There’s a little game I like to play called The Mark Hamill Game. It goes like this, you spend your entire life waiting for someone to say something like “Tch. Mark Hamill, what a has-been” or “Wow. Bet he thought Star Wars was going to be a career maker for him, more like a career breaker amirite?” and then, get this, you punch that person repeatedly in the face. It’s a fun game, and also it provides a useful service to society. Mark Hamill is not a has-been. Mark Hamill is one of the most talented, respected and lauded voice actors currently working in the industry, an actor who combines astonishing versatility and a real flair for mimicry with a wonderfully energetic and intense performance style. And by far his greatest role was his absolutely revolutionary turn as Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker in the seminal Batman: The Animated Series. Now…millenials like myself tend to gush about this show to the point that if you sat down to watch it based on our recommendation you might be expecting something like Saturday morning Miyazaki. And, at the risk of a storm of screeching Batfans descending from the stalactite studded cave roof of the internet…it wasn’t perfect. It was, no question, a very, very good cartoon. Possibly the best cartoon series until that point. But the quality varied wildly in terms of animation and writing. Partially this was because the animation was done by more than one animation studio, some vastly more adept than others. And also, the show took its time to decide whether it was just a cartoon for kids or something more mature. It’s great, I’m not disputing that, but…not every episode was Heart of Ice. Some of them were Batman’s in my Basement. You know what was perfect though? Mark Hamill’s Joker. Hilarious, crazed and utterly terrifying. To fans in the know, the greatest Joker was not Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson or even Heath Ledger. It was Mark Hamill.
He’s not in Batman: Under the Red Hood.
As well as Hamill, BTAS also had one of the all time great Batman/Bruce Wayne performances (admittedly that’s a slightly lower bar to clear). Kevin Conroy’s Batman for many fans (including me) was the absolute sweet spot for this character that has had an incredibly broad spectrum of portrayals over his nearly 75 year history.
Conroy’s Batman is grim but compassionate. Hyper competent but not infallible. Intimidating but not a monster. Often brutal but not a cop-killing, kidnapping, ableist, potty-mouthed psychopath.
Conroy’s not in this either.
So understand, when Warner Bros announced that they would be releasing a straight to DVD animated Batman film that would not star either Conroy or Hamill, long considered irreplaceable, expectations were not high. I remember reading one commenter who essentially said “What ever they want? Pay them. If they’re not free? Wait. And if they just don’t want to do it? Don’t make the movie.” You could say that the very positive response Under the Red Hood would finally receive was partially due to low expectations but I don’t think so. This, to me, personally, is the best Batman movie ever made. I don’t mean that it’s the best movie to feature Batman in it.
The movie begins with Batman racing through the snowy streets of Sarajevo on the Batcycle and paying precious little attention to the speed limit. We soon see why. The Joker has kidnapped Robin and is slowly beating him to death with a crowbar. This movie doesn’t have explicit gore or anything but it doesn’t really need it to be horrifying. It’s an insane maniac beating a teenage boy to death with a crowbar, there’s not really any way to sugar-coat that.
Also, Joker took off Robin’s boots. I find that unspeakably creepy.
If you’re only passingly familiar with the Batman mythos then I should probably explain that this Robin is not the Robin you’re most likely thinking of. The Robin in the Adam West TV show, the Joel Schumacher movies and the comics from 1940 to 1984 is Dick Grayson. Dick served as Batman’s sidekick for years before graduating into his own superhero identity as Nightwing (he also appears in this movie so I’m getting that explanation out of the way now). The Robin currently getting too much iron in his diet is Jason Todd, who was conceived in the comics as a replacement for Dick but whose bratty, rebellious teen schtick got real old, real fast. So DC had him get captured by the Joker and let the readers decide his fate by telepoll, allowing them to call a designated number to choose whether Jason should live or die (kinda like how Pontius Pilate dealt with Jesus). Sure enough, the readers cried “Give Us Barabbas!” and Jason was killed off in the story “Death in the Family”, which this first scene basically recreates in the movie.
