DC comics’ direct-to-DVD series rolls on, they’ve moved away from origins
stories and into deeper parts of their mythology.
That carries with it both risks and rewards, for while
eager fans may love seeing a favorite plot arc show up, newcomers may easily
become lost. It’s also worth noting that the more involved pieces tend to
constitute the weaker entries in the series, with the likes of
Superman: Doomsday and
Justice League: The New Frontier
rapidly eclipsed by the Green Lantern
and Wonder Woman origin stories.
Having said that, it’s awfully hard to go wrong with
Batman. Thanks to Christopher
Nolan, the Caped Crusader has never been more popular, and new fans may be
more willing to explore the lesser-known corners of his past than that of
other superheroes. Under the Red Hood makes a good place to start,
encapsulating one of the most important chapters in the character’s history
and yet rendering it modestly accessible to people with only a passing
knowledge of the characters.
Considering how much goes on within it, that’s a
surprisingly tall order.
It begins with the death of Jason Todd: the second Robin,
who took up the mantle from Boy Wonder #1 Dick Grayson, only to meet his end
courtesy of the Joker (voiced by John DiMaggio). Five years later, Batman
(voiced by Bruce Greenwood) soldiers on alone, though occasionally aided by
Dick (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris), who now goes by the title of Nightwing.
Then a new vigilante appears in their midst, calling himself the Red Hood
and adopting lethal tactics which Batman himself always distained. The path
to uncovering the man’s identity leads them back to Jason’s death, and
brings the Joker, Ra’s al Ghul (voiced by Jason Isaacs) and Gotham gangsters
like the Black Mask (voiced by Wade Williams) along for the ride.
The sheer size of the cast requires a rapid delivery,
squeezing the drama into a tight 75 minutes without losing track of anyone.
Not every character shines under such conditions; Nightwing, in particular,
all but vanishes midway through, leaving one to wonder why he was included
at all. (A sterling vocal performance from Harris makes up the difference,
revealing Dick’s natural joie de vivre while providing a resolute sounding
board for Batman’s guilt and grief.)
For the most part, director Brandon Vietti establishes an
ideal balancing point between his gaggle of villains, allowing their various
schemes to unfold without overshadowing each other. He keeps the primary
conflict - between Batman and the Red Hood - in the forefront at all times,
using the remainder as garnishes to highlight their struggle. The new boy in
town raises some disturbing questions for the big B, like whether the Red
Hood’s harsher tactics are actually for the best, or what kind of harm is
caused by leaving figures like the Joker alive. Under the Red Hood
doesn’t have much time to ponder the specifics, but it makes the most of it,
girding the copious chase scenes and fistfights with solid dramatic
resonance, and helping us explore the characters’ souls even as we thrill to
The animation itself remains as striking as DC’s other
DVDs, bringing a distinctive look to Batman’s world while still echoing the
character’s previous incarnations. Strong vocal work lends further weight to
the proceedings, notably Greenwood who has the enviable task of stepping
into the shoes of the great Kevin Conroy and who proves more than up to the
task. (DiMaggio struggles a bit more - Mark Hamill’s take on the Joker may
never be topped - though he does eventually find his own tone for the Clown
Prince of Crime.) The narrative remains tight and suspenseful, while still
allowing a modicum of humor into the proceedings, and Vietti provides
sufficient back-story without losing his way amid unimportant minutia.
The results definitely speak to the initiated more than
the casual viewer; Batman fans can
slide into it without a second thought, while others should be prepared for
the odd bit of confusion here and there. The producers probably knew that
going in, however, and if Under the Red Hood demands a little prior
knowledge, it rewards those efforts with another reliable piece of work from
DC’s increasingly impressive library. It knows the story it wants to tell
and does right by all the figures involved; we’ve come to expect nothing
less and the filmmakers here don’t disappoint.
THE DISC: Two sharp documentaries accompany the
main feature - one on Dick Grayson and one on Jason Todd - intended to
illustrate how the two characters evolved. The other added features follow
the same pattern as DC’s other animated movies: a short centered around a
little-known DC character (in this case Jonah Hex, whose slick exploits here
remind us how dreadful the live-action movie really was); a preview for the
next movie; and a quartet of episodes from Batman:
The Animated Series (including the brilliant “Mad Love,” which charts
the origins of Harley Quinn).
WORTH IT? A definite buy for
Batman fans, but those unfamiliar
with figures like the Black Mask or the whole Jason Todd business should be
ready to do a little research before watching.
RECOMMENDATION: Pick it up. It makes for another
honorable addition to DC’s home video collection.
- Rob Vaux