Archive for April 14, 2013

szNQQz4TnqYGbay0JnpoQQ1Wsch

 

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.

batman_under_the_red_hood_4

 

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.

1279237804_5

 

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.

Red%20Hood%20I

 

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.

1351584619

 

What the hell, these reviews of titles in Warner Premiere’s “DC Universe” straight-to-video animation line seem to be getting a reasonably healthy response around these parts, so let’s plug away and do at least a couple more until I’m bored with the whole thing and feel like getting back to horror, exploitation, and all that other good stuff, shall we? And seeing as how our first entrants in this little sidebar series took a look at the two-part Dark Knight Returns, based on Frank Miller’s justifiably legendary take on the “omega” phase of Batman’s crime-fighting career,  it seems only right that we next turn our attentions to 2011’s animated adaptation of Batman : Year One, based on Miller and artist David Mazzuchelli’s take on the Caped Crusader’s “alpha” period.

Again, a little background for those not steeped in comic lore : hot on the heels of the success of The Dark Knight mini-series, Bat-books editor-at-the-time Denny O’Neil (a fairly accomplished author of numerous well-regarded Batman stories in his own right), approached said title’s creator, Frank Miller, with a proposal to essentially give him carte-blanche to retell the Gotham Guardian’s origin story as a way of “re-setting the table” on the regular monthly Batman series. Miller agreed, but only wanted to write it, bringing in as his artistic partner on the project one David Mazzuchelli, with whom he had collaborated on a recent run of stories for Marvel’s Daredevil book. Mazzuchelli bought a distinctly noir-ish and cinematic sensibility to the proceedings, and the end result , while admittedly a fairly basic, if extrapolated, take on events we already knew which sees Bruce Wayne return to Gotham to embark on his one-man war on crime, form an uneasy alliance with then-Lieutenant Jim Gordon (who seems to be one of the few honest cops in town), have his first series of encounters with a prostitute-turned-cat-burglar named Selina Kyle, and go after the beating heart of the city’s organized crime operation in the form of Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, is nonetheless a deeply resonant character-driven piece with a pleasing “pulp detective” artistic sensibility that feels both nostalgic and oddly contemporary at the same time. If the word timeless comes to mind from the brief run-down just provided, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark, as this brief-but-no-doubt historic four-issue Batman run, which has since been collected in near-innumerable paperback and hardcover iterations, feels as fresh and vital today as it did when first published way back in 1987.

2383865-vlcsnap_2012_06_03_18h02m51s180

 

The real genius of what Miller chose to do story-wise,though,  is that, despite the fact that we are granted numerous takes on the events depicted from the vantage points of both Batman and Catwoman, this is more or less Gordon’s tale, and we see get to see both the cesspool of corruption and vice that is Gotham City, as well as witness the dawn of a new age of weirdos in costumes, through his eyes. Miler’s version of Gordon is hardly a flawless hero — he’s stepping out on his pregnant wife with one of his colleagues on the force (who long-time Bat-fans will know becomes the second Mrs. Gordon at some unspecified future point), for instance, but by and large this is a decent guy trying to make sense of circumstances, and a city, that he can’t quite get his head around.

The powers that be in the suits at Warner and DC wisely decided to retain this Gordon-centric narrative structure when they adapted the story for home video release in 2011, and even more wisely opted to cast Bryan Cranston as Jimbo’s voice ‘artist,” so needless to say — expect some great things here. Yeah, okay, again it would have been nice (and frankly pretty gutsy) for directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery to have their animators hue a bit more closely to Mazzuchelli’s visual style, but the finished product probably would have been considered somewhat inaccessible for, at least, a non-comics audience (although I gotta wonder how much a “non-comics audience” would even care about this thing in the first place), but at least most of the characters in this one look like real people rather than the non-green Hulks of (the otherwise generally excellent ) The Dark Knight Returns.

batmanyearone2

 

As far as the rest of the cast goes, Ben McKenzie positively nails it as Bruce Wayne/Batman, GreyDeLisle is pitch-perfect as the suffering-in-silence Barbara Gordon, Katee Sackhoff is suitably sultry as the object of Jim’s extra-curricular affections, Detective Sarah Essen, supposed “nerd culture” sex object Eliza Dushku inhabits Selina Kyle/Catwoman quite nicely, and it’s an out-and-out treat to hear the great Alex Rocco giving vocal “life” to Falcone. It’s Cranston’s show all the way, but these folks add plenty of spice to the stew.

On the technical specs front, Batman : Year One is available on three different home video formats : single-disc DVD, single-disc Blu-Ray, and a double-disc DVD “special edition.” All three feature superb widescreen picture and a genuinely dynamic 5.1 sound mix, as well as a rather risque but otherwise generally uninteresting Catwoman short, and a smattering of promo stuff for other entrants in the “DCU” line. The Blu-Ray and two-disc DVD also feature a pretty sold little mini-documentary on the genesis  of, and influences on,  Batman : Year One in its original comic book form, and a couple of episodes of the Batman animated TV series that are at least tangentially related to the main course on offer here (again with the food metaphors, sorry — haven’t eaten lunch yet).

batman-year-one-movie-image-01

Final verdict, then : as with Miller’s Dark Knight, this is a seminal Bat-story that most definitely live up to all the hype, and its home video animated offspring is a faithful, exciting, well-constructed work that sticks to the character-driven narrative design of its printed-page progenitor for a highly-accessible translation that retains both the boldness and simplicity of Miller/Mazzuchelli while smoothing out its rough (but oh-so-lovely) edges just a bit.

Hell, just writing about it puts me in the mood to watch it again.