Good news, everyone! From now until the end of October, it’s officially DC Animated Universe month here on Saturday Morning Cartoons! In honor of DC’s New 52 relaunch (which you can learn more about from my dedicated Moar Powah! colleague, Silverwolf) and my having an astonishing number of dry, scholarly pieces to write in the middle of the month for my college midterms, I will be focusing on one of DC’s animated films for each Saturday in the month of October.
There’s no denying that Batman is where it all began for the DCaU. Ever since the innovative and immensely popular Batman: The Animated Series lasting from 1992-1995, DC Comics has had a reputation of producing mostly great animated films and television series, while Marvel Comics is now widely known for creating wonderful live-action adaptations of its most popular characters. Though there are some exceptions to this rule, I happen to think that this is a great balance. If it were up to me, no executives on either side would ever attempt to upset the scale.
Since Batman is such a staple of the DC Animated Universe, it’s only appropriate to begin this string of DC Animated Universe articles with a Batman cartoon. The biggest challenge that newer Batman animations face is living up to the mighty Batman: The Animated Series. Ever since its success, animators have been reluctant to take any animated Batman story away from the gritty, neo-noir Batman style that it pioneered. In fact, part of the reason why I love Cartoon Network’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-present) is because it took the animated version of the character in a completely different direction.
This recycling of character and setting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it certainly has its limitations. Personally, I’m a bit tired of seeing the same old interpretation of Batman in the DCaU, but I honestly think that reflects nothing more than my own tastes. There’s a reason why the Batman formula is so beloved by fans and critics alike: it works perfectly for the character and the world he inhabits. Batman is a noir hero, and as such, his world should be dark and uninviting.
Batman: Under the Red Hood is a wonderful example of the Batman formula done well. The plot follows the rise of the mysterious Red Hood (Jensen Ackles), a new villain who steals territory from Gotham crime lord the Black Mask (Wade Williams.) When Batman (Bruce Greenwood) realizes that Red Hood knows his true identity, he must brace for the possibility that his new foe may be a former ally.
What really impresses me about this plot is the fact that it deals with an aspect of Batman lore that is rarely mentioned outside the comics: the multiple Robins. Most people who aren’t familiar with the Batman comics don’t realize that Batman has actually had five sidekicks, all of whom have used the mantle of Robin: Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and Damian Wayne. This can be very confusing to those who don’t keep up with comic book continuity, but Under the Red Hood does an admirable job of presenting this fact without overwhelming viewers with the specifics of over 70 years of Batman backstory.
The most remarkable aspect of Under the Red Hood’s handling of the tried and true Batman: The Animated Series format is that it feels so fresh, while still sticking to the version of Gotham and its hero that we’re used to seeing in other DC cartoons. Of course, this is partially a result of the different constraints and eras of animation from which the two works come to us: Batman was made on an impossibly tight schedule, and created using traditional cel animation (read: painstakingly hand-drawn), while Under the Red Hood was made on a normal schedule with plenty of time to fine-tune its individual parts, and animated digitally.
The art style is gorgeous. It takes the so-called “black noir” art of Batman: The Animated Series, originally created by drawing backgrounds on black rather than white paper, and adds the vibrancy and clarity that only digital animation can accomplish. Here are some scenes, for comparison:
The only problem with comparing more recent Batman cartoons to the iconic 90s series, as I’ve been doing for most of this review, is with voice acting. Much like the Legend of Zelda fans that I [complained about in my last review], most Batman: The Animated Series fans won’t accept anyone other than the original voice cast for new Batman projects. Yes, Batman had some amazing talent, including Mark Hamill as the Joker (a performance which launched his prolific voice acting career,) Kevin Conroy as the first Batman actor to ever use separate voices for Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, and Arleen Sorkin as the first and most adorable incarnation of Harley Quinn. But are they the ONLY actors capable of voicing these characters? Absolutely not. Nor does every actor who voices the Batman characters need to emulate the original cast. Under the Red Hood is a great example of voice acting that’s different from the DCaU norm, but still excellent. John DiMaggio, known primarily for his roles as Bender on Futurama and Jake on Adventure Time with Finn and Jake, does an excellent job as the Joker, despite the fact that his portrayal is much more subdued than Hamill’s. Neil Patrick Harris as Gotham’s resident pretty-boy Nightwing is as perfect a voice-casting choice as I could imagine, and Bruce Greenwood does an admirable job as Bats himself.
The only voice performance that I really had a problem with was Jensen Ackles as the Red Hood. Once again, this may reveal my own personal biases, but his performance was so melodramatic that it completely took me out of every scene he was in, (read: nearly every scene in the film.) In fact, I found the final showdown between Red Hood and Batman almost impossible to watch with a straight face; however, I’m willing to concede that this probably isn’t a problem for everyone who watches it.
If you’re new to DC’s animated films and interested in checking them out, I strongly recommend that you start with Under the Red Hood. It’s a pitch-perfect Batman mystery with gorgeous visuals, and you might realize that you’ve learned a thing or two about Batman continuity after it’s over.
For more of the Red Hood, check out Silverwolf’s review of Red Hood and the Outlaws #1.