Batman: Under the Red Hood [Blu-Ray]

The latest animated DC Universe offering revisits one of the most iconic moments in comics history: the brutal murder of the second Robin, Jason Todd, at the hands of the Joker. It's a tragic defining moment that marks the Dark Knight's greatest failure, and Under the Red Hood hinges upon all the consequences that blossom out of that moment. Fanboys will find continuity galore in this story, penned by comics veteran Judd Winick, but even casual fans will find plenty to love in this dark little tale. Under the Red Hood is packed to the gills with fan service, but it still explains everything sufficiently to entertain the folks who didn't even know there had been more than one Robin. Under the Red Hood opens with one of DC's most controversial moments. In the mid-'80s, original Robin Dick Grayson had been allowed to grow up and become his own man, donning the identity of Nightwing and fighting crime while sporting a popped collar that would have given Iron Fist a run for his money. After some experimentation and a universe-altering Crisis, Batman found a new partner in a smartass teenage ruffian named Jason Todd, whom Bats first encountered trying to steal the Batmobile's wheels (yes, really). Problem was, fans didn't really dig this new Robin. He was kind of a dick. So DC decided to let them put their money where their mouths were: they published a storyline that left Robin in peril, and included a 1-800 number fans could call to vote on whether Jason should live or die. Once the numbers were tallied, Jason's fate was sealed: the second Robin went the way of the dodo.

It's a brutal sequence of events that never would have seen the light of day in more kid-friendly Batman incarnations such as the acclaimed animated series or the more lighthearted Brave and the Bold. These DC one-shots, however, are more free to make their own rules. So, we see it unfold more or less just as it did on the page: Joker (voiced menacingly by Futurama's John DiMaggio) beats Jason half to death with a crowbar, blows him up to take care of the remaining half, and Batman arrives moments too late to save him. Fast forward five years and Bats is facing a new menace: a mysterious vigilante calling himself The Red Hood (voiced by Supernatural's Jensen Ackles). He spends as much time taking over the crime rackets as he does actually fighting crime, plus he's operating under the identity the Joker used to us use before a dip in a chemical bath gave him a sense of humor. Hood's skills are almost on par with Batman's, but unlike the Dark Knight, he doesn't hesitate to kill. Most troubling, he seems to have some connection to Batman's past.

At this point, the comic story arc that UtRH adapts is five years old, so we're well beyond the statute of spoiler limitations for comics fans. That said, I'm sure some of the folks who are considering watching this movie don't read comics, so for your sake, here's the brief, spoiler-free capsule review of Under the Red Hood. If you want to go in unspoiled, don't read any further than the end of the next paragraph.

Here we go: Under the Red Hood continues the quality streak the DC animated movies have been on lately with such excellent outings as Green Lantern: First Flight and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (we'll forgive them for the mediocre Public Enemies). The animation is top notch, the character and world design are perfectly suited to this bleak, moody tale, and the action is aggressive and thrilling. Bruce Greenwood effortlessly slips on the cowl as Batman, bringing to bear gruff tones and just the right balance of emotionality when needed. As mentioned above, animation vet DiMaggio does a solid job delivering a particularly unhinged incarnation of the Joker, helped along by a script that sees the Clown Prince of Crime doing some of his most violent and dastardly deeds. Greenwood and DiMaggio are operating in the shadow of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, a pair of actors who have made the roles of Batman and Joker their own for over a decade (at least in the animated field), so it's a credit to them that they don't just try to ape what's been done before. Neil Patrick Harris does a fine job as Nightwing/Dick Grayson, although he's sorely underused, which disappointed this lifelong Nightwing fanboy. Ackles sheds any Supernatural associations (however positive) and gives Red Hood all the emotional heft the role demands. Finally, Winick does an outstanding job adapting for screen a story he's already told on the page. It gets an unhesitant recommendation to buy if you're a fan, and it's definitely worth a rental even if you're just curious.

Warning: Big Honkin' Spoilers to Follow!

