In Page to Screen I look at comic books adapted to film.
Batman – Under the Red Hood (2010, dir. Brandon Vietti)
Adapted from Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo, Batman: Under the Hood by Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke
Starring Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, Neil Patrick Harris, John Dimaggio
I’m never one to be against resurrecting comic book characters. It does happen way too often now for the impact of it to amount to much, but if done well it can make for some brilliantly interesting development for the characters affected by the return. In 1988, through a rather callous and cynical phone-in vote, the fans voted for the second Robin aka Jason Todd to be killed off in the current story arc of Batman. Todd was a polarizing character, who started out simply as a blank slate replacement for Dick Grayson. As time went on, Todd was revamped into a counter to Grayson, a rebellious teen who didn’t listen to the advice of Batman. It was a much more interesting take on the Robin character than Grayson had ever been, frankly. But the fans at the time seemed to balk at this brazen rebellion towards the Dark Knight and got young Jason beaten to death by The Joker. Fifteen years later, a new criminal figure appeared in Gotham, calling himself The Red Hood, a blatant reference to the costumed identity the man who would become The Joker wore on the night of his transformation. As Batman investigated further, he would learn The Red Hood was tied to what he saw as his greatest failure.
This latest from DC Comics high end animated film department takes the very end of the Death in the Family story and merges it with a “greatest hits” compilation from Winick’s run on Batman. I was surprised that some more esoteric elements were included, particularly, Batman and Nightwing’s battle with the super android Amazo. In the original comics, that story was tied to both The Red Hood and plot development for Infinite Crisis, the big event at the time. Winick, who handles scripting duties here as well, reworks the moment as a part of the more condensed plot of the film. He also takes his epically long struggle between Red Hood and Black Mask and turns into a much more satisfying and shorter story. Despite the film’s length of 75 minutes, it feels like we got at least a treatment for what could be a longer live action film story.
This is the first true solo Batman comic story since the animated series ended. In a lot of ways, it could be shoehorned into The Animated Series continuity; in TAS we eventually got Tim Drake as Robin and Grayson as Nightwing. It could be said this story takes place in between the Fox version of TAS and the WB follow up, a sort of untold tale of the lost Robin. The voice acting is very well done and Bruce Greenwood sounds so much like Kevin Conroy (Batman in TAS) I thought for a second it was him. Neil Patrick Harris does an excellent job providing comic relief in the first half as Nightwing, but it was disappointing that the character sort of vanishes from the story. John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) tackles The Joker and reminded me how strange it is to not hear Mark Hamill’s voice coming out of the animated villain. He’s good, its just a different style and laugh than I suspect myself and my peers are used to. Jensen Ackles rounds out the cast as Red Hood and does a decent job.
What I saw here was how two stories that are important to the canon, but have always felt poorly executed, can be retold in a way that shows its all about the craftsmen behind the scenes. I’ve been surprised by Judd Winick twice in the last week, first by the latest Justice League: Generation Lost issue and now this. I suspect when he is made to really collaborate with others we see the weaknesses in his storytelling diminish. Instead of these stories coming off a cynical and mean, which they do on paper, a lot of redemptive qualities are brought to the front in the animated film. Where Batman and the other characters are left at the end of the story is a very interesting place and serves as a reminder as to what separates Batman from the gun-toting vigilantes that followed in his footsteps. It’s also nice to see a Batman affected by mistakes, something we rarely get in any medium he shows up in. To see Batman as a vulnerable and human figure, a father wracked with guilt, provides an incredibly deeper picture of the character.