Tuesday, August 24, 2010

UNDER THE RED HOOD, or Jason Todd's answer to KICK-ASS

I just recently saw Batman: Under The Red Hood.* I went in with pretty high hopes and wasn't really disappointed; by and large, it's a solid piece of work. The voice cast is great, and even though I have some complaints best left unsaid, I still think Neil Patrick Harris did a good job with Nightwing, (but I just wish the context was different.) He's used very infrequently and could be cut completely with limited effect on the plot. John DiMaggio plays a very interesting Joker, who I'd say is one-half Mark Hamill-animated Joker and one-half Heath Ledger-Dark Knight Joker. His voice is a little lower and gruffer than I expect the Joker to be, but his philosophical dilemmas seem almost straight out of The Dark Knight. Bruce Greenwood plays a good tortured and brooding Batman, who is given much to brood over. Wade Williams plays a darkly hilarious Black Mask, a deformed criminal overboss who makes you forget how brutal he can actually be by delivering a wisecrack with each act of violence, though not in the same sense as a character like the Joker or Freddy Kreuger. Jensen Ackles of both Supernatural and Smallville fame rounds out the cast as the titular Red Hood/Jason Todd.

This story is very continuity heavy, but pulls it off well. You can watch this with no prior knowledge of the history of Batman and Robin and still follow along very easily. Conversely, you'll spot even more nods to important stories if you are familiar. In fact, continuity plays such a big part in this film that I'm likely going to do a second review
just on the continuity issues within this story. By that, I mean issues as in things mentioned, as opposed to problems or headaches.

The main storyline is the one with the greatest philosophical significance. A new crime boss comes into town. His approach is setting the rules by which criminals are to act, to serve as their protection if they stay loyal, and kill anyone who gets in his way. His initial goal is to undercut the authority of the standing crime boss, The Black Mask, who is the first to ever unite all the gangs of Gotham under one umbrella.

Batman crosses paths with the new crime boss,
conveniently, after having run into Nightwing and going out for a team-up. Seconds after giving up the first information about the Red Hood, three of his men are killed by the man himself. What follows is the first of a handful of chases, by which Batman and Nightwing notice the amazing set of physical skills the Red Hood employs racing across rooftops, a skill set which should look very familiar if you're watching the other end of the chase. After a short period of investigation, it's made clear that the crime boss/vigilante being called the Red Hood is the former and presumed-dead Robin, Jason Todd.

In the middle of all this is the Joker. The Red Hood was the identity he took on in his first criminal job, the one which lead to his disfigurement (and subsequent insanity) at the hands of Batman via a vat of chemicals. With this in mind, he is a major person of interest throughout the story to all involved. Also, he is the person who killed Jason Todd all those years ago. During one of his stays at Arkham Asylum at the beginning of the story, Batman and Nightwing go to interrogate him to see if he knows about why anyone would be taking his old identity. His only response is to bait the Batman about all the crimes he's committed, most notably the murder of Robin. When Batman falls for it and strikes out, attacking the Joker, he responds with "Are you going to do it this time, or just put me in another full body cast for six months?" Hearing that makes Batman relent, though he does seem close to killing him before that happens.

After this, a second encounter happens with the Red Hood, far more directly this time, kind of a repeat of the first that ends in a subway station. Nightwing gets injured, so Batman has to tend to him. With this distraction, the Red Hood decides to make a very Batman-like exit using the noise of a passing train. He gives Batman a parting comment as he goes, however. It's not audible at the time, so Batman has to use his computer to eliminate the sound of the passing train, but the Red Hood's parting comment is "You haven't lost your touch,
Bruce." The middle portion of the movie is Batman testing and ultimately confirming the theory that the Red Hood is Jason.

The rest of the movie is the escalating war between Black Mask and Red Hood, and how Bruce and Jason react to all the cards being on the table. In his first major counter-strike, the Black Mask sends a group of armored mercenaries after the Red Hood. When this happens, Batman arrives on the scene, and most of the fight comes off as a heartfelt reunion and reliving good times. That is of course until Jason kills one of the mercenaries and tells Bruce that "[He] should be happy I only killed one of them." Frustrated, the Black Mask makes the proverbial deal with the devil, and breaks the Joker out of Arkham.

The Joker immediately turns the whole thing around on Black Mask by subduing all of Black Mask's men as well as the Red Hood's men, threatening to burn all of them alive if the Red Hood doesn't show himself. When the Red Hood finally does show himself, he tells the Joker to go ahead and do it because everything he did was for a chance to get the Joker alone with him.

The Red Hood takes the Joker to an abandoned building as a means of drawing Batman in. Here, we find the best philosophical discussions in the movie. Now, I have to preface this by making it clear that both of the primary characters arguments could easily be demolished if The Question happened to walk in. I'm going to go as far as to say that possibly even the Renee Montoya version could accomplish this, provided she took her lessons well. But, for the sake of this argument, Jason Todd/Red Hood is a pure pragmatist, and Bruce Wayne/Batman is a dogmatist.

Earlier in the film ,Red Hood draws Batman into the chemical plant where the original Red Hood became the Joker. Red Hood ominously calls this Batman's first and biggest failure. This is important because Batman considers Jason's death (and he did die, but explaining it is a bit too complicated for the moment) his greatest failure. Jason follows up on this comment once Bruce arrives by saying that he knows Bruce considers that his biggest failure, but that he's forgiven him for it long ago. What Jason has not forgiven him for is the fact that
the Joker is still alive.

Jason has regularly stated by this point that, as the Red Hood, he was a better Batman than the real one. Batman is trying to stop crime, the Red Hood simply tries to control it by taking over. Batman thinks taking a life is never justified, but the Red Hood doesn't bat a eyelash at the thought of taking a life. The Red Hood's mentality is that since the villains are the only ones allowed to be truly efficacious, it stands to reason that in order to combat them you must first become the worst among them.

Batman gives a somewhat satisfying answer in that he wants to kill the Joker, but that's a line that once crossed he could never come back from. It's pretty standard, but heartfelt. In the last moments of the story, Jason holds one gun to the Joker's head and hands a second gun to Bruce, stating that the only way he'll be stopped from shooting the Joker is if Bruce kills him. In a powerful moment, especially from an Objectivist viewpoint, Bruce simply puts the gun down and walks away. He isn't going to be a pawn in a game like this and isn't going to allow himself to accept unearned guilt from either death. This leads to an action climax and Bruce being left with a lot to think about, and a number of regrets.

*My co-workers are so awesome for loaning me stuff.

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