Warner Brothers Animation has shown a longstanding commitment to Batman that has only grown over the years, especially as the live-action movies have become increasingly lucrative. Luckily for fans, executive producer Bruce Timm has been, in animation, the guardian of the character since his Batman: The Animated Series premiered in 1992. Feature-length adventures like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker took longer strides to elevate the Dark Knight's animated adventures to a level that could satisfy adult fans while sustaining stories more involved than those episodic TV generally tackles. Those movies laid the groundwork for Warner Premiere's Batman: Under the Red Hood, the most fascinating and action-packed of the Batman animated features to date.
Directed by Brandon Vietti (The Batman) and adapted by Judd Winick from his own 2005 comic-book story arc Under the Hood, Batman: Under the Red Hood sits comfortably next to Nolan's two Batman features—they share dark overtones—but it's more clearly of a piece with the character's comic-book adventures than his live-action films. Without sacrificing clarity, Winick incorporates Batman lore dating as far back as 1951 (the Joker's origins as the Red Hood); he also maintains a narrative shapeliness despite a large cast of characters from the Batman universe. The story begins with a dramatic recounting of the Joker's murder of Jason Todd, Batman's second sidekick to take on the mantle of Robin (in the pages of the Batman comic, Todd's death was the centerpiece of the infamous "A Death in the Family" storyline).
Five years later, a ruthless killer calling himself the Red Hood (Jensen Ackles) begins regulating Gotham's drug trade according to his own code. That doesn't sit well with raging, psychotic kingpin Black Mask (Wade Williams); meanwhile, The Joker (John DiMaggio)—seemingly held, for the time being, in Arkham Asylum—claims no responsibility for the Red Hood. As Batman (Bruce Greenwood) investigates the latest chaos erupting on Gotham's streets, he's assisted—like it or not—by the first Robin, Dick Grayson, who has since gone out on his own as the hero Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris). Though straight-arrow Dick can be counted as an unequivocal success story, he's also an unavoidable reminder of where Batman went wrong with Jason. Todd was a street tough Batman could never quite tame (as illustrated in a snappy two-tier flashback), and Batman still carries the psychological weight of his failure to save him.
Winick doesn't pretend that the secret of Red Hood's identity is buried very deeply, but the story's swift pace helps to maintain tension. Batman and Nightwing must battle the android Amazo before they can tangle with the Red Hood, and the Caped Crusader also squares off with Ra's al Ghul (Jason Isaacs) and the Fearsome Hand of Four. The Red Hood proves eminently qualified to rattle Batman by opening old wounds: his responsibility in creating the Joker and allowing him both to kill Jason and live to kill another day. These moral questions alone are enough to test the terse hero (he confesses, "It's a hell of my own making"), but Under the Red Hood also examines the psychological subtext of why Robins have existed, and what they mean to Batman and the boys who have worn the mask under his wing. And then there's the ultimate question of Batman's voluntary responsibility to Gotham City; in a distorted form of Batman's own vigilantism, Red Hood sanctions lesser evils (the drug trade), eliminates greater ones (selling to kids), and loses no sleep over killing the worst of the city's scum (as he succinctly puts it to Batman, "I'm doing what you won't").
The movie's many action sequences are well-choreographed (particularly the initial chase of Red Hood), and the voice casting is impeccable. Even loyalists to Kevin Conroy (the most consistent vocal performer of Batman since 1992) will have to concede that Greenwood does fine work here, Ackles gives Red Hood just the right amount of hurt-fueled snark, and DiMaggio's unsettling Joker demonstrates shocking versatility alongside his best-known work as Futurama's alcoholic robot Bender. (The cast also includes reliable character actors Gary Cole, Phil LaMarr, Dwight Schultz, Jim Piddock, Kevin Michael Richardson, Brian George, Kelly Hu, and Carlos Alazraqui.) It's a tall order to deliver a satisfying, well-rounded comic-book story in the seventy-seven minutes allotted to Timm's team for these animated features, but with its colorful, exciting action and well-defined emotional underpinnings, Batman: Under the Red Hood is the best yet in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line.
Batman: Under the Red Hood hits home video in a spectacular Blu-ray special edition. The hi-def transfer is most distinguished in its rich, bold hues and inky blacks, which will be familiar to adopters of earlier DCU titles on Blu-ray. Of course, detail is razor-sharp as well, though some minor digital artifacts are apparent (banding is basically a given, and there's a bit of noise here and there, but there's nothing terribly distracting). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is a particular pleasure, since earlier DCU titles have had to settle for less. Dialogue is crystal clear, Christopher Drake's fine score sounds fantastic, and the sound effects pack a serious punch in the immersive action sequences. (Note: Amazon offers exclusive Blu-ray and DVD editions that come with "a full-color animation 3" x 5" litho cel assembled into a color-printed sealed mat with certificate of authenticity information printed on the back.")
In bonus features, you'll find the next in an ongoing series of "DC Showcase" shorts. Better yet than the previous Spectre outing, "DC Showcase: Jonah Hex" (11:52, HD) feels like just the right length to tell its compact Western tale of action and fright. Helping quickly to establish the memorable characters are voice actors Thomas Jane, Linda Hamilton, Jason Marsden, Michael Rooker, and Michelle Trachtenberg.
"First Look: Superman/Batman: Apocalypse" (12:12, SD) lays out the approach to the next DC Comics adaptation, with pre-production art and the unveiling of the voice cast. Participants include DC Comics SVP Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck, producer Bruce Timm, Superman/Batman: Supergirl writer Jeph Loeb, director Lauren Montgomery, voice director Andrea Romano, Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, Andre Braugher, and Summer Glau.
"Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson" (24:13, SD) is a thoughtful and informative look at the history of the first Robin, with DC writer and former President & Publisher Paul Levitz, writer and screenwriter Judd Winick, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio, The Hero's Journey author Phil Cousineau, Matthew Mahoney of Golden Apple Comics, DC writer and former editor Len Wein, Creators of the Superheroes author Thomas Andrae, and DC writer and former editor Dennis O'Neil.
"Robin's Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd" (20:58, SD) does the same for Robin II, with O'Neil, Wein, Winick, DiDio, Mahoney, Cousineau, and Levitz.
Bruce Timm's Top Picks ("Robin's Reckoning, Pt. 1 and 2," "Mad Love," "The Laughing Fish") (1:28:07, SD) serves up more Batman: The Animated Series selections from DCU Animation guru Timm.
You'll find Trailers for Jonah Hex Motion Comic, The Lord of the Rings (Animated), Legend of the Guardians, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Batman: Gotham Knight, and Superman: Doomsday, as well as a Digital Copy of the feature.
This one's a no-brainer, Bat-fans! If you want the best of DCU Animation, look no further and vote with your dollars...
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