The release of the two-part Batman: The Long Halloween animated feature this summer marks one of the most ambitious projects yet from DC Animation’s slate of direct-to-video adaptations. Since 2007’s Superman: Doomsday, DC Animation has produced nearly fifty animated films that adapt key storylines from the comics. It’s an exciting offering for DC fans, particularly Batman fans, as the Dark Knight has starred in many of the most acclaimed releases. However, the sheer number of options may be overwhelming for new viewers unsure of where they should start.
For those looking to get into the DC Animated Universe for the first time, 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood is a great entry point. The 75-minute film was inspired by the 2004 comic book arc of the same name and chronicles Batman’s investigation into the enigmatic vigilante Red Hood, whose brutal brand of justice is drastically different than his own. Not only is Under the Red Hood one of the most emotional and morally complex adaptations of the bunch, but it establishes the tone and style that would embody the DC Animated Universe.
The timeline of the DC animated films can get confusing, as some entries are interwoven within a connected narrative and others branch off into their own separate universes. Under the Red Hood is accessible because it’s a standalone story that doesn’t require any previous knowledge of the comics or viewing of the other films. Any key information regarding Batman’s relationship with Robin and its impact on his current pursuit of Red Hood are included as flashbacks within the film itself.
It’s also clear early on that Under the Red Hood is far from a watered down cartoon intended for children, with the Joker (John DiMaggio) brutally beating the second Robin, Jason Todd (Jensen Ackles), within the opening minutes. It might take some new viewers off guard, but unlike later films such as The Killing Joke that use brutality for shock value, the violence is integral to the story being told. The guilt that Batman (Bruce Greenwood) feels about losing his protege weighs on him throughout the story as he quarrels with the remorseless tactics of the Red Hood.
The film depicts a Batman and Robin relationship that hasn’t been seen in any of the live action adaptations, as more casual viewers may only be familiar with the campier depictions from the 1960s series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, or Chris O’Donnell’s disastrous depiction of Robin in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. The nuanced partnership in Under the Red Hood mines the best of the rich comic book history, showing Batman’s worst anxieties realized when he’s unable to protect his young student. How can he take on the responsibility of protecting an entire city when he can’t save his closest friend? It’s a wrinkle that isn’t present in any of the other films, which up until now have mostly focused on Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma of losing his parents.
Under the Red Hood has a lived-in universe, and it’s a fun teaser that previews the larger world to new viewers. The appearances by characters like Nightwing, Black Mask, the Riddler, and Ra’s al Ghul don’t bloat the story, but rather establish a universe where Batman already has a relationship with the criminal underworld. The references to other comic book storylines are interwoven directly within the narrative, and they’re a great way to show the passing of time as Jason Todd grows up.
In fact, newcomers to the animated universe may enjoy the film even more if they’re not aware of the major twist that reveals Red Hood’s history. Although it’s likely common knowledge among even casual fans, the story still unfolds as a compelling noir with the “World’s Greatest Detective” piecing together clues in between the frequent action sequences. It’s one of the rare storylines that focuses heavily on Batman as an investigator, and not having the burden of teasing sequels allows the mystery to take precedence.
The vocal work is excellent, and the familiar characters are distinguished by interpretations not previously seen. Bruce Greenwood’s take on Batman is a hardened career criminal depressed by the lack of real change in Gotham. John DiMaggio’s Joker has elements of Mark Hamill’s frantic playfulness and Heath Ledger’s demented determination to break Batman’s morality, but DiMaggio gets to play a more experienced Crown Prince of Crime. He’s fought Batman for years, and yearns to find a new way to get under his arch-nemisis’s skin.
The more grounded story is a good way to introduce new viewers familiar with the cinematic adaptations to the stylized animation. While a film like 2013’s Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is excellent, the crowded action sequences featuring a wide variety of superpowered characters using different abilities could get overwhelming for those just starting out. The more restrained nature of Under the Red Hood’s darker tone introduces how the action sequences are structured and the mannerisms of the animated characters in a way that’s easy to pick up.
It also helps that this is one of the more cinematic outings from the slate. Christopher Drake’s soundtrack feels like a proper film score, and the detailed backgrounds avoid the stacity of animation that one may associate with direct-to-video releases. There are a few exaggerated sound effects within the action sequences, particularly during the final encounter between Batman, Red Hood, and the Joker, but this feels like a choice made for the film directly and not anything emulating the chaotic energy of a cartoon directed towards children.
For those who want to start delving into the exciting world of modern DC Animation and anyone who just wants to see a cool Batman mystery, Under the Red Hood is a thrilling adventure that pokes at serious questions about what drives the Dark Knight to continue what’s often a losing battle against the criminal underbelly. The lofty expectations for The Long Halloween aren’t just a result of the famous storyline or the talented creative team, but because DC Animation set a standard of quality that’s apparent after watching Under the Red Hood.
Bravo’s direction explodes with personality, but never becomes enamored of its own style or vivacity.
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