Saturday, September 4, 2010

Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010) Review

Leave it to the folks at Warner Bros. Animation to heap on the goods when regarding their DC heroes. Especially when it comes to who is perhaps the enduring answer to the grounded superhero mythos, the Batman. Multiple universes have been explored, several major motion pictures, tv series, and comics renditions have been shared to great acclaim, and yet remains one of the few major tentpoles that can remain potent no matter the number of incarnations. Perhaps it is in the symbolism of Bruce Wayne's alter ego that is most integral to fan's cravings. So even if the world of Gotham City has been reinvented, and reinterpreted countless times, the respect for Bob Kane's classic characters remains at an all-time high. Even as the horrors of very real-world crime, and despair begin to encroach onto what was initially considered to be older children's fare, the ever vigilant Dark Knight detective is the material with which even adults grapple with in extraordinarily trying times.

So when the animators responsible for much of the last 20 years of Batman's adventures on television delve into one of the most controversial events in comic history, the result can either be a rousing success, or a flamebait mess waiting to happen, I'm love to say that it is in most ways the former. The daring Bruce Timm produced, Brandon Vietti directed Under The Red Hood is an adult, bleak, and astonishing new addition to the Batman mythology that helps put to rest wrongs on both sides of the page. In many ways a fascinating look into Batman tales of long past, smashed head on into the harsh realm that is the post-Nolan grit of recent years.

The story begins years prior as Batman is unable to save Jason Todd (aka Robin II) in Sarajevo, Bosnia from the ever monstrous Joker, who has been released reluctantly by none other than  Ra's al Ghul.(A story which many may recall being the backbone of one of DC's most infamous moments, 1988 -89's A Death In The Family, which crushingly allowed fans to call in to decide the fate of Batman's reckless second ward. Naturally, his death was a rare event not long forgotten by fans.) It is in this first, unsubtly brutal scene that establishes an entirely new , unflinching tone for the Batman animated franchise. Flash forward to now as the criminal element is quickly being noosed up by a red hooded vigilante with an ultimatum, to rethink their drug & weapon smuggling ways under threat of death. Gotham is familiar with the Red Hood persona, however the goals here seem to be out to control, and possibly eliminate Gotham's burgeoning new underworld. Even Batman is familiar with various versions of the Red Hood, but none of them were nearly as savage, or as thorough. He doesn't even seem to be a criminal, but rather the very shadow of what Batman has always been. A masked wraith, willing to kill to save the world. To go where even Batman fears to tread.

And as the detective along with the help of the ever reliable Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the original Robin), revelations are surely uncovered that will not only haunt Bruce's waking life, but scorch the city as he is run head on into the very nature of Batman's dogmatic codes of virtue. The pressure runs deeper as Gotham's reigning kingpin, Black Mask with increasing panic begins to consider taking a madman off the leash yet again in a last ditch effort to regain control (which many know is often the worst idea imaginable).

To go any further would be a disservice to another exceptional, yet very grown-up look at a mythological icon amidst a radically changing world. Adding punch to this motif, the newly minted cast while clearly feeling their way into such iconic roles, is rooted firmly into this hybrid mixture of Bat eras, and they are often terrific. Bruce Greenwood now dons the cape and cowl with a more internalized confidence that also nicely implies an aging, pain riddled Wayne. Neil Patrick Harris is a truly fun & grounded Dick Grayson, who offers some of the film's much needed levity to the often grim proceedings. Supernatural's Jensen Ackles' Red Hood is both assured, and appropriately tortured in a surprisingly effective performance where it counts. But the biggest transition award goes to John Dimaggio who's more east coast gangster approach to The Joker is startlingly different than his legendary predecessor. While this may sound like faint praise, there is a hugely menacing presence in this film that is integral to the film's finale, and Dimaggio delivers exactly what this version requires. This is a nasty, horrific take on the character that perhaps requires a little adjusting to but is strong in its own right.

Notable support comes from the voices of Jason Isaacs in the role of guilt-ridden crusader, Ra's al Ghul, as well as a fun turn by Kelly Hu as Black Mask's assistant.

It's been a wild ride for Warner Bros. Animation since Bruce Timm's original Batman:The Animated Series took to the airwaves, and Vietti's direction, featuring a script by Judd Winick attempts to merge multiple variations of the Batman universe into a cohesive whole, which naturally abandons sheer grit, and offers a more lyrical aproach to how dramatically their world has changed over the lifespan of the Dark Knight's endless crusade. From the garish innocence of robbing the local museum of modern art, to the scummy junk joints on the outskirts of town, the film features a look at the junction where the childlike wonder of the hero life soon becomes tainted by the desperation of those resilient to law & order. It's this element that takes on truly dark dimensions near the end of the piece where Batman must confront the very inconsistency that has haunted him from nearly the very beginning. Definitely an end result of the immense success of Christopher Nolan's live action films, Under The Red Hood continues to question the very nature of the self-made superhero, as well as the blurring balance between heroism & vigilanteism with relatively effective results.

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