Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Batman: Under the Red Hood" isn't very good

I'm a fan of most of the WB's animated DC Universe product. It only rarely hits the highs of Justice League Unlimited, but it does a pretty darn good job of telling very comic-centric stories.

To this point, DC and WB have stuck to either condensing stories or characters down to their essence to create an interesting movie (which is how I felt about Wonder Woman and even the expansive Doomsday storyline from Superman), or they've animated adaptations of existing stories with which I was already on board (like New Frontier).

I am not a fan of Judd Winick and find him a middling writer at best (I don't even really like Barry Ween, and its killing me DC put him on Power Girl). Aside from the use of fake-Jason Todd in Hush and Grant Morrison's interpretation of a returned Jason Todd in Batman and Robin, I've been firmly against the move by DC.

As a kid, one of the most memorable comic reading experiences I recall ever having was reading A Death in the Family, the story in which Robin II, aka: Jason Todd, dies. I had been unable to find the issues on the newsstand, and was reading borrowed copies. Despite the fact I knew Todd was killed before opening page 1 made no difference. I stand by the visceral reaction I recall having, and bemoaning my inability to call in (I would have called to save Jason Todd. I thought he was great and a far more interesting guy than Dick Grayson, Robin 1).

All that aside, Winick just isn't the strongest writer at DC. In 2005ish, when Jason re-appeared, DC seemed to have this random assortment of writers on hand that were given assignments based seemingly upon some arbitrary system that had little to do with fan excitement about the writer, and more to do with who the editor's seemed to like.

Winick came to the title and gave himself very little time before he plunged into bringing back Jason Todd, an idea which had likely seemed like a great, missed opportunity when in 2004's Batman: Hush storyline, a master of disguise had masqueraded as Jason Todd, and the fan community went nuts.

I'm a fan of the idea that there are no bad ideas, there is only bad execution. And in this case, the execution went poorly. Winick's reincarnation was uninspired, went nowhere, and left plotholes through which one could safely pilot an Airbus A380 while wearing a blindfold.

In truth, DC didn't seem to know what to do with the character, either, and now that he's alive again, Jason Todd just sort of randomly pops up, filling whatever role as a thorn in Batman's side he needs to this week. And that's the greatest crime of all.

The movie of Under the Red Hood is written by Judd Winick, and every creaky line of dialogue and every "wha---?" illogical plotpoint feels like the slap-dashed writing of the former Real World participant. Winick's tendency to write cliche'd Batman-ese that echoes more talented artists winds up feeling like fanfiction, especially when he tries to cover up holes in his stories with lots of pointless violence and action.

In the format of the movie, even an animated movie, the improbability of Batman's world becomes one of fantastic impossibility, with physics and physiology defying leaps and invulnerability of faces against things like porcelain sinks, surviving point blank bomb explosions, and the dumbest car/ airplane chase sequence I've ever seen in cartoon or comics.

The movie likely requires you have some knowledge of characters like Ra's Al Ghul, and likely Todd himself. Time was that this would have been an issue for Jamie, but its kind of funny/sad that my wife doesn't blink anymore when discussing any of this stuff. To me, the story felt like something plucked midstream out of a year or two's worth of comics, and very incomplete, even as it referenced back story.

But the biggest issue is that (a) like in the comics, nothing particularly interesting actually happens despite a formerly dead side-kick shows up, (b) and there's no mystery at all for the audience as to the identity of the Red Hood. As my brother pointed out "there have only been four characters named in the movie. There's not even any other option." So its got some of the framework of a mystery, but just can't be bothered to go through the motions. But that's okay, because we don't ever really go through the process of the world's greatest detective puzzling it out, anyway. While I think we're supposed to know Batman has deduced the mystery, there's no revelatory sequence other than watching Batman open a piece of software.

I read elsewhere that some folks really liked the action sequences. I did not, and found them just sort of silly for Batman. Maybe in a Spidey cartoon, it would have made sense, but...

Anyhow, its rare I offer up an apology mid-movie and offer to turn it off, but I did so with "Under the Red Hood".

I will say: The bonus features are actually very nice. I'd read a fairly harsh review of the Jonah Hex animated short, but aside from the art team screwing up Hex's scars, I thought it was a pretty good reflection of the character and his Spaghetti Western roots. Its unfortunate some have read the short as misogynistic. The genre operates in such a morally gray (tilted toward darkness) landscape that its much more about survival and survival of the quickest and the deadliest, no matter their weapon. And, of course, about grim consequences of mucking with those deadlier than yourself.

Also, a couple of decent docs on the character of Robin.


Anonymous said...

The classic Red Hood story in Batman is 100x better than Winick's. At the end of the day, there's still no good reason Jason Todd is back aside from the 5 seconds of shock value it engendered and the rationalization that DC was trying to push forward edgy, out of the box stories. Winick is one of my top reasons I switched to trades so I can avoid all his stories.


The League said...

I actually was telling Jason and Jamie after the movie how I was switching to trades on Batman for the very same reason.

I'm not sure if I've read the "original" Red Hood story. What was it?

J.S. said...

What was really sad was knowing that Ryan was really disappointed as he sat there watching the movie in his Batman costume and cape. I couldn't see his face because of the cowl, but I think there might have been a tear under there...

