In 1988, DC Comics held a poll, asking readers to weigh in if Robin should die. Not the same iconic Boy Wonder that you may know from the ‘60s Batman show, the cool leader from Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans, and the boy with the questionable, but kind of charming nickname. Dick Grayson was off on his own adventures, after butting heads with a stringent Batman too many times. No, the Robin whose life was in the hands of the fans was Jason Todd.
Batman met Jason in Crime Alley when the vigilante realizes a homeless kid was stealing the tires of the Batmobile. Luckily he was endeared by this because Jason’s antics managed to make Bruce laugh on the anniversary of his parents’ death. And an abused, abandoned child who cared about justice made for a great potential as Robin.
Readers, in general, were not kind to Jason. With a very complicated publication history, the second Robin had the hard job of not only being one of the first legacy characters in the DC Universe but being the legacy character of the beloved first Robin. And so, with 10,614 votes, Robin was voted to die by a slim 72-vote margin. (Although, there is a rumor that a lawyer from California just dialed for his death a hundred times.)
It was a shocking move, even after following some of the darker Batman storylines in the ‘80s such as The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight. (The issue also has a bizarre side story with the Joker that can be ignored on rereads.) It got negative feedback at first, but a year passed, a third-Robin arrived and in time, Jason became something of the ghost of Wayne Manor: mentioned in passing, an easter egg, Batman’s worst failure, part of the popular mantra: “Comic book character never stay dead unless they are Bucky Barnes, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” Well.
Today’s the 10th anniversary of DC’s animated Batman: Under the Red Hood. Directed by Brandon Vietti (Young Justice), it is a grim, quiet movie that explores Batman’s role as Gotham’s hero in relation to Bruce’s responsibility as a father, an element often missing from the larger public knowledge of the hero’s identity. Because of this, it is my favorite Batman movie.
The film starts with Jason’s murder at the hands of the Joker. It’s flinchingly brutal: the sound production emphasizes the infamous crowbar’s blows against Robin’s body. The Joker (Adventure Time’s John DiMaggio) is less theatrical and more of a low, simmering menace. Robin doesn’t say a word, but his character is well established: when the Joker snarls at him for not being as polite as the first Boy Wonder, Jason grins through his bloodied teeth.
But Batman (Bruce Greenwood) is too late and Jason dies with an apathetic, resigned expression, clearly giving up on the idea the hero will save the day.
Five years passed and Batman continues his fight in Gotham: a colder demeanor, with more tired lines on his face. He and Nightwing, the new moniker of the first Robin, learn of a new crime lord in town going by the Joker’s old alias, Red Hood (Jensen Ackles). The crime lord is also playing vigilante, breaking the singular comic superhero moral code, and Batman is bent on stopping him.
The film is able to work outside of the multiple on-going plotlines of the comics and clear out some of the excesses. As a result, it is tight and focused, feeling smaller and more individual than other animated or film installments, which is perfect for the impact it needs: this is essentially about two people in the aftermath of a singular tragedy and how Batman sometimes creates his own villains. Greenwood’s Batman is excellent in his own right, hitting a righteous stoicism mixed with exhaustion that smoothly transitions to something more gentle when he is taking on a more guardian approach. Greenwood goes on to play Batman in the Young Justice series which also relies on this interpretation of the character. The script, written by the same author who penned the comic Judd Winick, has Batman bounce off Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris) well; moments of levity that serve an important purpose: what the original ― and more cohesive ― Batman and Robin look like and intersperse these scenes with flashbacks of Jason’s tenure.
The film excels with small details in its compact runtime: the audience sees quick flashbacks of Jason as a cheerful child growing into a proud, angst-suffering teenager (voiced by Alexander and Vincent Martella). There are scattered implications in the comics that Jason is to blame for his death due to said anger, but this portrayal feels unfair: a better alternative would be to acknowledge that he was a child that needed more support to handle his traumatic childhood. After all, Jason “is unlike Dick in many ways” ― especially since Dick grew up with loving parents and magical traveling circus as a home, even for a tragically short time ― and Bruce wasn’t sure how to handle him. Bruce, at least, acknowledges this: “My partner. My soldier. My fault.” Ultimately, there is something noteworthy about how Jason was a child from the very heart of the city Batman swore to protect and could not protect him.
Our villain, Red Hood, has the potential of being a disastrous character and could easily veer into whininess. However, the dialogue and voice acting swings from unwaveringly calm and cool to playful and even dorky right back to very young and hurt. To this date, this still may be my favorite interpretation of the character. His lines are delivered so solidly, even with his shaky logic: the final confrontation between Red Hood and Batman is pure Shakespearean tension, with the Joker as a bemused spectator.
The final comic panels are a little more bombastic in their emotions, and that is always great, but the stillness and cool dialogue in the film feel necessary to allow a gut-punch finale. The Red Hood’s voice begins to waver, as he wonders why Batman never took revenge for his death. Batman replies evenly that it was against his moral code ― even with people like the Joker and even when the Joker kills his son. It is a reply that is divergent from stories about parents losing their children.
It’s a harsh climax, guaranteed to make you teary-eyed at the ending shot, and the film shows more in its restraint than an embrace of adult or violent themes. The animation is smooth and creative, taking time to show the difference between acrobatics and fighting techniques among the characters. The palettes are dark but more realistic, reminding one of Christopher Nolan’s take on the film.
Over five years ago, I associated Batman with the sort-of surface-level acknowledgment of grim darkness and an obsession with his sadness and only his sadness. I did not feel anything about him because I thought there was nothing else to him, and this, unfortunately, extended to the rest of the DC Universe. And Robin was barely in the picture: an outdated joke.
Then, I saw this film as my first Batman film and my mind was completely changed. I was drawn to the drama, the big declarations in the rain, and most of all, betrayal and family. I was seeing Batman as a father, which completely changed this long-standing character I thought I had pegged: he suddenly became more dimensional to me. (And I was 17 and 17-year-old girls have a hard time resisting very sad characters like Red Hood.) Under the Red Hood serves as an excellent gateway movie to the Batfamily, and for me, into the large universe DC has to offer.
Under the Red Hood feels refreshing because it solely comforts Batman’s role as a guardian, finding a balance between supporting Bruce’s position while still being critical of a character that could use less aggrandizing. It is a tragedy that has affected him just as much as his parents’ death did. The live-action and greater public understanding of Batman are, understandably, based on a lone wolf portrayal. However, Batman has one of the largest, most colorful supporting casts. General pop culture knowledge tends to only tie Batman to his villains but Batman is at his most compelling when he stumbles into a family and tries to provide a childhood he lost to others, despite the confines of his own tragedies keeping him from fully being able to open up emotionally. (He still refers to Jason as “his soldier”.) It’s why The Lego Batman Movie (directed by Chris McKay) is the second-best Batman movie ― equally excellent, if tonally opposite.
Apart from his characterization merged with Tim Drake’s in DC Animated series, the film is Jason’s first introduction on screen. The Under the Red Hood film had somewhat revitalized Jason’s place within the Batman canon. In sharp contrast to the ‘80s, his background and story have been used more and more across different mediums: new comics to video games to shows (in hopes of ending this civilly, your mileage may vary on its success). It is proof that Batman’s extensive cast is compelling to audiences. That there is so much more to use about Batman than his Year One portrayal ― with the right build and investment into the other characters in his life, a solid foundation can be made for stories like Under the Red Hood to be told.