“Oh how awful…what’s with the Joker’s chin?”-Every DC fan ever.
While I don’t really approve of deciding a story by mob rule, I have to say I’ve always thought killing Jason was the right move. It got rid of a character who just wasn’t working, added an important milestone in Batman’s history that proved a rich well of stories for many decades after and escalated the war between Batman and Joker to even more dramatic heights. It also cleared the way for Tim Drake, a much more likeable character who became the third Robin. Maybe. Possibly. DC’s continuity right now kind of looks like something designed by MC Escher.
Okay, anyway, back to the movie.
Joker finally leaves the presumably dead Robin, adjusting his shirt as he stands in the doorway (the predatory undertones are very subtly played to keep the PG 13 rating but honestly that just makes it worse). Joker asks Robin to “Tell the Big Guy I said “hello”.” And leaves. Robin, who was just faking, manages to get out of his restraints and almost escapes but the Joker has rigged the whole place to explode and it goes up just as Batman arrives. Opening credits.
Five years later, it’s a typical rainy zeppelin-filled night in Gotham city. Several of the city’s biggest drug kingpins have been called to a meeting but they don’t know why or by who. Well, you don’t get to be a big shot in the criminal drug trade without a gentle, trusting nature, right? A guy in a red helmet emerges from the shadows and tells them that “Hi! Yeah. You work for me now!” and lays down the new rules; they keep going as they always have giving him a forty percent cut (which is much better than what they’re making under the current Mob Boss, Black Mask) and stay away from kids and schoolyards. In return he’ll protect them from Black Mask. The mobsters tell him to go screw, so he throws them down a bag full of something that changes their minds.
Who can say “no” to Gummi Bears? Nobody, that’s who.
Nah, it’s actually the severed heads of their lieutenants. The Red Hood (for ‘tis his name) tells them he did that in two hours, and that they do not want to see what he can get done in a whole evening.
You do NOT want to fuck with my time-management skills!
Now cut to the Gotham docks where Batman and Nightwing stop three hoods who are trying to rip off a shipping container. Batman is voiced by Bruce Greenwood. How does he compare to Conroy? Impossible to say really. Conroy’s been voicing Batman on and off for over twenty years. Greenwood’s got 75 minutes. Hell, we never even hear Greenwood’s Bruce Wayne, as he’s in character as Batman throughout the entire movie. All I can say is, while Greenwood’s voice never has that instant “That’s Batman!” quality of Conroy, he’s very, very good and I have no quibble with him voicing Batman. Even better is Neil Patrick Harris voicing Nightwing, bringing some much needed levity to a movie that, I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this yet, is kind of a Gloomy Gus. Alright, so the dynamic duo question the hoods about what they were boosting when suddenly it bursts out of its crate; Amazo.
Amazo is a bright red android with pointy ears that copies the powers of superheroes. See, another thing I love about this movie is that it’s not embarrassed of the crazy, goofy, sci-fi trappings that have formed such a part of Batman’s history but which so many fans would rather forget in lieu of Batman beating up drug addicts or whatever. This movie can go from mobsters being muscled into a protection racket to a man in a bat costume battling a sunburnt Mr Spock with heat vision without it being jarring in the slightest. Batman takes out Amazo without too much trouble because, y’know, he’s Batman. He always wins. He wins fights he never even took part in. Who won the Battle of Gettysburg? Batman, that’s who. Batman tries to get the hoods to tell him who they’re working for but before they give him a name they get killed by a sniper. A sniper, Nightwing notes, who is crazy good. Batman pursues the sniper in the Batplane and the trail leads to the Monarch Playing Card Factory.
“Sebastian J. Monarch used only the finest red hot lava to create his playing cards. Here at Monarch, we continue that proud tradition.”
Batman engages his flashback-vision and remembers that this was the place where was unable to prevent the original Red Hood from falling into a vat of chemicals and becoming the Joker. The new Red Hood emerges from the shadows and says that this was the site of his first great failure “but certainly not your last”. Oh, Red Hood is voiced by Jensen Ackles and my housemate Christine will never let me hear the end of it unless I post a picture of him so here you go.
