Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Film Review - 'Batman: Under the Red Hood'

Anyone familiar with Batman's long comic-book history would have to be familiar with the event which he considers to be his greatest failure - the death of Jason Todd, the second person to fill the role of 'Robin', at the hands of the Joker. It was a moment which must have come as something of a shock to those reading back in the 1980s (even if it was the result of a reader vote).

When Batman: Under the Red Hood opens with an animated recreation of this moment, it proves to be a very effective method of setting the tone of what is to come. It is a moment that is as shocking and brutal as it must have seemed in the pages of the comic, when it was originally published. The audience may not know where, exactly, the film is headed at this point - but, based on this opening scene, we can be reasonably confident that it is going to be somewhere dark and violent.

As we move into the film, proper, it has been several years since the murder of Jason Todd - though, the moment still haunts the Dark Knight. But, this is not the only failure to weigh on Batman's conscience, though - and, it seems as though another is about to be brought back from the past.

Years earlier, Batman's failure to save a petty criminal known as the Red Hood seems to have led directly to the creation of the Joker, when he fell into a vat of chemicals (or, at least, that is one possible origin) - and now, it seems that the Red Hood has returned. But, of course, the Joker is still safely locked away in Arkham Asylum, leading Batman to realise that it must be someone else beneath the red hood - someone who seems to have deliberately chosen this particular costume for the sole purpose of antagonising Batman.

So now, with assistance from Nightwing (the superhero persona taking on by the original Robin, Dick Grayson, when he set out on his own), Batman sets out to track down this new Red Hood - determined to find out who he really is, and what his intentions are.

This new Red Hood has plans beyond simply antagonising the Dark Knight, though. He is also caught up in a one-man war against the criminal underworld of Gotham City. With his sights set on the Black Skull, the most powerful of the current crop of crime lords, It seems as though Batman and the Red Hood should be on the same side - but, the Red Hood's methods are violent, and the bodies that he leaves in his wake clearly violate the Dark Knight's own personal code. So, naturally, Batman comes to the conclusion that the Red Hood needs to be stopped.

With so many factors already at play, it seems as though the situation is already chaotic enough. But, of course, it all gets so much worse when an increasingly desperate Black Skull reaches out to the only person who might be more dangerous than the crazed vigilante currently pursuing him - the Joker. Arranging his escape from Arkham Asylum, the Black Skull sets the Joker loose - hoping that Batman's greatest foe might be willing, and able, to help him. But, of course, the Joker has plans of his own.

As a character, Batman has always walked a very fine line between justice and vengeance. The difference between the two is, after all, the theme that has always defined the character. Batman's strict rule against killing is really the only thing that has ever kept him from becoming the exact sort of violent vigilante that we know see with the Red Hood - and, this new vigilante's appearance is clearly intended to make that distinction more apparent. As long as Batman holds himself to that core rule, it seems as though he can legitimately be called a 'hero' (even if the law might disagree). But, with the Red Hood, we have someone who seems just as committed to the same, seemingly noble, goal - but, who also isn't averse to killing.

Rather than an outright conflict between these two figures, what we ultimately get is actually something much more interesting. The Red Hood isn't interested in a direct confrontation with Batman - but, instead, seems intent on representing a more fundamental challenge to the Dark Knight's values. Batman may work outside of the law, but it is important to remember that he has never placed himself above it - but, the Red Hood clearly does. It is this clash of ideologies, more than anything, that comes to form the heart of Batman: Under the Red Hood. And, it is a clash of ideologies that is made especially interesting by the fact that, in the end, this conflict becomes focused on a very personal figure, for Batman - the Joker, himself.

Because, honestly, of course it was going to be the Joker. Batman may have a large, and varied, collection of villains to draw from - but, of them all, there is really only one who is likely to make him genuinely question his own values. Even for those in the audience who might not be familiar with the long, and incredibly antagonist, history between the two characters, the fact that the film opens with a scene taken straight from the pages of the classic A Death in the Family story-arc should provide all the information that is needed.

If Batman's committed to his most important rule was ever going to be truly tested, then of course the Joker is going to be involved. So, as Batman finds himself drawn in to an increasingly chaotic three-way conflict with this mysterious new figure and his most dangerous adversary, we find ourselves with a film that seems to have been specifically crafted to do just that - and, it is genuinely compelling.

Batman: Under the Red Hood would easily have to rate as one of the best of DC's long line of animated adaptations - and, it is probably one of the better Batman stories every put on film, too. The animation is fantastic, especially during the very entertaining action sequences. The contrast between Batman and the Red Hood is explored in a manner that feels very 'real' (with the standard proviso that we're talking about a super-hero story, if that should be necessary) - and, it gives the film a very genuine sense of emotional depth. And, most importantly, it's all topped off by some impressive performances from a cast that includes Jansen Ackles, Bruce Greenwood, Neil Patrick Harris, and John DiMaggio.

Honestly, anything negative I could say about the film, at this point, really feels like nit-picking. Yes, it might be true that John DiMaggio's take on the Joker doesn't quite hold up to Mark Hamill's (and, there are a few lines where you might here traces of other characters that he is known for, which can be a bit distracting) - but, the darker and more sinister edge that he gives to his performance fits with the tone that this film is clearly aiming for. Similarly, Bruce Greenwood might not have the same iconic status as Kevin Conroy, when it comes to providing the voice of the Dark Knight, but he is still able to play the part admirably. But, neither of those issues undermine the quality of the film in any way - and, the rest of the cast (who don't have the legacy of other performances hanging over them) all do a fantastic job.

In the end, Batman: Under the Red Hood is a genuinely fantastic film. Honestly, I'd even be willing to go as far as stating that it is practically required viewing for anyone who considers themselves to be a fan of the Dark Knight.

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