Batman: Under the Red Hood tackles a problem not often addressed in animated adaptations of comics. What happens when your formerly obedient bottom turns into a bossy bottom? It’s an issue, and no one knows it better than Batman. I’m joking, of course (well, mostly), but what DC’s latest animated feature is about, surprisingly, is love. Though drugs and weapons are traded freely on the streets of Gotham, I would argue that love, in all its twisted forms, is bartered, borrowed or lost just as often.
Bruce Wayne has a thing for lost boys. He wants to rescue them, protect them, turn them into soldiers in his fight against his own inner demons. With his wealth and resources, he could give them anything…well, anything except love. It’s very telling that he keeps training them to be sidekicks, instead of locking them away in boarding schools or seeing that they get an education or some hope for a future…or therapy. Enlisting them in his battle, he seems to be sealing their fates. Perhaps he wants them to die. Maybe Batman is more in love with his grief, the source of his power, than anything (or anyone) else.
Which brings us to Jason Todd, Batman’s “greatest failure.” I put that in quotes, because it’s repeated several times throughout the film. Batman trains him, attempts to control his anger and transform him into the Dick that got away. And we all know how that turns out. Or, if you don’t, I’ll tell you: he dies. Beaten to death by the Joker, then blown up. Sorry, it’s not really a spoiler. I mean, the whole world was invited to vote on Jason Todd’s death. The fact that he didn’t remain dead suggests DC’s desire to correct their own greatest failure: allowing people to vote on life or death decisions.
Under the Red Hood, which is a dopey title considering the complexities of the film, is written by comics superstar Judd Winick, based on his Under the Hood series from 2005. In the script, Winick compares and contrasts Jason and Dick. The Bat Boys. You would think that Dick would be referred to as Batman’s “greatest success,” but no. Instead, Winick’s script takes care to demean Dick Grayson and portray him as ever-subservient to Batman. When he first appears, a particularly talkative goon asks, “Who’s the pretty boy in the leotard?” Later, the Joker looks him over, calls him “bird boy” and says, “All grown up and in your big boy pants.” On the other hand, Jason is presented as a leader, a lethal version of the Dark Knight, a “warlord.” So, who’s the true success? The good boy by Batman’s side, or the one who manages to escape?
We’re also treated to two fight scenes, one where Batman is paired with Nightwing, and one where he fights alongside Red Hood. Batman is dismissive of Nightwing, yet Dick sticks around, accepting the abuse, and the two work together in a well-choreographed and well-animated sequence. There’s even a moment where Nightwing throws his arms around Batman’s neck and the two glide to the ground, entwined. Batman blows off the head of the evil robot, and in the aftermath, continues to dismiss Dick before finally offering a mumbled “thank you,” which shocks both Dick and Alfred. It’s a crumb thrown to a starving boy who wants and needs so much more from his mentor and idol. But Bruce knows that withholding his love keeps Dick coming back for more.
In contrast, it’s Batman who drops in on Red Hood for the next fight scene. While Batman dismisses Dick’s offer to help earlier, he immediately instructs Red Hood: “Fight!” They don’t work as well together, their moves clumsier, with less teamwork and synchronization in their movements. Plus, it’s Jason’s turn to blow the head off of something, only this time it’s a person. Batman reaches out to Red Hood, offering help, wanting to know what happened to him. Again, while Bats is dismissive of Nightwing, he’s all over the bad boy, another lost boy for him to recruit and “rescue.”
Jason isn’t lost, though. He’s damaged, and he knows the score. Batman lives by his own rules. Just as there are limits to his use of force, there are limits to his ability to give and receive love. While Dick seems content to carry on in a co-dependent and, some would argue, abusive relationship, Jason makes a stand and puts Batman’s love to the ultimate test.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. Really, it’s too much for a 75-minute movie. I could have easily watched two full hours of this, and the film clearly misses an opportunity to pit Nightwing against Red Hood. For the most part, the script is tight and serves each character well. There are moments, though, where Winick should have made more of an effort to transform his comic book dialogue into movie dialogue. It’s almost impossible to interrupt a sentence with “God, almighty!” and have it sound believable. In a word bubble on the page, it’s fine, but spoken, it’s a problem.
The cast is an interesting lot. Bruce Greenwood is an effective Batman, all reserve and whisper. Neil Patrick Harris plays Nightwing a bit too goofy for my tastes, but does a credible job of infusing the right amount of need and longing, without sounding needy and desperate. I think I would have preferred having him and Jensen Ackles (Jason Todd) switch roles, actually. NPH would have brought much more depth to Jason, the more complicated of the two roles here. As I’ve mentioned before, Jason Isaacs was born to play Ra’s al Ghul, and he doesn’t disappoint. Here’s hoping he makes a career of it. Sadly, as much as I adore John Di Maggio, he is miscast as the Joker. His voice is just too rich, too warm for the character. The Joker’s voice should be theatrical, seductive, but cold, always on the edge between calculating and hysterical. Di Maggio is brilliant at bravado, and while he brings an interesting growl to the performance, I wanted him to be chilling, not cheerful.
Is this the best of the DC animated films? It’s up there. I still think Wonder Woman hit more marks with greater success, but this is a close second. I wonder how enjoyable it would be to someone completely unfamiliar with the characters and back story, though. It’s entirely possible I’m bringing much more knowledge to the piece and filling in more holes than your average viewer.
Batman: Under the Red Hood does a remarkable job of depicting a man who uses grief and longing to shape his destiny and how he uses and withholds love and affection to shape the destinies of others. On the FBOTU Scale of Fabulousness, I give Under the Red Hood 4 out of 5 lovelorn emoticons: