Saturday, April 23, 2011

Batman: Under the Red Hood

(Movie Review)

One of the disadvantages of doing a movie review project, in which I review every single new movie I see, is that I can no longer hide my guilty viewing pleasures.

So, as much I would like to say I spent the other night re-watching "Citizen Kane," the truth is that I was (sigh) watching yet another cartoon movie about comic book superheroes.

Guilty pleasures, almost by definition, can not be defended intellectually. But if I were asked why, as a grown man, comic books still held some sort of attraction for me, I would answer that it was the idea of collaborative story telling being extended over a period of several decades. (I used this same excuse previously in another post, when reviewing "Inheritance," and discussing the evolution of some of the former teenage sidekicks in the DC comic book universe.)

This is what fascinated me as a kid: the idea that modern comic books were continuing a story that had started 60 or 70 years ago, and that a comic book written today could reference some past event from another comic book written 20 or 30 years ago, and tie it into a story arc going on now.
And, although I no longer regularly read comic books, to the extent that I still keep half an eye on what the industry is up to, this continues to be the attraction for me.

Not, of course, that the industry always takes full advantage of the artistic opportunities offered to it by this medium of story telling. Not by a long shot. Most of the time they're just out for quick buck rather than trying to re-create Faulkner's tapestry of interconnected stories. But I still find the inherent potential of the medium interesting.

(There's a certain type of person who is interested in this kind of thing. We're called geeks. If you're not already one of us, I suppose the appeal probably can not be explained to the uninitiated. I have no hopes of making converts here-- I'm just trying to explain why some of us find it interesting.)

This particular movie is based on a story arc that played out in the comic books in 2005-2006, and as most comic book stories do, it ties together threads from several previous comic book stories.

There is a superhero called Batman (created in 1939) who adopted a young orphan named Dick Grayson, and trained him to be the first Robin (1940). Dick Grayson eventually grew up, and left the role of Robin at age 18 to become Nightwing (1984). Batman adopted a new young boy named Jason Todd, and trained him to become the second Robin (1983). Jason Todd was eventually killed by the Joker (1988). But then Jason Todd returned from the dead (2005), this time disguised as the Red Hood. (The Red Hood, of course, being the Joker's former identity before he fell in the vat of acid and went insane (1951).)

[A quick sidenote here:
I remember in 1988 when Jason Todd was killed off. I was still in elementary school, and I didn't yet have access to comic books at the time. (I wouldn't be able to get my hands on comic books until I had some money in my pocket and a driver's license to take myself to the store--so I didn't start collecting until I was 16.) But like all young boys I was interested in comics, and the death of Robin was one of those big media events that made it into the general culture. I suspect other people my age may remember some of the buzz around this.
My classmates at school talked about Robin's death, and I was absolutely horrified that DC would kill of my favorite character. (Watching Superfriends, or the old Batman cartoons, I always identified with Robin because he was supposed to be around my age.)
It wasn't until years later, when I actually started reading comic books for myself, that I realized the Robin they had killed off hadn't been THE Robin, Dick Grayson, but rather just the replacement Robin, Jason Todd. This was perhaps a bit of dishonest marketing on DC's part. (They had advertised it as the death of Robin, without any qualifications.) But it definitely got people's attention.]

Anyway, remembering the death of Jason Todd as being a pivotal moment in the comic books of my youth, I was curious to see how his return played out.

The movie starts out with the Joker beating Jason Todd with a crow bar. And right from the beginning we see that, although this movie is a cartoon, it has earned it's PG-13 rating.
(At the risk of sounding like a media prude, I've got to say I've got mixed feelings about mixing this kind of brutal violence with comic book superhero movies. This scene is straight out of the comic book, but because of the different nature of the medium, it didn't seem quite as gruesome on the page as it did played out on the screen. I'm not sure I feel comfortable with this kind of bone breaking brutality mixed in with my escapist fiction.)

Shortly after Jason Todd is killed, we cut to 5 years later when a new mysterious supervillian, The Red Hood, is trying to intimidate Gotham's existing crime lords. Because of the sudden transition between scenes, it should be obvious to anyone with any intelligence at this point that the Red Hood is connected to Jason Todd. (One of the reasons I haven't been worried about revealing any spoilers in this review is because the movie doesn't even try to hide the surprise. I guess they figured that most people who would rent this movie probably already knew the story anyway.)

However there are several chase and fight scenes between Batman and Jason Todd (with Nightwing making a few cameo appearances) before Batman finally figures everything out.

The movie has several high adrenaline fighting scenes, so I guess you get what you expect with a comic book movie.
And even though this is a low budget direct to DVD movie, they don't hold back on the quality of the action scenes. There's plenty of choreography that looks like it took a bit of time for the writers and animators to plan out.

Although by the end of the movie, the fighting did get repetitive. At least it did for me.

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (to compare with another animated Batman movie), did a good job of mixing up the various action scenes, so you don't get too bored with any one thing. There was fighting on motorcycles, fighting on an airplane, fighting with a jet pack, a giant suction engine, et cetera.

"Under the Red Hood" by contrast has a lot of fighting and chasing scenes that are all pretty much the same thing. It's well done for what it is, but I found myself getting slightly bored.

The plot is decently complex for a comic-book movie. There are several different players involved with different motives. Batman is fighting the Red Hood, who is fighting the Black Mask, who is trying to establish control of the other Gotham crime lords. And the Joker is also involved, switching his alliances as the events suit him.

If you're a comic book fan, it's probably worth the rental. If you're not a fan, don't bother.

[Second side note:
Over the years there have been a lot of snickering comments about Batman's need to surround himself with young boys. After Dick Grayson grew up, Batman immediately replaced him with another Jason Todd. And when Jason Todd was killed, he was immediately replaced by yet another young boy as the 3rd Robin (Tim Drake, 1989).
Of course from a marketing standpoint, it's easy to see why DC comics is doing this. Batman and Robin are a well established brand, and for the brand to remain familiar to the general public you always have to have the same old Batman, and some sort of recognizable Robin. You can kill off one of these characters to temporarily increase sales, but then you better replace them with someone who looks almost exactly the same.
The obsession in comic books with protecting the brand recognizability, rather than focusing on story telling or naturally evolving characters, is the major thing hindering the potential of the medium. (I wasn't clued into just how big a deal brand recognition was in the comic book world until I started reading the blog of former DC insider "Occasional Superheroine").]

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky critiques ideas by both politicians and citizens to achieve Mideast peace

Also: From Peter's blog, an interesting post explaining the real reason the Michigan economy is in such bad shape.

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