His performance in this movie is…aaaaaaand you’re not even reading this are you? I can say anything I want. Nickleback ain’t that bad. Oh, man that feels good to get that off my chest. The nineties Godzilla movie is good cheesy fun! GOD THIS IS LIBERATING! DEATH TO THE OXFORD COMMA!!
Anyway, Red Hood then shoots his car which cause an explosion that blows up the entire factory and thank God for that, that place was clearly a death trap. Back at the Batcave, Nightwing and Batman do some research to see who the Red Hood could be. Turns out that quite a few different crims have used the gimmick over the years, but only really one of note; The Joker. They decide to pay a visit to Mr J in Arkham to see if he can shed any light on this. Alright, so I haven’t actually mentioned yet who they got to replace Hamill in the role. Clearly it would have to be someone at ease with playing a complete sociopath, a cold, unfeeling monster who won’t rest until every last human being is dead.
“Why so serious, meat bags?”
Yup, it’s John Di Maggio aka Bender Bending Rodriguez. And honestly, he is frickin’ amazing. Again, comparing him to Hamill is almost impossible. It’s actually very much like comparing Jack Nicholson’s Joker to Heath Ledger’s. Nicholson and Hamill both had a very ostentatious, showmanlike take on the character. They genuinely wanted to entertain. Ledger and DiMaggio are not particularly interested in making people laugh, they just want to get down to the killing thank you very much (although DiMaggio’s Joker is still much less dour than Ledger’s.) In short; Guys, there’s no need to choose a “best” Joker. They’re all beautiful, man.
Anyway, Bats shows Joker a picture of the new Hood and asks him what he knows. Joker replies “That he has terrible taste. When I wore that number it was classy, more “fancy maitre ‘d than motorcycle fetish. These kids today.” Joker asks Batman if he really thinks the Joker would go and do something like this and not let Batman know it was him, and he’s got a point. Joker’s entire existence is pretty much one long cry for attention from Batman. Joker will keep attacking Batman psychologically until Batman finally snaps and beats him into a pulp and the whole cycle starts over again. They’re like a married couple written by Edward Albee. Batman almost loses it when Joker brings up Jason, grabbing Joker by the neck. Joker asks if he’s finally going to kill him, and Batman almost snaps his neck beofre letting him go, which for these two is the equivalent of “Hey.” “Morning.”
Meanwhile, over at Black Mask’s headquarters, BM is beating the crap out of his goons for losing the Amazo shipment to Batman. Black Mask is one of only a few Batman villains created after the early sixties who’s had any kind of staying power in the rogues gallery. He’s played here by Wade Williams in a pretty awesomely batshit performance. Black Mask in this movie plays the same role all those mob bosses in The Dark Knight did. In that movie, those sane, normal criminals had to turn to a freak like Joker to deal with Batman for them. Here, Black Mask will turn to Joker to help him deal with Red Hood. The difference is, Black Mask is himself is a deranged costumed freak, which really drives home just how nuts and dangerous this version of the Joker is. He even makes a nutso like the Black Mask look like the sober, rational one. I also have to mention Black Mask’s assistant, Ms Li, voiced by Kelly Hu. Ms Li doesn’t really do much in the movie but I love her because even when Black Mask is slugging out six foot tall mobsters he never lays so much as a finger on her and I have to guess it’s not because he’s a gentleman. Clearly, Ms Li is just not to be fucked with. So Black Mask is screaming blue murder because not only has he lost Amazo, who was going to buy his way into the International Crime Big Leagues but Batman even kept the wreckage. Ms Li deadpans, “Yes. Batman likes to keep things.” I love Ms Li. I also really, really want to see the episode of Hoarders where they try to get Batman to clear out the Batcave. “Now Bruce, do you really need this cyborg Tyrannosaurus?” “YES! I mean…I use it…to…fight…crime.”
