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Like many of us, I grew up watching and loving Saturday morning cartoons. You know, when Saturday morning was a big event and they had real cartoons on all morning long. Heck, the major networks would even have special “preview shows”on a Friday night that showed us kids what we could expect to find the next morning. This was a wonderful time, and it brought us some of the most memorable cartoon shows ever. For some reason, I never quite grew out of my love for good cartoons, especially the animated series based on Marvel and DC comics.
Recently, both studios have brought us some quality animated films on our favorite heroes. In many cases, these animated films are much better than the live action blockbusters that Hollywood rolls out each and every summer. The reason for this is quite simple: these films are made by people in the comic industry for the fans that love them the most. The question producers ask is more often “how will the fans react to my choices,” vs. “will this attract a larger audience?” What we get is a great example of translating the narrative of a comic series into something that works onscreen. So with your permission, I would like to suggest a few of these wonderful pieces of work; beginning with the latest from DC and Warner Brothers Animation, Batman: Under the Red Hood.
The film is based on storylines from the Batman series A Death in the Family and Under the Red Hood. Hopefully, most of us are familiar with at least one of the aspects of this legendary Batman canon. In the Batman universe, there were two young boys who joined the caped crusader in his exploits against crime. The first was of course Dick Grayson, a trapeze artist who’s family was murdered by a mob boss. Of course Dick would eventually grow up and branch out on his own as Nightwing.
The second person to don the Robin costume was Jason Todd. For the time, Jason’s story was far more complex than Dick Grayson’s. Batman discovered Jason one night as he was stealing the hubcaps off the Batmobile. Instead of kicking his ass, Batman felt sorry for Jason and took him under his wing to become the next Robin. Jason was much more impulsive and brash than Dick was and as such readers didn’t like him very much. So in the 1980s, writer Jim Sterlin gave his readers the ultimate choice; decide the fate of the new boy wonder. Readers could call a 1-900 number and vote whether Robin was going to live or die at the end of the Death in the Family storyline. The voting only lasted one day, and despite being very close, readers chose death for young Jason. The interesting thing about this storyline is that most casual fans didn’t truly understand what really went down, and they blamed Sterlin for killing off Dick Grayson and not the new Jason Todd.
This, my friends, is where Batman: Under the Red Hood begins, with a short retelling of the final scenes from A Death in the Family. The movie continues five years later as mob bosses gather in a warehouse, unaware of why they have been brought there. Enter the Red Hood, a vigilante who claims he can protect them all from Batman and the major crime boss of Gotham City, the Black Mask. All they need to do is contribute 40% of their earnings to him and not sell drugs to kids. Reluctantly, they agree to this proposal, pissing off The Black Mask and intriguing one Bruce Wayne. With the aid of his former protégé Nightwing, Batman begins to put together the pieces of who this vigilante really is and what his ultimate plan may be. The truth about what he discovers will not only revive many ghosts from his past, but challenge the very foundations on which Batman stands for.
Whether you are familiar with the story of the Red Hood or not, you are in for a real treat with this feature. The movie brings together many facets of the Batman universe that even the casual fan will most certainly recognize. You get familiar characters such as Nightwing, Ra’s al Ghul, and even the Joker woven into an intricate and enjoyable narrative. For me, the best part of this story is we get to see Batman do what he is best at: be a detective. Many parts of the film reminded me of the time I had in Arkham Asylum as I searched for clues using cool tools and my wits. It’s the detective part of the Dark Knight that I appreciate the most, and one I see the least of in visual mediums.
The voice acting was quite good despite the lack of the regular Batman standbys of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. I will admit that I’ve come to always associate those two voices with Batman and The Joker. But Bruce Greenwood portrays Batman quite well, and John DiMaggio (aka Marcus Fenix from Gears of War) plays the Joker in harsh, foreboding way that I don’t know if Hamill could have pulled off as well. Hamill’s Joker has always been crazy and fun with just a touch of insanity. The Joker in this story is much darker than this and we see just how terrifying his disease truly is. We even get a cameo voiceover from Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing. Harris brings just the right amount of youth and humor to a figure that we don’t get to see much of, and I was quite happy with that.
I am sure that most of us are familiar with what happened in A Death in the Family, but many may not know of the lasting effect it had on not only our hero Batman, but on the universe itself. Warner Bothers Animation takes the essential parts of these storylines and places it into wonderful 90 minute movie experience. Be prepared that if you are not a long time Batman reader, you view of Bruce Wayne me be altered just a bit. But it is the growth of Batman as a character that has allowed him to flourish all these years and has made him one of the most successful of all comic heroes. Batman: Under the Red Hood is definitely worth a rental, and hardcore fans will want to pick up the Blu Ray for some great special features. Heck there is even a great Jonah Hex short that made me wish they had done this for the movie instead of the half-baked version that we saw in July. So watch and enjoy and we’ll explore another gem next week.