In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate every Sunday of April to celebrating the character?
Released: 27 July 2010
Director: Brandon Vietti
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, John DiMaggio, Wade Williams, and Jason Isaacs
Gotham City’s underworld is terrorised by a murderous vigilante known only as “The Red Hood” (Ackles). In investigating this new threat, Batman (Greenwood) is forced to face the greatest failure of his career as old wounds reopen and old, once buried memories come into the light.
As I detailed in my review of A Death in the Family (Starlin, et al, 1988), readers were first introduced to Jason Todd in March 1963. With the original Robin, Dick Grayson, having grown up and gone away to college, Jason was initially almost indistinguishable from his predecessor until he was given an “edge” by writer Jim Starlin following the Crisis on Infinite Earths (Wolfman, et al, 1985 to 1986). Readers didn’t take kindly to the new Robin and, in a moment that went on to define Batman for years to come, DC Comics made the decision to kill the character off in the aforementioned Death in the Family storyline. For over fifteen years, Jason Todd stayed dead and his death haunted Batman; his monument in the Batcave served as a constant reminder of Batman’s greatest failure and he was long considered one of only a handful of comic cook characters who would stay dead. The character made a surprise return during the “Hush” storyline (Loeb, et al, 2002 to 2003) before being officially brought back to life (through cosmic, reality-bending shenanigans, of course) in the “Under the Hood” arc (Winick, et al, 2004 to 2005; 2005 to 2006). Jason’s resurrection was generally positively received and he has gone on to become a popular anti-hero as the Red Hood and, 2010, Winick came onboard to write the animated adaptation of his influential storyline. Batman: Under the Red Hood was the eighth animated feature of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line-up, which aimed to be more mature than the DC Animated Universe popularised by Bruce Tim and Paul Dini. Batman: Under the Red Hood was one of the most successful of DC’s animated ventures, making over $12 million in sales and being critically applauded; a follow-up even surprisingly landed in 2020 in the form of an interactive animated feature that was also quite well received.
I never really had any strong feelings for or against Jason Todd as I read comic books so sporadically as a kid that, by the time I even read A Death in the Family, Dick Grayson had already become Nightwing and Tim Drake was already the third Robin so, if I didn’t like what happened to him, it was too late to be mad about it. I do feel, though, like the idea of bringing him back was great…on paper….but that DC Comics screwed it up in execution. Personally, I think Jason should have been Hush all along as his outfit in Hush was way better than the Red Hood look and, considering DC kind of retconned that Jason was present during Hush anyway, I think this would have made a lot more sense. Plus, it took DC a long time to find a way to mention Jason’s dramatic return without having to reference the reality-breaking shenanigans of Infinite Crisis (Johns et al, 2005 to 2006) and, in that regard, if feels like Under the Red Hood tells a far simpler and much more coherent version of events surrounding Jason’s resurrection thanks to the benefit of hindsight.
Under the Red Hood opens with its interpretation of the events of A Death in the Family; in this adaptation, Ra’s al Ghul (Isaacs) allied with the Joker (DiMaggio) in his latest bid to disrupt Europe’s economy. He realises the error in his judgement all-too-late as the Joker captured Jason Todd/Robin (Vincent Martella) and was busy amusing himself by taunting Robin and mercilessly beating him with a crowbar. Although Jason remained defiant, even with a collapsed lung and having been beaten half to death, he was helpless against the Harlequin of Hate. Despite Jason struggles with all his failing might to hold out for Batman, who raced to aid his young partner, he was killed when the warehouse that he was trapped in explodes (again, take note: Jason is killed by the explosion and not by the crowbar!) The film then jumps ahead five years to find Gotham’s criminal figureheads lured into a meeting and confronted by the mysterious Red Hood. Red Hood delights in taunting the criminals and muscles his way into the operation, promising to protect them from both Batman and Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Williams) on the proviso that they don’t peddle their wares on young kids and proves himself a credible threat by presenting a bag full of the severed heads of their lieutenants. Meanwhile, Batman continues to operate within the city; however, his experiences with Jason have left him more of a loner than ever, to the point where he even out-right refuses Nightwing’s (Harris) help in taking down Amazo (Fred Tatasciore), a superpowered android with all of the powers of the Justice League. Nightwing, of course, completely disregards this and helps anyway and, in the process, the two learn of the Red Hood’s bid to muscle the Black Mask out of power and control Gotham’s underworld.
When the Red Hood kills the thugs transporting Amazo, Batman gives chase in the Batwing but loses him in the Axis Chemical Plant (though not before having a flashback to his first encounter with the Joker, who, at that time, was hidden under the guise of the original Red Hood). Back at the Batcave, Batman and Nightwing analyse the footage of the biker-gear-clad vigilante and note that, since he arrived in town, crime has fallen significantly. Suspecting that the Joker may be behind the new Red Hood, they head to Arkham Asylum to interrogate the Clown Prince of Crime, who denies any involvement in his activities but takes the opportunity to rile Batman up over failing to save the former Robin. Meanwhile, the Red Hood’s activities have angered Black Mask, the ruling mob boss of Gotham City. In this incarnation, Black Mask is similar to Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull in that, rather than wearing a mask or a helmet, his head is literally a charred black skull. Apart from that, he’s a bombastic, maniacal gangster who viciously beats anyone who dares to stare at his gruesome appearance. His efforts to kill the Red Hood meet in failure as he is closely monitoring Black Mask’s meetings and movements so that he can steal his weapons and merchandise. Thankfully, Batman has also been monitoring Black Mask, correctly guessing that the Red Hood would hijack his latest shipment, and as a result comes face-to-face with Gotham’s newest vigilante once more after an exhilarating chase through a construction site, across the city rooftops, and even across the city’s famously impractical blimps.
Thanks to the Red Hood’s impressive skills, physical aptitude, and apparent knowledge of Batman’s weapons and tactics (all of which Nightwing, and even Batman, admit to being amazed by), this proves to be a trap as Batman and Nightwing are lured into an explosion that leaves Dick’s leg injured. Both of them marvel at the Red Hood’s physical abilities and skills and knowledge of Batman’s tactics but Batman is stunned when he reviews the playback of their encounter and hears the Red Hood calling him “Bruce”. Black Mask steps up his campaign against the Red Hood, beating, threatening, and killing all of those who have sold out to him and hiring mech-wearing mercenaries to hunt him down, but Batman interrupts the fracas and takes the mercs out alongside Red Hood. Although Batman is disgusted when the Red Hood uses lethal force to kill one of the mercenaries, he nevertheless attempts to offer Red Hood help but the helmet-clad vigilante angrily refuses, believing that his willingness to kill is making an actual difference as opposed to Batman’s more merciful ways. By analysing the Red Hood’s blood, Batman confirms, without a doubt, that he is Jason Todd resurrected. Realising that only one man could possibly have been responsible for Jason’s return to life, Bruce angrily confronts Ra’s and learns about what happened all those years ago: remorseful for allowing the Joker to kill Bruce’s young partner, Ra’s recovered Jason’s body (leaving a dummy in his grave) and revived him by submerging him in the restorative Lazarus Pit.
Aesthetically, Under the Red Hood greatly resembles many of DC’s other animated efforts; characters aren’t quite as exaggerated or cartoony as they are in the DCAU but are still quite stiff and rigid. Luckily, this allows the film’s many chase and fight sequences to shine even more, but it does make prolonged scenes of dialogue and exposition to appear a bit inflexible. The voice cast, however, is pretty stellar; Bruce Greenwood makes for a gravelly and intimidating Batman, even if he is imitating the iconic Kevin Conway somewhat, and the film does a pretty good job of showcasing the impact Jason’s death had on him and his rage at allowing himself to be so easily duped by Ra’s’ deception. John DiMaggio makes for a serious and menacing Joker who appears to be evoking both Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger’s take on the character, and Neil Patrick Harris makes for a great Nightwing as well and makes an impression despite being taken out of the film before long (although it’s a bit odd that common thugs know about his past as Robin) but it’s Jensen Ackles’ wit and biting tongue as the Red Hood and Wade William’s explosive portrayal of Black Mask that are the highlights of the feature for me.
The film is peppered with flashbacks to Batman’s time working alongside Jason; during the boy’s (Alexander Martella) first year as Robin, he was an excitable, carefree Boy Wonder who Batman first met as he was in the process of stealing the tyres off the Batmobile and delighted in being Batman’s brightly-coloured, hyper-chatty crimefighting partner. As he grew into a teen, however, he became and angry and bitter young man who constantly defied Batman’s orders and brutalised criminals without mercy. His dip in the Lazarus Pit saw him awaken from death half-crazed and unstable and set him on the path towards becoming a murderous vigilante and making both Batman, and the Joker, pay for their actions. Driven to the edge by the Red Hood’s disruptive actions, and the vigilante’s direct assault on his offices with a rocket launcher, Black Mask arranges for the Joker to be smuggled out of Arkham and sets him loose to kill the Red Hood on his behalf. This, however, was exactly what the Red Hood wanted as it allows him to get his hands on the man who murdered him and deliver a measure of payback with a crowbar.
Luring Batman to Crime Alley, the Red Hood finally reveals his face to his former mentor and demands to know why the Joker is still alive after everything he’s done but especially for taking Jason away from Bruce. He makes a damn good point, one that has been endlessly debated, and states that he can forgive everything Bruce has done and that he’s not talking about mass murder of every two-bit thug or supervillain, but he cannot forgive (or understand why) the fact that Batman hasn’t killed the Joker in recompense for his years of slaughter and for killing him (as in Jason). After a brutal fist fight between the two, Batman apologises but states that he could never kill anyone, not even the Joker, because it would be “too easy” and lead to him becoming just as bad as the criminals he hunts on a nightly basis. Enraged and distraught, Jason demands that Batman shoot him before he executes the Joker; when Batman adamantly refuses to betray his morals, Jason triggers an explosion and disappears once again. In the aftermath, Bruce refuses to have Jason’s monument removed from the Batcave as he never wants to forget how badly he failed young Jason and turned him from a cheery youth and into a damaged, violent killer.
Batman: Under the Red Hood is an incredibly bleak and sombre examination of Batman’s greatest failure; one thing I always liked about Jason being dead was how this incident weighed heavily on Batman’s mind and that a constant reminder sat in the Batcave for years so that he (and the reader) would never forget those dramatic events. When Jason returns to life as a violent and unhinged vigilante and twists Batman’s teachings and moral codes into a spiteful vendetta, Batman is forced to confront his failure, and his past, head-on and the film does an excellent job of not only adapting the source material it is based on but also adding to it and, in many ways, improving it. Having Ra’s be the one responsible for Jason’s resurrection as opposed to an alternative version of Superman punching reality just makes so much more sense and seeing Jason snark, shoot, and muscle his way into Black Mask’s dealings was really great thanks to Ackles’ portrayal of the character. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to Jason’s youth and even the Joker’s origin, which helped add some additional context to those who may be unfamiliar with these elements, and overall the film is a great example of the unwavering commitment Batman has to his “no-kill” rule and the impact that has on his never-ending war against crime.
Are you a fan of Batman: Under the Red Hood? How do you feel it works as an adaptation of A Death in the Family and Under the Hood and did you enjoy the changes that the film made to the story and Jason’s resurrection? What did you think to the voice cast, particularly Greenwood, DiMaggio, and Ackles? Were you a fan of Jason Todd when he was Robin, or do you prefer his anti-hero persona? Would you like to see elements of this story make their way into a live-action Batman movie someday? Who is your favourite Robin and how are you celebrating the Boy Wonder’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on this film, Jason Todd, and Robin, leave a comment below and check back next Monday as Robin Month continues!