In this animated adventure, a new costumed vigilante comes to Gotham, but his tactics exceed the caped crusader’s tolerance for bloodshed. Although the animation is top notch, Batman: Under the Red Hood never finds its own identity because it so desperately wants to be Mask of the Phantasm.
I can’t say I’ve ever followed comic books terribly closely. Most of my comics knowledge comes from Wikipedia binges, movies, and whatever comics I get heartfelt recommendations for. Under the Red Hood is based on a storyline I was unfamiliar with. The filmmakers seemed to have expected this of viewers and made a curious decision. They supply the backstory as a prologue of sorts. While this does get the rest of us up to speed, it ruins the mystery of who the Red Hood is.
A Batman story hinges on its villains, and the most iconic of all makes an appearance. Unfortunately, he is voiced by Joe Dimaggio in this movie. As much as his work as Bender on Futurama continues to entertain, he wasn’t a good fit for this role. This isn’t just because Mark Hamill is the best Joker. Someone will eventually fill those clown shoes, but DiMaggio isn’t the one to do it. DiMaggio has a much deeper, throatier voice than the Joker’s other portayals, and he just doesn’t capture the unrestrained psychopathic glee of the character.
Neil Patrick Harris voices Nightwing, and his performance highlights the more flamboyant side of the character. Harris is charming in most of what he does, but he isn’t given a chance to shine here. The rest of the cast give inoffensive performances.
The animation is high quality and fluid, though I could take or leave the character designs. The Joker is drawn with more muscle compared to classic renderings. He must have been hitting the weights at Arkham. This has been a trend since the 80s in comics, and sadly it hasn’t died out completely yet. It’s not quite as bad as the hulkifying of the characters in the Arkham Asylum video game.
Then there’s Batman himself. He’s easily the most boringly drawn character in the whole movie. Instead of looking sleek, he just looks drab. As Bruce Wayne, he is even worse. His features are soft and mopey rather than strong and brooding. This goes well with the story, in a way. This film is about how Batman can’t always win, how he can’t be sure he’s really a positive force in the world. He is ineffectual throughout, and plays the loner even while he obviously needs help, both in combat and on a personal level.
If all you want from your comic book flick is action, then there are some good scenes here. Red Hood is an impressive foe, at least at first, and the acrobatics are beautifully animated. Some of these moments are poorly tied into the main story, though, existing merely to fill the formula. These scenes are the android and cyborg ninja battles (seriously). They mirror each other, and the point, if I may be so generous as to imagine one, is for us to see Batman paired with Nightwing in the former and Hood in the latter. We get to see the differences in the two characters and how Batman relates to them.
Again we see Hood’s ruthlessness, but we’ve already seen it demonstrated with greater impact, and after a while it becomes a farce, especially after it become more understandable. Aside from the fact that these are generic, faceless henchmen, this construction only continues to push Nightwing further out of a story he was never given a chance to shine in. By this point, he has already been written out of the script in an extraordinarily lazy and ridiculous way.
(I’ve tried to keep out the spoilers, though the plot is boilerplate. Big spoilers follow.)
I just want to talk about the resurrection subplot. When Batman travels to meet Ra’s and get the whole story, the explanation had me groaning from the contrivance. There is later some wiggling over whether or not the Lazarus pit drove Hood insane, but that’s a cliched cop-out.
Unexpectedly, B-list villain Black Mask steals the show. His random acts of slapstick violence are the most entertaining moments. The only wrinkle is how so ineffectual a crime boss could have amassed such a criminal network in the first place. Contrast him with Alfred, whose every moment of screen time drags the film down. Writers must feel the need to plug him into these stories, but they any notion of how to do it seamlessly. You don’t get the sense here that he’s an integral part of the Batverse.
The last fifteen minutes of Under the Red Hood practically satirizes the comic book superhero genre. Hood, who for a long while seemed almost invincible, gets trounced once it’s thematically appropriate. Then there’s the last scene with the Joker. This scene is supposed to have deep emotional and symbolic resonance, but when the laws of physics are bent to serve traditions and audience expectations, all this resonance is rendered inert. Batman’s last words sum up this movie perfectly: “This doesn’t change anything.” That’s right, Bruce. It’s business as usual for comics. Is this constancy what keeps fans coming back for more?
If you’re more of a casual fan, you could skip this one. Still, there are enough entertaining moments to warrant a rental, but exhaust the library of better animated superhero movies first.