One of the most shocking events in DC Comics’ history was the death of Jason Todd, best known as the second Robin. As I understand it, the character was not popular, and DC eventually polled its readers to see if he should live or die… and he ended up savagely beaten with a crowbar and blown up, so you can imagine how the poll went.
But nobody really stays dead in comics – not major characters, anyway – and one of Batman’s greatest losses comes back to haunt him in “Batman: Under the Red Hood.” This is DC’s animation at its best – a tightly-written, dynamic mystery that unfolds like a bloody black rose, with Batman’s failures and losses at its heart, slowly building up to a conflict between him and the mysterious Red Hood.
Five years after the death of Jason Todd, a masked vigilante known as the Red Hood (Jensen Ackles) appears in Gotham and quickly takes over most of the city’s drug trade. After a disastrous incident involving a superpowered robot, Batman (Bruce Greenwood) and Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris) encounter the Red Hood – and Batman quickly realizes that this is someone he knows, but he isn’t sure who. And after a second clash, he finds that Red Hood knows his true name.
Red Hood’s new dominance has also brought him into conflict with Black Mask (Wade Williams), a violent crime lord who is driven to extreme measures to take out his new enemy. Of course, his attempts only end up escalating the war, especially when the Joker gets involved. And at the same time, Batman delves into the mystery of who the Red Hood is and what brought him back to Gotham – and finds himself in a final standoff of revenge, hatred and loss.
It’s pretty obvious from the beginning of “Batman: Under the Red Hood” who the mysterious Red Hood is – the big mystery is how he’s returned to life, and what his ultimate plan is. And while Batman peels away the layers of the mystery, the story focuses on the magnitude of the Red Hood’s rise to power – he’s a new power player who uses Batman-like stealth, physical prowess and cunning to bloodily carve his way into the heart of Gotham’s underworld.
The story is a slow burn, but it’s kept from ever getting boring with sporadic bursts of action – falling helicopters, exploding chemical factories, people being set on fire, a troupe of murderous cyborgs, and so on. However, the violence and action never eclipse the emotional side of the story, which is present from the very first scene in which we see Batman desperately trying to get to an endangered Jason Todd, all the way to his climactic fistfight on top of a church.
This is, at its heart, a story about Batman’s losses, his failures, and his pain, and it’s hard not to feel for the Dark Knight as he’s confronted by something even more painful than Jason’s loss: the possibility that his beloved foster son has become his enemy. Red Hood is a more enigmatic character – sometimes he’s deadly serious, sometimes he’s laid-back and quippy. It’s only at the story’s climax that we see what has really driven him all this time, and where his anger has brought him.
Greenwood does a very solid job as Batman – stoic, a little stiff, but with some passionate emotion running under the surface. Ackles does an excellent job with Red Hood both in serious and in quippy mode, able to switch between the two at the drop of a hat. Harris makes a solid Nightwing, who is quirky and chatty and sort of floats out of the plot eventually. And while viewers may be used to Jokers with higher-pitched voices, John DiMaggio’s gritty, sinister-sounding Joker is a pretty chilling one.
DC Comics has made many good animated movies, but “Batman: Under the Red Hood” is probably one of their best – a sublimely dark, tragic thriller that is riveting right to its end. Just try looking away.