures) though, so I really wasn’t affected by the story they were telling. However once I heard that it was going to filter into the DC Universe series of films, I knew I would eventually have to face facts and deal with this annoyance. Unlike Chewbacca dying in the Star Wars novels, I couldn’t ignore Todd returning by just not reading the story in which it took place—now it would be put into animation.
That was all a bit overdramatic, of course, but it helped drive the point home I think. Basically where I’m starting out with this film is a general feeling of hatred towards the story, so in order to be won over it’d have to be quite a little awesome bit of animation. Now I can only imagine those that either don’t care or love the Todd story as it now stands will take this film as it wraps it up into perhaps one of the most neatly done and self-contained DTV’s yet to grace the series. There’s a real sense of a stride being made even from the start of the film—the mood is set almost immediately and when the opening credits with Christopher Drake’s score kick in, you can’t help but get goosebumps. It’s obvious that the filmmakers here are going for a Christopher Nolan vibe as the film is genuinely and truly dark and Drake’s score even mimics and mirrors it on quite a few occasions, although it still stands up on its own even without that relation being made. The PG-13 rating really feels deserved here and I’m sure I’ve said that before, but this is probably one of the most brutal bits of animated Batman since Return of the Joker. So quite frankly I would avoid showing this one to kids, as severed heads in a duffle bag (along with the requisite scenes of Joker beating up on a teenage Todd with a crowbar) show up within a few minutes of the film’s opening credits.
There’s also the issue of the films dialogue. I shouldn’t say “issue” because it is PG-13—there’s just a lot more “hell” and “damn”’s being thrown around, but it totally works here. It doesn’t feel forced in like it has in past films; in fact it oddly feels right. It’s kind of another element of the DC Universe titles hitting their stride—they’ve finally figured out how to juggle these new PG-13 boundaries and exploit them to their fullest. Of course the dialogue would still sound idiotic if it wasn’t delivered properly and this is a tight little cast we have knitted up for this release. The only real jarring portrayal was John DiMaggio as Joker, but I soon realized while watching the film that the reason it felt odd was because it actually makes you feel uncomfortable and in a creepy child molester kind of way—which I’m not sure how close to a compliment that is to DiMaggio, but it definitely got under your skin. Bruce Greenwood as Batman was a superb portrayal as well, if mildly forced at times (particularly the speech in the batwing as he was flying back from a meeting with Ra’s al Ghul, but that was really the only major moment) and Neil Patrick Harris added a much needed level of levity as Nightwing (oddly enough Black Mask adds some laughs to the thing as well). They could’ve made even Nightwing’s role a bit darker, but considering how they wrote him out of the story and avoided any kind of confrontation with Red Hood proper (at least after Hood’s identity is “revealed”) taking him to any kind of dark place would’ve been unnecessary in this film. The remainder of the cast is as you’d expect with Alfred (voiced by Jim Piddock) and Jim Gordon (no voice from him though) making appearances. There’s no real surprise parties here, although there is a passing reference to Oracle and brief bit with Talia, but nothing that we weren’t already expecting (unless The Riddler wasn’t shown before, in which case he shows up here too…voiced by Bruce Timm no less). Then of course there is Jensen Ackles as The Red Hood, which is probably one of the strongest performances out of the entire film—really quite exceptional all around.
Obviously the main thing about this film is the story and how it was adapted. The final elements of A Death in the Family play out in a few minutes and we don’t dwell on it too much, although there are a few well-done flashbacks plopped into the film here and there. In fact that was probably one of the nicest things about the film—the exploration of Jason Todd’s character. I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that Todd is Red Hood (if that is a surprise then you have terrible observational skills), but the film doesn’t even make it out to be much of a surprise except to Batman and Alfred, so it’s kind of a hook that the audience is already in on (although the less informed may be unsure at first). In any case, the history of Todd is given in such a way that it gives a nice backstory to the audience unfamiliar with it (and a refresher for those that are). It even oddly ends the film in a way that feels both abrupt as well as just…right. It’s hard to describe so I won’t even bother trying, but the ending is probably one of the more poetic wrap-ups I’ve seen yet in these DC Universe films. It may have been better served if the ultimate resolution to the Red Hood story was a bit more dramatic, but it works either way.
I did realize something about the film shortly into it that it felt very familiar in structure to another animated outing in the past. The story structure really isn’t all that different from Mask of the Phantasm, with the mysterious stranger from Batman’s past arriving in Gotham and killing people off. On top of that there’s the whole flashback angle and…truth be told the more I think about it the more elements that the film kind of borrowed from Mask of the Phantasm. This isn’t a terrible thing of course, but I’m not sure if it makes me like Under the Red Hood more or less. I will say the inclusion of Ra’s and the whole angle that it spun with Todd’s resurrection was definitely a pleasing element at the very least—I’m not sure what I expected the reasoning to be, but Judd Winick definitely did a solid bit of storytelling here, with some nice little threads planted early on that were later picked up at the end. Granted Ra’s was a component of the comic book resurrection as well, but we avoided the idiotic time ripple effect of Superboy punching stuff. I won’t divulge the whole story piece by piece, but it definitely was one of the more movie-like storylines of the series thus far.