The biggest running joke in comic books is this: nobody stays dead forever. For the longest time, the only major exceptions to that rule were Captain America's one-time sidekick, Bucky; Silver Age Flash Barry Allen; and Jason "Robin 2.0" Todd. All three of them are currently alive and kicking in the four-color world. Yes, even if you're not a comic reader, it shouldn't take too much keen observation to work out that Jason Todd is The Red Hood. Sure, it's the main mystery of the movie, but with such loaded phrases as "old wounds reopen" adorning the DVD box, anybody with any storytelling savvy is going to see that reveal coming a mile away. And yes, the explanation for how he slipped one over on the Grim Reaper is definitely a bit of a stretch, but hey, this is a movie about a grown man who fights crime while dressed like a flying rodent, after all. Fortunately, none of these quibbles are really a problem, because the actual mystery is far less important here than the emotional weight it carries.

The best Batman villains are those with direct ties to the hero himself, especially ones that connect with Batman's sense of failure or responsibility. If Bats hadn't knocked a petty thug ass-over-teacups into a vat of chemicals, there would be no Joker (and, by extension, a lot fewer dead people with grotesque grins rictused across their faces). Two-Face was once Bruce Wayne's best friend, now he's one of his greatest enemies. Likewise, Red Hood isn't just another enemy in the never-ending battle against evil -- he's the very personification of Batman's failure. He's what Bruce could have become after his own tragedy, but for the better angels of his nature and the guidance of a fatherly butler. In fighting Red Hood, Batman is fighting one of his own deepest wounds, probably second only to his guilt over his parents' death that started this whole mess. It's an emotional anchor that gives real weight to what otherwise could be just another comic-book storyline, and it comes to a head during the climactic confrontation between Batman, Red Hood, and The Joker, a scene that's as tragic as it is intense.

Batman is by far the best represented of DC's animated catalogue thus far, and there's a reason for that. He's got the best rogue's gallery, he's perhaps the easiest to identify with, and, as Under the Red Hood demonstrates, he's ripe for meaty, psychological exploration. Wait, that sounds terrible. Whatever, just pick the movie up, you won't be sorry. Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, Under the Red Hood's special features lean heavily in the direction of Robin. "Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson" and "Robin's Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd" provide a combined hour or so of insight into the background of the first two kids to done the yellow cape and short pants of the Boy Wonder. Like all of the DC featurettes thus far, they're slick, well produced, and entertaining. Unless you have some weird aversion to comics history, they're worth a watch.

The gods of cross-promotion have included the usual crop of trailers for related properties such as Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and the anime-influenced Batman: Gotham Knight. Far more interesting, however, is the 12-minute look at Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, the next animated DC project, due out September 28th. For the first time, the DC originals are breaking protocol and putting out a direct sequel. Apocalypse follows up last year's Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and adapts another story arc from the comic series, this one introducing the latest incarnation of Supergirl and pitting Supes and Bats against Darkseid. I wasn't the biggest fan of Public Enemies, but this one has potential. Hopefully they'll produce a story that's more than just a series of fights punctuated by a big, robotic deus ex machina. At the very least, it yet again reunites Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly, the definitive voices for Batman and Superman in this writer's humble opinion, and that's never a bad thing. At any rate, the featurette is full of storyboards and interviews with the cast and crew, so it's worth a look if you're interested in finding out more and can't wait two months.

One of my favorite of DC's recent ideas is the DC Showcase, which pairs each of these new direct-to-DVD movies with a short film focusing on various characters. Crisis on Two Earths included a story about vengeance spirit The Spectre, and this time around we get scarred bounty hunter Jonah Hex in a wicked little tale about a murderous madam. The recent live-action movie left a bad taste in the mouths of many Hex fans, so it's nice to see it done right here. Even better, Hex is voiced by Thomas Jane, who was long rumored for the movie role before Josh Brolin landed the part. Also lending their pipes to the tale are Linda Hamilton, Michael Rooker, and Michelle Trachtenberg.

Finally, Under the Red Hood continues the tradition of including high-def versions of several thematically appropriate episodes from the various Timm/Dini DC animated series. In this case, we get the Robin and/or Joker-focused episodes "Robin's Reckoning, Parts One and Two," "Mad Love," and "The Laughing Fish." Good stuff, that is.