Death and resurrection in super hero stories can be egregious, cliché, eye roll-inducing, and even alienating to fans. But if done right, it can result in some of the genre’s most powerful stories.
One of the most controversial deaths in the history of Batman comics was the murder of Jason Todd, the second person to hold the mantle of Robin, by The Joker. While the young Robin was killed after being beaten by a crowbar and caught in an explosion, it was actually fans who offed the character, as they were given a choice by DC Comics to call in and vote for whether Todd would live or die in the 1988 storyline known as “A Death in the Family.” So when the death votes won, the character was killed. Due to the grim and life-changing effects the death had on Batman, it was thought that Todd had become one of the few comic characters who would stay dead.
But it wasn’t to be! In 2005’s “Under the Red Hood” story arc, the character returned as a villain seeking vengeance against Batman. While the comics were controversial, they threw an interesting development into the saga of Batman, who sought to unravel the mystery of his new enemy while being confronted with one of his greatest failures. Although controversy and some storytelling setbacks kept the comic storyline from being truly spectacular, the 2010 Warner Bros. Animation film Batman: Under the Red Hood is a pitch perfect retelling of the story that not only tops the original comic version, but stands toe-to-toe with any Batman film – live action or animated.
Directed by Brandon Vietti, starring Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Jensen Ackles as Jason Todd, John DiMaggio as The Joker, Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing, and written by Judd Winick, Under the Red Hood is thrilling, emotional, and a must-see for any Batman fan.
Opening with the death of the teenage Robin, it’s clear from the very start that Under the Red Hood will be a film that pulls no punches. And this is clearly a very dark story, with murder, violence, and emotional turmoil on the table from very early on. But it’s not a bleak and dreary affair either, as an early battle that sees Batman and Nightwing fighting the powerful robot known as Amazo delivers some spectacular and bright superhero action. Most importantly, Under the Red Hood knows how to keep the stakes high while switching between drama and dark comedy.
While Under the Red Hood does heavily involve the mystery of the identity of the new vigilante known as The Red Hood, it doesn’t base its narrative strength on a question that was answered many years prior in comic books. Rather, it’s the idea of Batman being confronted with Jason’s death yet again and being forced by his former Robin to own up to his mistakes that is the real strength of the story. By being set in a slightly heightened reality, the story is able to provide really stellar action sequences while still having it be grounded enough to feel relatable and dramatic. In particular, Batman’s mid-air helicopter rescue and any of his hand-to-hand fights against The Red Hood are some of the best Batman movie fight sequences to date on both film and television. When paired with strong interpretations of beloved characters, Under the Red Hood often thrills in ways that even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy could not.
At the forefront is Greenwood’s Batman, who is practically perfect at his job, but is still human. In fact, Batman barely takes a scratch throughout his many battles in the feature length film. Instead, it’s the emotional journey he goes on that is the true challenge, showing that a compelling Batman story doesn’t have to boil down to the hero being beaten down, but rather being forced to fight a mental and emotional battle. Greenwood’s gruff and forceful take on The Dark Knight gives him a sense of age and gravitas without making him feel old or downtrodden. This is a Batman who is totally committed to his war on crime and cannot be stopped.
On the other side of this battle is The Red Hood, whose definitive identity remains murky for half the film prior to the major reveal. While we see both a childhood and teenage Jason Todd, the character’s major arc is in his present day adult incarnation, voiced by Ackles. Todd is an emotionally scarred and disturbed man who walks the line between villain and antihero. His violent methods of disposing of criminals and pursuit of profit fit well enough with an antihero’s path, but his quest for vengeance against Batman keep him as a complex villain. Truly, it’s Batman’s refusal to kill The Joker after the madman has killed so many that pits Todd against Batman. If DC ever wanted to bring this story to life as a live action film, Ackles would be perfect, as his voice acting and on-camera performance in Supernaturalwould make him a fantastic fit. Of course, he should have been Hawkeye in the MCU already, but that’s off topic.
Throwing further complexities into the narrative are Harris’ Nightwing, who brings a lighter side that breaks up the dark drama, and DiMaggio’s Joker, who is truly psychotic and constantly on the verge of grisly violence. While Mark Hammill’s Joker from Batman: The Animated Series and Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight are the seminal interpretations of the villain, DiMaggio offers a fantastic interpretation here. His dark and sarcastic voice acting pair well with a far more violent edge than typically seen in a cartoon Joker. In addition, the crime lord known as Black Mask, voiced by Wade Williams, adds a face to the criminal underworld, as he flips back and forth between attacking Red Hood and running from him.
This small but potent blend of characters keeps the focus on the major conflict at hand, but also throws in unexpected narrative developments that keep Under the Red Hood exciting throughout.
One of Batman’s Best
Great Batman stories always have to deal with one unalterable fact – Batman will win in the end. He’s the smartest, strongest, and most capable character in any of his stories, so how do you make a compelling narrative when the hero is practically unbeatable? The drama of Under the Red Hood isn’t about whether Batman will live or die, it’s about what will happen to the disturbed Jason and the lives of the people he endangers. Best of all, there are lingering questions by the end of the film and ambiguities regarding Jason’s true nature and Batman’s war on crime. By leaving the answers up to viewers, the film is raised to a level higher than a simple action movie.
While Under the Red Hood may not have the epic scope that other recent Batman films have had, it’s the focus of the narrative and strength of the characters that elevate it from start to finish. Rather than tell yet another “Batman dies” story or give up strong characters for a massive scope, this is a film that knows how good a tightly focused Batman adventure can be. There’s no need to jam in extraneous characters or bloat the runtime here. This is simple and straightforward narrative that is most complex when it comes to morality and character. Even given the limitations of a direct-to-video budget, this is storytelling that matches any big budget superhero film and truly does justice to the world of Batman.