Simon MacDonald said...

Hey I voted for Jason's death back in the day. I really, really did not like that character. Growing up like a lot of kids I wanted to be Dick Grayson cause I could hang out with Batman. Jason Todd seemed to me to be a spoiled brat who didn't appreciate what he had.

I did like the Jason Todd fake out in Hush and I was really disappointed to here that Jason was coming back for real. The old rule in comics is that only 3 people stayed dead, Uncle Ben, Bucky and Jason Todd. So far two of the three have come back from the dead. Whereas I believe Brubaker handled Bucky's return amazingly well the Red Hood/Jason Todd thing was a mess.

The original Red Hood story is from Detective Comics #168. I just re-read that issue a week ago as I brought my "The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told" trade back from Nova Scotia. Also, Alan Moore does an updated background for the Red Hood in "The Killing Joke".

Anonymous said...

@ Ryan: The original Red Hood story is a huge classic Batman arc. You absolutely have to read it. I can't even talk about it because it's written as a detective mystery and has a "twist".

@ Simon: The Jason Todd fakeout in Hush was great. Reading Hush while it was released monthly was great because you were racking your brain whether it really was Jason or not. I thought that plot point was used very well. It's just like Winick to see a great idea and then use it with his clumsy writing to crap all over it.


The League said...

See, I think I DID read the original Red Hood story, but I was unsure which one we were referring to. I have a copy of "The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told", so I read it there. I mostly recall reading the one in "The Killing Joke" of course, and so I was just thrilled to see the source material. I'll look it up tonight and re-read the 'Tec 168.

I have NEVER read the original Jason Todd comics. I think I looked at buying them at a local Con just before Death in the Family, and they seemed very expensive at the time, and so somehow I never picked up those back issues.

I think I liked Jason because (a) I know I perceived Dick Grayson as a rich goody-two shoes as a kid, and (b) he was Robin when I started reading Batman, not that quitter Grayson. I've also never liked Tim Drake all that much as he seemed like a caped Encyclopedia Brown. No matter how much "tragedy" they tried to heap on him, he always just seemed sort of... dull.

I am a fan of both Damian Wayne and what Miller seemed to be doing in "All Star Batman and Robin". So my taste for believing in a thuggish, bullying little kid being an appropriate choice has some deep-seeded roots. Maybe I just didn't buy a kid would make it in Batman's world unless he was full of idiot confidence?

Add in what I read as high drama as a kid, that this Jason Todd kid was maybe a lot more dangerous than what Batman intended to let loose... Anyway.

That said, I always liked the flashback Robin stuff, where we see a young Dick bouncing around like a flea before clocking the bad guys. Somehow "wacky Dick" always worked just fine.

I look forward to seeing what Morrison does to shuffle the characters with his announced "Batman, Inc." storyline.

The League said...

By "I never read the original Jason Todd comics", I meant I wasn't there for the first issues intro'ing Jason, and they somehow never made it into any of my reprints.

Dug said...

Totally agree, what a waste of a movie opportunity for DC out of all of the stories they had to choose from (or even *gasp* write fresh). Really unsatisfying.

As much as I enjoy John DiMaggio, I really think he was wrong for the Joker role. It didn't work at all for me.

The League said...

Unfortunately for most other working actors, Mark Hammill IS the animated Joker and Kevin Conroy IS the animated Batman, and everyone else is just kind of disappointing. Add bad dialogue to the mix, and...

I guess DC Animated wanted to do a BIG story, and a recent one. I have to think the fact that Winick is always working, but his stuff is not so good suggests he must be a total charmer in meetings.

The League said...

And to address Jason's comment: it was almost that bad. But I do not own a cape and cowl.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty insane that DC Animation chose Winick's Red Hood story to produce.

They could have chosen so many other classic DC stories:

1. The Legion -- Great Darkness Saga

2. Teen Titans -- Judas Contract

3. Birds of Prey -- Any Gail Simone arc

If they had to do a Batman movie, couldn't they have chose Long Halloween or Hush?? Hush would've been the Hollywood Batman movie everyone wanted.

The only thing I can think of is that Didio really, really likes Winick and feeds him money and jobs because he's one of the few writers on his side.


Simon MacDonald said...

Well Dick was Robin when I started reading Batman so that's one reason why I liked him but also because this is a kid who had tragedy in his past but still kept his humanity and humour. He makes a good mirror to the dark brooding Batman. Jason on the other hand was a bit too much like Batman only more brutal.

I have to agree that Damian Wayne is a great Robin. His character is so different from Dick/Jason/Tim that he really works.

I understand that the Teen Titans Judas Contract is on the slate of DC Animation movies. I can't wait to see how they handle the sexual relationship between Deathstroke and Terra.

The League said...

I like NTT's list. It's funny, I own a copy of The Great Darkness Saga, and I read it once and genuinely liked it a lot. Lately, for no particular reason, I've been thinking of re-reading the comic.

@Simon - I think that the bronze age Dick Grayson stuff always looks interesting. Especially now that I'm a bit older and have a different persepctive on what constitutes "interesting". Its not very well collected, so I've only seen bits of it here and there, but college-aged Robin seems interesting. Unfortunately, to me, Dick was the blandest of the Titans, which is where I saw the most of him back in the day.