Directing and animation in this film were generally superb—everything flowed beautifully and the fights looked appropriately brutal. The CGI usage was a bit over abundant and occasionally awkward looking, but nothing too terribly annoying…though they just can’t seem to nail down vehicular physics, because they float around a lot in these films. In any case the flaws you may have with the film definitely don’t stem from the quality of the animation or the directing by Brandon Vietti as both are absolutely top notch.
Truthfully speaking I expected to really just dislike this film, but setting aside my reverence for the story of Jason Todd’s death…I have to say this really was a damn good film. Time will tell how I feel since I think I say that about every one of these DC Universe titles and then later realize the flaws with each of them, but for the time being Under the Red Hood was a genuinely surprising and entertaining film. Definitely a Recommended outing, which is truthfully a higher rating than I thought I’d give it when I slipped the disc into my player this morning.
Warner tosses Red Hood onto Blu-ray with a standard Elite Blu-ray case housed underneath a reflective foil/embossed slipcover. Inside the case is the usual assortment: a Blu-ray for the film and an insert containing the digital copy activation code (you actually just download the file, as there’s no dedicated disc just for the copy itself). The movie even has a main menu you get to choose from before it auto starts, although if you’re a diehard DC animation fan then there’s very little, if anything, that you’ll find worth checking out here (again – I pretty much said the same thing for Crisis on Two Earths as well).
Before we get into the disappointing extras, let’s first take a gander at the technical presentation. The VC-1 encoded transfer is as close to flawless as you can get, sans a few moments of gradient issues but that’s to be expected from an animated production. There were a few segments with the Joker when he was talking with Black Mask that seemed slightly out of focus and blurry to me as well, but it only lasts for a few seconds so it really wasn’t anything that detracted from the scene, especially since it was quieter.
Now the audio is…holy crap. Warner actually gave us a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track this time around. After years of DD5.1 mixes on these films, we’re finally given a proper lossless mix and it sounds fantastically thunderous. Almost immediately you get LFE output from the films score and every resounding thud and explosion rocks the room. There’s also a bevy of surround effects that flutter around the room (mostly attributed to Batman’s gadgets) to keep the whole mix alive. I’m genuinely impressed by the mix here, though mostly because they finally gave us something that had enough force to make the subwoofer actually suck up some air, rather than the tiny whispers it usually gives out.
Moving onto the extras we first have the DC Showcase: Jonah Hex (11:53, 1080p) short which is as entertaining as the previous Spectre Showcase, although it’s a tad bit less exciting. We don’t get much backstory on Hex and the only thing we can really take away from this short (other than the fantastic directing and animation) is that Hex will beat up and leave a woman stranded in the desert surrounded by the dead bodies of men she killed. Granted she wasn’t undeserving, but still…kind of strange subject matter for a short. The voice cast was also solid, with the likes of Thomas Jane, Linda Hamilton and Michelle Trachtenberg…although I honestly didn’t recognize anyone at first except for Jason Marsden.
Hold onto your butts for the rest of the extras:
First Look: Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (12:12, SD)
Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson (24:13, SD)
Robin’s Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd (20:58, SD)
Bruce Timm’s Top Picks (Robin’s Reckoning, Pt. 1 and 2, Mad Love, The Laughing Fish) (1:28:07, SD)
Trailers (Jonah Hex Motion Comic), The Lord of the Rings (Animated), Legend of the Guardians, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Batman: Gotham Knight, Superman: Doomsday)
The Apocalypse preview looks cool, not only because Summer Glau is voicing Supergirl but also because they’re switching animation styles to mimic Michael Turner’s art more closely. And the two Robin featurettes are nice history lessons (though I’m not 100% sure if we haven’t seen them elsewhere before as the interviews look kind of old), but once again there’s nothing on here discussing the film itself. Would a commentary be all that difficult? I mean we got new writing talent here this time around so he could add in new insight into the production of these films and…stuff. Ah, nevermind….I should just give up that crusade for movie-centric extras instead of getting upset over the “over three hours of other extras” tagline on the back of the packaging.
Overall this would be a rental disc if it weren’t for the DTS-HD MA 5.1…that bumps it up to a Recommended at least for the fans as the audio clarity finally matches the visual clarity.
Batman: Under the Red Hood arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on July 27th.