“Fair enough, but do you really need sixteen Batmobiles?”
Black Mask puts out a hit on Red Hood and then asks for an update on a weapons shipment that’s going down that night. Little does he know, his office has been bugged by both Batman, and the Red Hood, who both make plans to hit the shipment. Red Hood strikes first, hijacking the helicopter with the weapons, but Batman snags the chopper with a gizmo that causes the electronics to go screwy. Red Hood sees Batman and says “You wanna dance? Let’s dance!”
Oh Red Hood….you should know better than to challenge Batman to a danceoff.
Clearly overpowered by the raw, animal passion of the Batusi, Red Hood flees across Gotham with Batman and Nightwing in hot pursuit. The chase leads to a subway station which Red Hood has rigged to explode. Batman and Nightwing barely escape the explosion and see Red Hood riding off on his motorcycle yelling “You haven’t lost your touch!”
Back at the Batcave, Batman looks over the footage from the chase while Alfred tends to Nightwing’s leg, which was broken in the explosion.
“A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I…”
“That’s great Alfred, but why are you bandaging my boot?”
Bruce sends Nightwing home to rest up, even going so far as to say “thank you”, and then starts going over the footage again. There’s a great scene where he replays the audio of Red Hood shouting “You haven’t lost your touch!” editing out the background noise of a passing train until finally he hears him say “You haven’t lost your touch BRUCE!” And Batman realises that Red Hood is Jason Todd. Boom. Chair crashes to the ground. Awesome stuff.
We now get a series of flashbacks to Jason’s days as Robin, with a cameo by producer Bruce Timm as the Riddler. We see Jason transformed by the passing years from a happy go lucky child to a brutal, dangerously reckless teen vigilante. And I love the movie’s implication that everything was fine when Batman was guilty of child endangerment, but as soon as Jason came of age, that’s where things started to go wrong.
Alright, Black Mask has decided to screw this noise and orders his men to go on the offensive to draw the Red Hood out. They attack the various gangs and front business under RH’s protection and when Jason finally pokes his head out he gets attacked by the Fearsome Hand of Four.
“Bruce? I’m not convinced our movie is completely awesome yet. We’re missing something.”
“Cyborg ninjas with light sabers.”
“How do you DO that?!”
“Simple. I’m Goddamn Bruce Timm.”
Yes. This movie has cyborg ninjas with light sabers. Because AMERICA. Batman arrives in time and the two fight off the ninjas, with Jason killing one of them. This leads to an angry confrontation between Batman and Jason, who tells his old mentor that he’s cleaning up the streets the way Batman never could. Batman points out that Jason has become a crime lord, but Jason says that starting a mob war with Black Mask is just “part of the plan”. He disappears before Batman’s finished talking (and you’d never see Batman engaging in that kind of blatant rudeness) but Batman is able to get a blood sample from one of the ninjas’ weapons and confirm that this really is Jason Todd back from the dead.
At Casa de Black Mask, Ms Li calmly informs her boss that Red Hood is now killing his way through Black Mask’s men and that “He’s coming after you.”
To drive this point home, Jason chooses this moment to launch an RPG at Black Mask right through his office window. Black Mask barely escapes with his life, looks at the smouldering wreckage of his headquarters and checks the clock.
Black Mask arranges to have Joker busted out of Arkham so he can kill Red Hood for him.
“Wow. I do not see this backfiring in any possible way.”
Black Mask explains the plan to Joker, who listens to him with the bored contempt of someone who was doing super villainy back when Roosevelt was still president. Black Mask asks him if he can kill Red Hood and Joker responds by killing six of his men with a broken drinking glass (but not Ms Li. You don’t fuck with Ms Li.) and tells Mask; “I’m going to need something to wear. And a very big truck. And some guys. Not these guys. They’re kinda dead.”
