Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t a movie, it was an event. It spawned a tidal wave of merchandise, video games, roller coasters, an animated series, a ridiculous music video, etc… He dropped that movie on the world like a bomb, and in many ways it could be considered the high point of his career. His artistic approach was finally paired with mainstream material, and his success there has propelled him to being one of the go-to money making directors in Hollywood.
But, as an 8-year-old fan that was blown away by the gritty comic book take on the character that was developing throughout the 80s, the release of Batman is forever marked by me as a day of huge disappointment. I hated that boring, goofy movie. It was lamer than that show from the 60s I watched back when I was 6. Pathetic.
Batman: Under the Red Hood was a straight to video cartoon that kind of gets lost in the sea of DC straight to video cartoons. Most of these movie are pretty strong, don’t get me wrong, but they’re strong with the caveat that they’re just cartoons. They’re for kids, but they’re good enough to be enjoyed by adults, not good on the level of the best feature films.
Under the Red Hood is a step above the rest though. Other than The Dark Knight, I would say that it’s my favorite Batman thing that doesn’t come from the medium of the page.
What do they have in common?
Why is Batman overrated?
Burton’s movie is always praised for its visuals. That’s no big surprise, because that’s what Burton’s movies always get praised for – and it does look pretty good – but this is a case of the visuals undermining every other aspect of the movie. Burton goes for a pulpy, throwback aesthetic, to the point where all of the street scum are wearing zoot suits and fedoras, and it sabotages any real weight or drama that the film could possibly have developed.
Burton’s vision of Gotham is quirky and interesting, but it never feels like a real city. You’re painfully aware that you’re watching actors playing Batman on a soundstage during every street scene. A big part of the appeal of Batman as a character is the wish fulfillment that comes along with him; someone taking care of the awful things that the police can’t, in a way that you wish someone could. That gets lost in translation when what you’re watching looks like a comic strip from the 40s and not real life.
And for being a Batman movie, this thing is filled with more boring, lame stuff then I could have ever imagined. What in the heck is Robert Wuhl doing in this movie? He’s so annoying as the resident reporter trying to track down the Bat. This is a story that already has Vicki Vale in it as the love interest, where was the need for another reporter character who makes lame jokes? And, for that matter, why did we need Vicki Vale in this movie at all? Her inclusion stinks of studio notes; the notion that every release has to have a romantic element. If anything, she should have been used to show that Batman is too focused on his life’s obsessions to think about girls, but instead her inclusion in the story ends up being an opportunity to show us how good Batman is on dates. Aw, look! Batman is just a regular guy who wants to be loved! *puke* I guess it’s better than everything else that Batman does in the second act of this movie though, which basically amounts to sitting around in his mansion wearing fetching sweaters and watching TV.
None of those quibbles are nearly as egregious as the lack of understanding this movie has for the two main characters, Batman and the Joker, though. The Joker is supposed to be Batman’s most terrifying villain. He is completely insane, completely without empathy, and derives pleasure only from conceiving the most dark, demented, and vicious scenarios. He’s not funny, he’s not fun, he’s disturbing because he’s the only one laughing.
Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker is silly and… not good. He seems to have only been cast because he has a famous grin. Which is the level of thought put into everything here: break everything down to its iconic visual element and put it on the screen. This version of Batman, he kills people. He’s got machine guns on his Batmobile. He bombs a chemical plant, killing a bunch of people inside. He throws dudes off the top of a tall church. The entire Batman character is based around his obsessive attempt at keeping an irrational childhood promise that nobody will die ever again.
That’s what’s so tragic and cool about him. He will never win. While Burton clearly loved playing around with the visuals of the Batman universe, he didn’t understand the character at all.
Why is Batman: Under the Red Hood underpraised?
First off, this movie is so much more raw and gritty than any other Batman movie I’ve ever seen. It starts off with the Joker beating Robin to death with a crowbar. And I’m not saying it cuts away and implies that’s what he’s doing; we watch him do it, and we listen as he taunts him the whole time. And then, when we meet the Red Hood, he introduces himself by showing up to a meeting of drug dealers with a bag full of their lieutenant’s heads. I never imagined I’d ever see a movie version of Batman that was this hardcore, and it’s coming from a cartoon.
Despite its inclusion of a laser gun and a robot that can absorb super powers, this movie is about a hundred times less cartoony than Burton’s. This animated version of Gotham feels like a real, lived in city, and Batman’s felt like deleted scenes from Roger Rabbit. My 8-year-old self could have definitely got behind something like this.
And instead of Robert Wuhl and blonde girlfriends, the supporting cast is mostly made up by badass villains. Over the course of this film we get interpretations of the Joker, the Red Hood, Ra’s al Ghul, and Black Mask. They don’t just show up in little cameos that are meant to make hardcore fans cheer either, they’re all very organically integrated into the story, and they all have such distinct personalities and approaches to villainy that it’s a great time watching Batman bounce off of them in different ways.
Truly, Batman has the best rogues gallery in all of comic book history. Oh yeah, and Neil Patrick Harris is doing the voice of Nightwing, as well. How cool is that? Beats the heck out of Arliss.
But the big reason I liked this movie so much is that it’s such a great, particular to Batman story. This thing digs down deep to the center of who Batman is. Instead of just giving him a girlfriend and then having her get kidnapped, Under the Red Hood roots all of its plot elements in Batman’s biggest failures, his deepest regrets. This is an insanely personal story for the character, and watching it play out is seriously affecting. A big part of why that is stems from the identity of Batman’s new villain, the Red Hood. The mystery of who’s behind the mask is another thing I really liked about how the story plays out. His identity is fairly obvious, and I thought that was going to be a problem at first, but they don’t make the mistake of playing it as a big mystery for long.
He gets figured out early, because the storytellers know that exploring the consequences of the reveal is the real meat of their tale. If it had built up to a last minute unmasking, Scooby-Doo style, the whole movie could have been sunk. This isn’t a Batman who casually kills, either. Instead of flagrantly disregarding Batman’s No Killing mantra, Under the Red Hood makes it a focus of the story, and then it challenges and explores it. If you’re looking for a Batman fix, this is that pure, uncut shit.
Evening the Odds
I’ve written about it a bit already, but the most obvious, apparent example you can point to in order to prove that Under the Red Hood is a cool Batman story and Batman isn’t is their differing portrayals of the Joker. In Batman we get several scenes where he dances to Prince songs, while doing things like defacing art and shooting comically large guns in the air. Why?
I know the real reason is that Prince signed a high dollar deal to do the soundtrack for the movie, but in the context of the story, why does that make sense for the character? Batman is the sort of corporate driven production that doesn’t concern itself with questions like that. In Under the Red Hood Joker gets to play Hannibal Lecter when Batman comes to see him for information about the Red Hood, and there’s a scene where he casually murders four people just because someone was stupid enough to let him have a glass of water while in captivity.
That’s how you establish a dangerous, scary villain. Not ‘Batdance.’