If you’ve not been keeping up with DC comics on a month-to-month basis lately — and I can’t say I’d blame anyone for that given the hopelessly derivative, editorially-fucked-with-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life state of most of their output — you may not be aware that Robin recently died. Again.
I know, I know — it’s getting to be old hat by now, isn’t it? At least the Batman of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight had the decency to put his cowl in mothballs for awhile after getting one of his teen sidekicks killed, but in the DC universe proper, he just seems to keep on going no matter how often he reverses the typical “worms are food for robins” course of nature. To make matters even more grim/depressing/tasteless, the latest Robin to be violently ushered out the side door was Bruce Wayne’s own son, Damian, and he was killed by his mother, Talia al Ghul. Couldn’t they have all just gone on Jerry Springer and tried to work out their differences in at least a somewhat less deadly or embarrassing fashion?
Obviously, as is usually the case in comics these days, this latest Robin death is, blatantly and on its surface, little more than a crass ploy to generate extra sales for the army of Bat-books cluttering up the racks — but believe it or not, in that regard it still has a long way to go to match the brazen commercial pandering and expiloitive, “we’ll kill any character for a buck” crudeness of the first Robin death, back in 1988. Ya see, that was the time, as you may have heard (if you weren’t following along yourself), when DC decided to bump him off based on the results of a fucking telephone survey.
You only think I’m kidding, but I’m not — The Joker rigged a an bomb at a warehouse with Robin bound and gagged inside, the building went “boom!,’ and readers were instructed to call one of two 1-800 numbers (at a cost of 75 cents a pop) to register their “Live or die” choice, then come back next month and find out which option won out (this morbid trope was wonderfully spoofed by Rick Veitch in his seminal deconstruction of the entire “teen sidekick” phenomenon, Brat Pack).
Without lingering too long on the disturbing implications of a bound-and-gagged teenage boy in tights being abused by a man with a face full of makeup (all this is a Code-approved book, no less), let’s just consider what it says about a comic book publisher that they’re willing to kill kids in their stories to bump up sales, and what it says about comic book fans that more of us voted to see Robin get bumped off than have Batman save the day. I’d say the message is clear : publishers are cynical, manipulative, and utterly without conscience, and readers are sadistic bastards. No wonder mainstream comics are in what basically amounts to a two-decade-old death spiral.
Still, if you know DC and Marvel, you know that no death lasts forever, and it was only going to be a matter of time before Jason Todd (who was, in actuality, the second Robin, the first being Dick Grayson, who miraculously-in-retrospect survived the job and went on to be a proper superhero in his own right, operating under the handle of Nightwing) somehow turned up again — the only surprise is that it took almost 20 years for his “resurrection” to happen.
For the better part of 2005, and a pretty good chunk of 2006, several of the monthly Bat-titles were consumed with a seemingly endless storyline by writer (and former contest on MTV’s The Real World) Judd Winick, and illustrated by a bevy of artists (most notably Doug Mahnke, co-creator of Dark Horse’s The Mask) that detailed the apparent return of a one-time super-criminal named The Red Hood (who was actually, in his former incarnations, a collection of several different hoodlums, one of whom was none other than The Joker himself back when he was, relatively speaking, “more human” — but that’s another story for another time), who was keeping himself busy by screwing up the operations of a Gotham City crime boss known as The Black Mack (so called because, well — he wears a black mask).
This wasn’t a bad story, even if it dragged on for waaaaaay too long, but it was hardly an all-time classic, either. Most of the investigations into Red Hood’s “secret identity” undertaken by Batman and Nightwing (who plays a big part in the proceedings) were go-nowhere run-arounds and it was fairly evident fairly early on that this latest Red Hood was, in fact, Jason Todd. The only question was — how the hell did he survive? The answer was pretty uninspired — Ra’s al Ghul utilized one of the infamous “Lazarus Pits” that give him immortality (or close enough to it) to resurrect the freshly-dead youngster, and Jason ends up going on to form his own sorta-super-team called, blandly enough, The Outlaws. Which, I guess means that the second Robin is now a zombie. At least technically speaking, But whatever.
When Warner Premiere released its direct-to-video animated version of Batman : Under The Red Hood in 2010, it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting much beyond a reasonably competent little run-around, but truth be told, truncating this tale down to a manageable 75 minutes actually makes it a much stronger and more effective story, and while any “surprise” as to who is, indeed, “under the red hood” is lost, it’s really no big deal since, as mentioned, it was never that “shocking” a “revelation” anyway. Perfect voice casting helps — Bruce Greenwood is one of the better actors to give Batman’s vocal cords a go, Jensen Ackles is flat-out superb as Red Hood/Jason Todd, John DiMaggio is a terrific Joker, Jason Isaccs is suitably dour as Ra’s al Ghul, Wade Williams is obviously having a blast as Black Mask, and Neil Patrick Harris is a more or less perfect choice to deliver Nightwing’s lines — but all in all it’s the smart work done by director Brandon Vietti and Winick, who adapts his own story for the (small) screen here, that turns a decent multi-part comics story into an excellent (and concise) animated adventure yarn.
Going in with suitably low expectations probably leaves me feeling more generous about the quality of the finished product here as well, I suppose, but honestly, this is pretty good stuff, and while the more grim aspects of the story aren’t glossed over, they’re not celebrated in agonizing detail, either, as is too often the case with many of Batman’s “darker” storylines of recent vintage.
As is the case with Batman : Year One, there are no less than three different home viewing options out there for the discerning viewer who wants to give Under The Red Hood a go : standard, single-disc DVD; single-disc Blu-Ray; and two-disc “special edition” DVD. All three feature extremely-well-done widescreen picture and 5.1 sound and come with a rather uninspiring Jonah Hex short (remember when it looked like he might be DC’s next “hot property”?) as well as some promo spots for other DC Universe titles, while the Blu-Ray and “special edition” DVD packages also include a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of this story in both its print and animated versions and a selection of four cartoons from various iterations of the Batman animated TV series that have at least some bearing on the lead feature here.
At the end of the day, then, Batman : Under The Red Hood is far from the out-and-out classic that either Year One or The Dark Knight Returns are, but it’s a solid-enough little piece of modern superhero storytelling that treads the fine line between being “heavy” and “too heavy for its own good” more or less successfully, and greatly benefits from having a lot of its fat cut for this abridged animated retelling. I got a kick out of it, and if you have any love for/interest in these characters, chances are that you will, too.