Meanwhile, Batman has exhumed Jason’s grave and discovered that Jason’s body isn’t there, just a very realistic Jason doll. Batman’s furious, because not only has Jason’s body been stolen but, because he’s opened the coffin, that doll’s no longer a collectible. Batman knows who’s behind the theft and flies off to confront his most dangerous enemy;
Dan DiDio Ra’s Al Ghul.
Ra’s in the comics is an immortal eco-terrorist and here he’s played by Jason Isaacs. Unlike most of Batman’s enemies, Ra’s isn’t crazy, rather he’s a brilliant genius who harbors a deep respect for Batman. Batman ambushes him in his mountain retreat and Ra’s admits that he’s behind Jason’s resurrection and explains why. Years before, Ra’s was in Bosnia as part of a plot to crash Europe’s economy.
Wait a minute, THAT WAS YOU!!!?
When Batman started to get too close, he hired Joker to act as a distraction, thinking that he could control the crazy, psychotic agent of chaos. Sigh. No. Really. He’s a genius. I swear.
I mean honestly, how could you NOT trust that face?
The plan went awry however (the devil you say!) and ended with Jason dead. Ra’s may be a cold-blooded mass murderer but he never intended for the kid to die, so out of respect for his arch enemy he arranged to have Jason’s body stolen and placed in a Lazarus pit, the magical pool that Ra’s uses to extend his own lifespan, with the hope of bringing Jason back to life. Now, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like the original Under the Red Hood story in the comics. Firstly, I don’t really like resurrection stories, period. Characters dies and come back to life in comics so frequently that death has become a complete joke and now lacks any weight or sense of importance. When Marvel killed off Captain America, I wasn’t shocked or saddened by the death of this iconic fictional character with seventy plus years of history, I was just wondering whether or not they’d bring him back to life before the movie came to boost sales. Then there’s the way they brought him back. In the comics Jason is brought back to life not by the Lazarus pit, but because Superboy punched the universe. I wish I was making that up. I wish I was. But I’m not. And we’re all just going to have to live with that. Jason then puttered around the books for a while, becoming an evil Batman, an evil Nightwing, a cannibal octopus person (again, not making that up) before adopting the Red Hood persona and settling into his niche as the most detestable character in the DC Universe.
And, given this reboot, that is saying a whole heap.
What I love about this movie is how it takes a great many different storylines from the comics, often written decades apart, and streamlines them into one complete, whole and satisfying narrative. Bringing Ra’s into the story finally gives us a plausible cause for Jason’s resurrection as well as an emotionally interesting motive behind it, Ra’s respect for Batman and grief and having caused him such a loss. Ra’s explains that they lowered Jason’s body into the pit but that he came back wrong, crazed and violent. Ra’s daughter Talia tried to shoot Jason but Ra’s stopped her (Why? If he dies just chuck him in the pit again.) and Jason escaped.
As Batman flies back to Gotham Alfred tries to tell him that whatever Jason is doing now it’s not Bruce’s fault but Bruce is having none if it. “I got him killed. My partner. My soldier. My fault.” Alfred then tells Bruce to patch into the media feed, as shit’s going down.
On the Gotham bridge, Joker has got Red Hood’s lieutenants bounded and gagged in the back of a truck and has doused them with petrol. He’s also got Black Mask and Ms Li (yeah, I know, he turned on the guy who tried to control him, it’s almost like THAT WAS A TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE IDEA). Red Hood appears and Joker calls up to him “You know, I used to wear an outfit like that. Mine was more flash maitre d’ than motorcycle fetish. You kids today.” You may remember that he pretty much said the exact same thing to Batman earlier in the movie. Now, you might chalk that up to a lazy recycling of dialogue but personally I prefer to think that he tests his material out on Batman before he uses it in front of an audience. You might think that wouldn’t work because Batman never laughs, but you don’t know Batman like Joker does. Joker probably leaves little notes under each joke as he writes; “CORNER OF BATMAN’S LIP TWITCHED ONE NANOMETER. SOLID GOLD.” Red Hood tells Joker that this was all part of the plan, and that he purposely drove Black Mask to break Joker out of prison, kn0wing that he was the only one with the muscle to do so. Batman arrives to save the hoods that Joker kidnapped but Red Hood grabs the clown and absconds, telling Batman to come to crime alley. Crime Alley was where Batman’s parents were shot, but it also where Batman and Jason first met. Jason was a street urchin who Batman caught stealing tyres from the Batmobile. This of course caused the Batmobile to lose its wheel, which in turn led to the Joker getting away as was chronicled in a popular Christmas carol of the time. Batman and Red Hood have their final confrontation, and Red Hood finally removes the helmet.
