DC has certainly had their issues with live action movies over the last several years, but their animated features continue to be great. Kind of the reverse of Marvel in my opinion. The DC Animated Universe is one of the finest bodies of work out there, and the individual ones they’ve done since have been pretty damn good. There are various spoilers below. Thou art warned, reader.
Most recently, I got a chance to see the animated adaptation of Under the Red Hood, the story that brought Jason Todd back from the dead. They changed a lot from the original story, but most of that was in the interests of making the story more self-contained. Comics tend to be strongly connected to others in their universe, and the Death of Jason Todd came after a few other stories. They cut the bits that included Jason searching for his mother, Superman’s involvement, Clayface, and inserted Ra’s, not part of the original story, to serve as an explanation of things that we found out a lot later.
The movie opens with Ra’s musing on mistakes he’s made, and then goes to a somewhat cleaner version of Jason Todd’s death at the hands of the Joker. It’s still ugly, so it might be disturbing to the squeamish and/or younger viewers. Then we skip ahead five years, back to Gotham.
Leaders of several of Gotham’s big gangs all show up for a meeting, but no one knows who called it. Just as they get impatient enough to start fighting or leaving, a new player shows up. It’s a new version of the Red Hood, who says he’s taking over. After a lot of threats and a disturbing display of particular trophies, Red Hood tells them they’ll be working for him instead of Black Mask from now on. Just what Gotham needs, a villain-backed gang war.
Out on the streets, Batman is having an interesting day. His pursuit of gangsters turns into something a lot more interesting. The cargo they are smuggling turns out to be an Amazo robot. Those are capable of absorbing powers, and usually fight the Justice League. In this case, it’s just Batman and what seems like a somewhat less experienced version of Nightwing, voiced amusingly by the always impressive Neil Patrick Harris. Team Batman wins, but the gangsters get taken out by a sniper before Batman can properly interrogate them.
Batman pursues the sniper, leaving Nightwing to deal with the captured criminals. The chase goes all over the place before coming back to the infamous Ace Chemical plant. Ace is where the Joker became the madman he is today after an accidental chemical bath courtesy of the Batman himself. After taunting Batman, Red Hood escapes.
There’s a brief strategy session at the Cave, giving Alfred and Nightwing a chance to trade quips, and then it’s off to Arkham for a visit with Joker. Joker is his usual insane self, but seems to be telling the truth as far as not knowing what’s going on this time around. He actually makes a decent point from his crazed point of view.
During the Bats’ visit to crazy town, Black Mask is raging through his own meeting. In addition to showing him for the cruel boss he is, the scene introduces my favorite minor character in this story: Miss Li. Miss Li is Black Mask’s assistant, and her power seems to be utter inflapability. Chaos erupts around her and she barely looks up from her clipboard. Her minimal lines are voiced by Kelly Hu. Black Mask calls for all out war against the Red Hood.
Black Mask tries to set up a new delivery to help make up for the Amazo fiasco. Unfortunately for him, both Batman and Red Hood had bugs there and heard the plan. There’s another Batman/Red Hood/Nightwing fight. At the end of it Nightwing is injured badly enough to take him out of the rest of the story, and Red Hood taunts Batman more.
The taunts are enough for the World’s Greatest Detective to figure out what’s going on. As Sherlock Holmes said, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Somehow or other, the Red Hood is Jason Todd, the second Robin, returned from the dead. We see a bit of Batman’s chain of logic being filled in by some flashbacks of high (and low) points in Jason’s career.
After the gang war escalates, Black Mask hires some thugs with some really high tech gadgets to kill Red Hood. The upshot of all this is Batman and Red Hood working together long enough to defeat them, before turning on each other when the Hood wants to kill the defeated foes. Red Hood rages that crime can’t be stopped, only controlled, and that’s what he’s doing. Once again, the Hood manages to escape, but then again, he was trained by the best.
During the fight, Batman got enough evidence to compare DNA, and proves that Red Hood is, indeed, Jason Todd. Alfred is completely shocked. As this revelation goes on, Black Mask and Miss Li plot strategy. Their meeting gets interrupted when Red Hood attacks yet again, this time with an RPG. To quote Joker in the Michael Keaton Batman movie, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
Batman digs up Jason’s grave, and finds a dummy in the casket. Someone has violated the private cemetery, which is even more bad news, since it’s on the Wayne Manor grounds. Someone knows far too much about Bruce Wayne’s secrets.
Black Mask, showing the poor judgement that leads one to be a supervillian that kills his own men, decides the best course of action is to bust the Joker out of Arkham. Let’s throw dynamite on the fire and see what happens. The Joker is just as rational as you’d expect, but decides to work with Mask for now.
Filled with rage and desperate for answers, Batman goes way out of town, to the headquarters of Ra’s Al-Ghul. For once, the two don’t fight a lot. Ra’s provides a lot of backstory about Jason’s return from the dead. For what it’s worth, Ra’s was trying to do something to make up for one of his perceived failures, which was another substantial alteration from the original Death of Jason Todd. Batman leaves with a lot of answers that satisfied his curiosity but I can’t see how they’re going to help defeat Red Hood.
Batman returns to Gotham just as Joker has taken multiple hostages, including some of Red Hood’s men, Black Mask, and Miss Li. I had a theory about Miss Li in this movie, but I ended up being wrong. Would’ve been really cool if she ended up being Talia undercover, though.
Batman defuses the hostage situation, more or less, by grabbing Joker. Red Hood is furious and pursues, drawing most of the attention away from the bridge where the hostages are, so Commissioner Gordon cam move in and clean up. Red Hood manages to get away with the Joker, and contacts Batman and challenges him to meet them at Crime Alley, where the Waynes were killed so long ago.
While there’s a lot of action in the showdown, it’s kind of heartbreaking, too. Jason Todd rages about his motives, and they aren’t as simple as they first appear to be. Jason’s rage and disappointment make a poignant counterpoint to the brutal fight. It’s an ugly scene and it’s one of the most believable motivations for a fallen hero becoming a bad guy I’ve run across. It ends with a flashback that’s really, really sad in retrospect.
What I liked: Batman’s characterization is great. His scene with Ra’s is really nicely done. Miss Li was a minor part but really entertaining when she was there. Neil Patrick Harris did great in his limited role. Jason’s motivations, as revealed by the end, made a lot of sense.
What I didn’t: Yes, I’m biased, but Nightwing’s part was too small and he wasn’t as good as he should have been. I get that they needed to trim a few things to make it a standalone story, but they removed a lot of the heroism from Jason’s death. Gordon didn’t get much more than a few line cameo.
It was a decent adaptation of a somewhat more complicated story. I’ll give it a 3.5 out of 5.