A (currently pictureless) review of Batman: Under the Red Hood.
Sorry for the lack of stills, but I've been very busy and occupied.
When Warner Brothers Animation and DC Comics began producing direct-to-video movies, it was obvious why. For example, if they wanted to do a Wonder Woman TV series, they had to sell a network, sponsors and the general public on it. By doing it direct to animation, they saved a lot of angst...except for the angst inside the competing divisions of AOL Time Warner. (They're still AOL and they always will be.)
To get to the fans who loved these animated characters, DC went direct-to-video. They also occasionally run these movies on Cartoon Network, just once, to get people interested.
The results have been...mixed, as you can see from these reviews from this site (click to read):
Batman/Superman: Public Enemies
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
Batman: Gotham Knight was interesting, but mostly to dedicated Bat-fans. Wonder Woman and Superman: Doomsday blended a lot of the existing mythology of those characters to try to make them palatable to the general public. Green Lantern didn't make the character popular.
This current production is another synthesis of existing DC Comics mythology. In the history of the Batman character in direct-to-video productions, it's one of the best. That may seem like damning with faint praise, but it set the bar higher for the character than anything previously done for home video. If you were to compare it with the recent TV show The Batman or the current Batman: The Brave and the Bold, it would surpass both.
The controversy behind the story
It starts with one of the most traumatic incidents in Batman's past, the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. The Joker captured Jason, beat him nearly to death with a crowbar, then blew him up. Batman arrived too late to save him.
The story behind that death, in comic book history, is even darker. Jason was considered an egotistical little jerk, wearing the short pants of the original Robin, and disdainful of his boss. He decided to go after The Joker alone, resulting in his capture, torture and death. (The person who first came up with the idea, Frank Miller, intended to have Jason raped by The Joker, in his graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. DC wouldn't allow that.)
At the end of that issue of the comic, on the last page, DC asked the readers to vote whether Jason Todd lived or died. It was a way to make money off the 1-900 numbers that had just started. Many people were upset that readers were asked to vote for the death of a child, and that DC would make money off the votes. Even worse, some people inside DC have admitted that the vote to kill Jason was very, very close, possibly slightly for his survival.
Although DC has been silent about the situation, there was guilt involved. Guilt, and one of those peculiarities of comic book copyright: you have to publish the character every three years or you lose copyright. But undoubtedly some of DC's writers and editors felt bad about this situation. And that was the reason behind the Red Hood situation.
The original Red Hood was the man who became The Joker. At least, in one current bit of comic book mythology; they always screw around with history. A new Red Hood shows up and starts acting as a vigilante, one who is quite willing to kill criminals, and seems to be going for The Joker.
Okay, what about this particular video, you gabbing nerd?
I was getting to that. The death of Jason Todd is monitored, but not prevented, by Batman's near-immortal enemy Ras Al Ghul. Perhaps out of his own guilt, Ras obtains Jason Todd's corpse and throws it into his resurrection pool, the Lazarus Pit. Jason Todd returns to life, but insane and vengeful.
Red Hood is primarily assaulting another recent Batman villain, Black Mask. (Who himself is interesting; his black skull mask was carved from the onyx lid of his mother, whom he killed.) It's all a plan to convince Black Mask to spring The Joker from his asylum, to make him killable.
The crowning glory of this story is Batman's emotional agony over this situation. At one point he calls Jason's death "my greatest and most tragic failure." As voiced by Bruce Greenwood, Batman adds emotional vulnerability to the character's traditional toughness. When his first Robin shows up, Nightwing/Dick Greyson (voice by Neil Patrick Harris), they are so chummy and complementary to each other that it brightens the generally grim proceedings.
The Killing Joke, The Killer Joker
But the surprise is the voice provided for Joker by John DiMaggio. Think of all the people who've played the part in the past: Burgess Meredith, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in live action, Mark Hamill in animation. Then discard them.
DiMaggio's Joker is more serious than Ledger's Joker. He takes no joy in his "jokes," which are particularly brutal. He laughs only to seem more terrifying. He is intelligent, driven and aware. This is the first Joker I've seen for which I could never, ever feel a moment of sympathy.
Joker kills in this story. Red Hood kills. The violence is sometimes pretty disguised or out of direct sight, but sometimes it is very visible. A man burning to death, by the Molotov cocktail he was about to throw on another man, is pretty grim. This is most certainly not a story for children to watch.
On the double DVD set, the extras are pretty odd. There is a bonus animated short involving DC's scarred, murderous Western bounty hunter, Jonah Hex. It involves a murderous whore and Hex's particularly Tales from the Crypt vengeance against her. I suspect this was intended to be a "big thing" if the live-action Jonah Hex movie had attracted an audience.
There's also a number of comic book creators talking about Dick Greyson and his transition from Robin to the independent hero Nightwing. Much as I might like comic book creators talking with semi-animated stills, this was pretty boring. Perhaps because the real story behind the movie - the death of Jason Todd outlined above - was being avoided by everyone concerned.
And there's also two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, the two-parter which told (in remarkably honest detail) the murder of Dick Greyson's acrobat parents, and how he was almost tempted to vengeance against their murderer - but restrained himself. It is a wonderful story, and deserves to be remembered - but as something already released in several formats, it didn't cost DC a lot.
Finally, they announced their next project, with practically nothing from animation but a few animatics and a lot of comic book stills; Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. It does involve Darkseid and Apokalyps, of course, but its central story is the introduction of Supergirl. Apparently based on recent DC comics stories, it has Kara Zor-El arriving on Earth, suspected by Batman, taken under Wonder Woman's wing to be tutored as a warrior woman and released as a new heroine. After the darkness of Under the Red Hood, a bit of cheery teenage superheroine action will be a relief.