He wears a mask under his mask. It’s the secret identity equivalent of using two condoms.
I’ve already gone over the final twist of this movie in my top ten non-Disney animated movies and why I think it works so well so let me just quickly sum up. Jason doesn’t blame Batman for letting him die, and has forgiven him. But he can’t forgive Batman for letting the Joker live after what he did, saying “I’m not talking about killing Penguin, or Scarecrow, or Dent. I’m talking about him. Just him. And doing it because he took me away from you.” Batman says that he can’t kill Joker, not because it would be too hard to break his moral code, but because it would be too easy, and that once he crosses that line there’d be no going back. Jason says that he’s going to make the choice for Batman, tossing him a gun and putting another to Joker’s head. He gives Batman an ultimatuum, either let Jason kill Joker, or shoot Jason himself. Batman doesn’t even consider it, simply dropping the gun and walking away. Enraged, Jason shoots at Batman, who effortlessly DODGES THE GODDAMN BULLET AND THROWS A BATARANG DOWN THE BARREL OF JASON’S GUN.
Come at the king, you best not miss.
Jason’s gun explodes and the Joker cackles hysterically “I can’t believe you got him! You expert, eagle-eyed, rootin’ tootin’ goth loving marksman!” and I swear to God I still hear DiMaggio say “goth loving” as “cock loving” I’m really just taking the subtitles’ word for it. Joker then sums up pretty much every Batman story ever “You found a way to win! AND EVERYONE STILL LOSES!”
Jason sets off a bomb (why do I get the feeling that the first thing Jason would do if you invited him to your house would be to plant semtex under your coach?) but Batman manages to get both him and Joker to safety before the boom.
Through media reports we learn that the Red Hood has disappeared and that Joker has been returned to Arkham where extra security measures will ensure it will take more than a strong breeze to get him out again. And in the Batcave, Batman gazes at the memorial to Jason. Alfred asks if he wants it removed and Bruce says “No. This doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change anything at all.” The movie ends with a flashback to Jason’s first day as Robin, smiling at the camera and saying “This is the best day of my life.”
I’m happy for you kid, but for God’s sake put some pants on.
Alright, I know this seems low. And for a direct to DVD movie the animation is very, very good. But c’mon, I’m ranking this against movies like Sleeping Beauty
Possibly my favourite Batman in any medium.
John DiMaggio does the near impossible and proves himself a worthy successor to Mark Hamill. His Joker feels of a piece with Hamill’s but he gives the voice a deeper, more growling quality that really fits a Joker that can do stuff he just couldn’t on a Saturday morning cartoon.
Supporting Characters: 15
I really like the movie’s take on Black Mask, Neil Patrick Harris gives some much needed levity as Nightwing and Jensen Ackles does the seemingly impossible and makes Jason Todd a sympathetic character.
Christopher Drake (how’s that for a superhero alias?) does a nice, brooding, appropriately Batmanny score.
FINAL SCORE: 75%
NEXT UPDATE: 13 March 2014
NEXT TIME: It’s back to the canon as the Unshaved Mouse sees what happened after Disney abandoned traditional animation to get some of that sweet, sweet CGI box office. Next time, it’s Chicken Li…
Sorry. Don’t know what happened there.
Next review is Chicken Cars…
No. I’m not reviewing Cars. I’m reviewing Cars.
No! I mean Cars!
Cars is next.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. This review was made possible by the kind donation of Ryen Rasmus. Thanks Ryen!