Batman: Under the Red Hood

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Director: Brandon Vietti
Writer: Judd Winick
Producers: Bruce Timm, Bobbie Page, Alan Burnett (co-producer)
Voiced by: Bruce Greenwood (Batman), Jensen Ackles (Red Hood), John DiMaggio (The Joker), Neil Patrick Harris (Nightwing), Jason Isaacs (Ra's al Ghul), Wade Williams (Black Mask)

The annals of DC Comics' publishing history boast a virtually limitless array of titles that, if adapted to film or animation, would bring fanboys and girls to their knees in excitement. You've got The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come and The Killing Joke, just to name a few. Yet for some reason, when it comes to the recent line of DC Universe animated movies, Warner Home Video can't seem to look past the mediocre mid-2000s work of guys like Jeph Loeb and Judd Winick.

It is a pleasant surprise, then, that Batman: Under the Red Hood, both originally written and adapted for the screen by the notorious Mr. Winick, is the first of these movies to significantly improve upon its comics counterpart. Thanks to some streamlined storytelling, the movie is able to tell the story of one-time Robin Jason Todd's death and resurrection in a manner more natural than the source material was ever able to achieve. Gone is the distraction of a convoluted explanation for Jason's return, freeing up Winick to explore the emotional ramifications of Batman's reunion with his fallen sidekick.

Those emotions are largely drawn out through the use of flashbacks to Jason's early years as Robin cross-cut with his present day actions as the murderous Red Hood. The juxtaposition of the eagerness of the former and the jadedness of the latter allows the audience to experience the genuine tragedy of the character. It all culminates in Jason's confession of the reason for his moral transformation, a stirring revelation that stands to cut the viewer to the core as much as it does Batman himself.

Production values for the film appear to be quite high. The animation is fluid and the fight sequences are extremely well designed. Several times during my viewing I blurted out an exclamation over how cool something that Batman or one of the other characters did looked, just as I might do for a signature stunt in a summer action blockbuster. Of course, such things are to be expected when producer Bruce Timm, veteran mastermind of Batman: The Animated Series, is involved.

Backing up those visuals is an excellent voice cast, as has been the case for many of these direct-to-video efforts. While Bruce Greenwood may not serve up anything revolutionary as Batman, he sticks close enough to the established formula to almost make you forget that it isn't Kevin Conroy behind the mic. The real highlight, though, is Neil Patrick Harris's Nightwing, who, alongside Wade Williams as Black Mask, lends a perfect delivery to the film's comic relief. The only disappointment among the acting is John DiMaggio, the voice of Futurama's Bender, who gives a surprisingly flat performance as the Joker.

Still, there are some weaknesses in Winick's script, namely the constant reliance on overly expository dialogue. I had to laugh as Ra's al Ghul explained the details of his Lazarus Pits to Batman for the sake of the audience, as if the great detective didn't already know about them. Credibility is stretched even further when it comes to the in-movie explanation of who Nightwing is. Somehow, every criminal in Gotham seems to know all about his history as the first Robin, and they never fail to mention it when he shows up.

Judd Winick could probably write comics for the rest of his life and never fully escape the stigma of the questionable antics he employed to revive Jason Todd the first time, but the quality of this movie certainly helps him move in the right direction. Among the eight DC Animated DTV features produced for Warner to date, Under the Red Hood is easily one of the best. It's a must-watch for anyone who wants to see the Dark Knight done right.

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