The latest DC animated movie is a dark, gritty story about crime lords, psychopaths, sociopaths, and warped understandings of justice and family. It encapsulates everything wrong about comics in the last 25 years - and how to do them right.
The trick to enjoying and appreciating Batman: Under the Red Hood is separating it from its comics baggage, which admittedly isn't easy. One of its two primary source materials is "Death in the Family", the infamous 1988-89 story arc in which readers could dial a 900 number to vote on whether the Joker should kill new Robin Jason Todd. Jason had suffered badly in the DC universe reboot that occurred after Crisis on Infinite Earths, turning a likable Dick Grayson clone (this version is in Alan Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything", if you want to see him in action) into an irritating punk that a slim majority of DC readers were happy to see brutally murdered.
So that's one of the two sources. The other is Judd Winick's 2005-06's "Under the Hood", which brought Jason back from the dead as an anti-heroic vigilante who's willing to use lethal force to stop criminals. The story garnered mixed reactions, and it hasn't helped that nobody's really figured out what to do with Jason Todd since then, turning him into an increasingly shrill thug that's less a dark counterpart to Batman and more just a whiny psychopath. (For a good example of Jason Todd at his worst, see Battle for the Cowl.)
The question with Batman: Under the Red Hood, then, is whether "A Death in the Family" and the resurrection of Jason Todd were fundamentally bad ideas, or just mishandled stories. After watching the movie, I'm pretty sure that it's the latter, as Under the Red Hood (which was also penned by Winick) crafts a complex, compelling narrative that shows in non-linear fashion the beginning and end of Jason Todd's tenure as Robin, his resurrection, and what he eventually becomes. As long as you can forget that this story originally had its genesis in a tasteless call-in vote, that this was a big part of what turned Batman into a joyless, semi-psychotic caricature of himself in the 90s and 00s, that Jason Todd is maybe the most pointless character in the DC universe these days...well, if you can forget all that and enjoy Under the Red Hood on its own merits, then you're in for a real treat.
After all, the basic building blocks of this story are sound. Robin is killed by the Joker, and both Batman and Ra's al Ghul blame themselves for putting Jason in that position. Their reactions to their grief is what unwittingly sets the rest of the story in motion. Batman withdraws from his other partners, shutting out Alfred and Dick Grayson (now Nightwing) in favor a single-minded quest for justice, leaving him emotionally vulnerable. Ra's al Ghul does something rather more concrete to make up for siccing the Joker on Jason - he throws his body in a Lazarus Pit, which restores him to life but leaves him insane.
The bulk of the story is taken up with the efforts of Jason Todd, now operating as the mysterious Red Hood, to take down Gotham's number one crime lord, the Black Mask. Or at least, that's what the story seems to be about, as Jason has ulterior motives within ulterior motives, and eventually it becomes clear that this is all one very circuitous plan to reunite with the man who started it all those years ago. This twist seems a little far-fetched, but it's not too bad by comics standards, and at least it sets up a straightforward, tense final confrontation that can be more about ideas and points of view than explosions and pyrotechnics.
Indeed, that's part of what makes Under the Red Hood work - Batman is always Batman, no matter how far Jason or the Joker push him towards the edge. And Batman's morality isn't just limited to the big speech at the end; throughout the story there's a clear differentiation between not just Batman and Red Hood's crimefighting methods, but also their underlying motivations. There have definitely been moments in the comics over the last twenty years where Batman seemed to go over the edge once and for all - here, he's in firm control of himself, which makes the final confrontation between Batman's devotion to justice, Jason Todd's warped absolutism, and the Joker's chaotic worldview so effective.
It definitely helps that the voices are all so strong. This is the first extended look at Batman's corner of the DC universe since the original, legendary Batman: The Animated Series (I'm not counting Batman: Gotham Knight, which existed in its own strange movie-influenced continuity), and so at first it's a bit weird to see Batman and the Joker do battle without hearing Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. That said, as much as Conroy is the definitive Batman, Bruce Greenwood is maybe the best alternative take I've yet heard, which may have something to do with the fact that he sounds an awful lot like Kevin Conroy. Still, he brings a fatherly pain to his performance that really makes the role his own. Here's hoping this isn't the last time we get to hear Greenwood play the Dark Knight.
John DiMaggio, on the other hand, offers a take on the Joker that is very, very different from the iconic Mark Hamill version. I was a little concerned that the voice of Bender playing the Joker would prove distracting, but his bass-heavy interpretation suited this more brutally murderous incarnation of the Joker. Jensen Ackles and Jason Isaacs were both solid as Jason Todd and Ra's al Ghul, but the standout here was, unsurprisingly, Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing. It probably helped that he got every joke in the movie, but he turned a bunch of semi-humorous lines into laugh-out-loud moments. A full-on Greenwood/Harris team-up movie is something I would definitely love to see.
At this point, the animation on these movies is dependably solid. I wasn't crazy about the use of obvious CG elements next to the hand-drawn material, but they've come a long way since the blocky jets of Justice League Unlimited and now know, if not how to seamlessly integrate the CG, at least how to make it dynamic and exciting in its own right. In particular, a chase through the streets of Gotham with the Batwing pursuing the Red Hood's car is one of the most exciting sequences I've seen in any superhero movie, live-action or animated, and it's the sort of thing I'd love to see pop up in Batman 3.
In the end, Batman: Under the Red Hood is another strong entry in the DC animated movie canon, sitting proudly with other standouts like Wonder Woman and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. But it pulls off a far more difficult task than merely living up to the expectations of a Bruce Timm production: it actually makes the last 25 years of Batman comics seem like a good idea. And that, friends, is nothing short of miraculous.