The saying goes “if you loved the book, you’ll hate the movie” and while I don’t necessarily agree, the creators of Titans seem to be proving it true. Lately, the Internet has been brimming with op-eds about the show failing to deliver what it promised and wasting the setup of the new season’s first few episodes.
Not helping its case is the fact that Titans took on a lofty responsibility to adapt one of the most beloved and iconic Batman storylines – Under the (Red) Hood, published back in 2004 (yes, originally Red wasn’t in the title), and seems to be utterly missing the mark.
There already exists an adaptation beloved by both critics and the audience out there.
So while we’ve still got to see where the show goes, let’s take a walk down memory lane and look at 2010’s animated Batman: Under the Red Hood, the adaptation as beloved as the original “book”.
The Set-Up: There’s a New Boss in Town
…and he’s not afraid to shoot.
If you haven’t read the original story, haven’t seen the movie, and by some miracle have managed to avoid everything Titans, here’s what you need to know.
The action in Under the Red Hood kicks of right off the start and the creators don’t pull any punches.
Our protagonist (or antagonist? This movie makes it hard to tell) enters the scene by having chopped off 8 people’s heads. These were the lieutenants of the biggest drug dealers in Gotham. They now face the dilemma of either working under the Red Hood and play by his rules (no dealing to children under pain of death). Or risk sharing their lieutenants’ fate.
His standing solidified, Red Hood starts an all-out war with one of Gotham’s biggest crime lords – Black Mask, attempting to steal his merch and putting him under Batman’s hit.
When Batman stops the attempt with Nightwing’s help, Red Hood dispatches the thieves and gets away.
Thus begins a three-way cat-and-mouse game between Red Hood, Black Mask, and Batman, who is always one step behind, unless Red Hood wishes otherwise.
And that presents a unique problem for Batman. Because Red Hood has evidently not only had training but possesses an intimate knowledge of how Batman works, and what his strengths and weaknesses are, luring him to play his game over and over.
Under the Red Hood: The Background
See, it turns out that the Red Hood is Jason Todd. The second Robin, who was brutally (and the movie doesn’t pull any punches here, the scene truly is brutal) murdered by Joker (voiced by the brilliant John DiMaggio).
Turns out, Ra’s al Ghul – another one of Batman’s longtime foes – has brought Jason back to life using his prized Lazarus Pit. A magical pool of water that can (sometimes, depending on the writer of the week) bring people back to life.
Seeing Batman’s crusade as never-ending and thus ineffective, he now wishes to do what Batman doesn’t. To control crime instead of eradicating it. And unlike Batman he sees lethal force as a perfectly acceptable method to do it.
But that’s not all. Or, as it turns out in the end, no it at all.
Because while Jason does wish to control Gotham’s crime and reduce the number of overall victims – it’s not why he started this elaborate scheme at all.
Jason wants vengeance. And he’s not afraid to manipulate everyone around him, including Black Mask and Batman, to bring the elaborate vision of his revenge to life.
What Makes Under the Red Hood So Iconic
Judd Winick – the author of the original Under the (Red) Hood (Batman #635-641, 645-650, Annual #25) storyline from Batman comics – worked on the movie script as well. It can certainly be seen that he was invested in making the movie as true to original comics as possible.
And while he was forced to make certain changes as one always is when translating written stories to the screen, he did try to keep the two key ingredients that made the original story so beloved – the gripping intrigue and emotional brutality of it all.
Under the Red Hood is a fast-paced blockbuster that’s brimming with excellent action. Batman and Nightwing against Amazo is still up there on the list of tensest fight scenes in DC movies. There are multiple twists and turns the viewer doesn’t expect (or expects but anticipates). It has sharp emotional undertones which culminate in Shakespearean tragedy by the movie’s final act.
This is a movie that doesn’t pull any punches – the violence is never masked, but neither is it glorified.
But most importantly, the movie does what comics rarely do. It depicts a more realistic approach to trauma, as well as dealing with having been murdered and then coming back, while the world has moved on. Death often gets glossed over in comics. With characters dying and coming back so often, it’s almost a rite of passage at this point.
But Jason’s death isn’t like that. It’s ugly, it’s violent, and it’s traumatizing, changing both him and everyone around him forever.
In the end, behind all the beautiful intense action, Under the Red Hood is the story of an unjustly murdered child seeking reckoning. Which is something many of the viewers can sympathize with.
(But the beautiful intense action and twisty plot are no less important, of course).
Where It Falls Short
Despite all the effort, Winick put into the script, there were certain aspects of the story that were simply impossible to translate to the screen. And the movie suffered for it, at least in the emotional aspect.
For example, the flashbacks of Jason Todd as Robin draw a picture of him as an increasingly volatile youth, who found pure joy in beating criminals up. The truth is for most of his run, Jason was an exemplary Robin. The writers really tried to make readers like him. (Unfortunately, the fanbase wouldn’t overlook his crime of not being Dick Grayson).
Him and Bruce having a falling out was a result of a singular incident. Death of a serial rapist with diplomatic immunity that made it impossible to prosecute him on US soil. And even then Jason’s guilt was ambivalent. Which made sense. Since Batman was supposed to be the focal character, as he didn’t know what really happened, neither could the readers.
There’s also the fact that in the original story, Joker didn’t trap and murder Jason simply because the latter decided to be a rebellious teen. He was trying to save his birth mother. It’s complicated and entirely in vein with comics being one neverending soap opera.
…not to mention R’as al Ghul was completely against using Lazarus Pit on him.
In other words, a lot of emotional complexity of the original story got lost in translation. Simply because there were so many details at play and so much knowledge required of storylines outside of Under the (Red) Hood, that a whole miniseries could very well be made and still fall short.
One movie with a runtime of 75 minutes just couldn’t contain it all.
But boy did the creative team try. And despite losing a lot of backstory, they successfully portrayed the main character – a volatile, emotionally damaged vigilante with views drastically different from Batman – in a sympathetic light.
Just look at this smirk. Impossible not to wonder what’s in for him next.
Since Superman: Doomsday dropped in 2007, the list of DC Universe Animated Original Movies has expanded to over 40 titles. With no less than half of them including Batman in a major capacity. Understandable, as he remains DC’s most popular superhero.
Just as understandable that DC keeps trying to capitalize on that popularity in every medium, including animated films. Over the years iconic storylines such as Batman: Hush, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Long Halloween have all found themselves adapted to the silver screen.
And yet, a decade+ after Under the Red Hood dropped, it still remains on top of the list of best animated DC movies, both among the critics and fans (at least among those who’ve seen it).
For a good reason, too.
Despite the (many) changes from the original story and a short runtime which can feel a little overstuffed due to the amount of both narrative twists AND action sequences packed into it, this movie still feels as fresh as back in 2010 when it first dropped.
The characters are both engaging and entertaining. The story gripping and tightly written. Even the emotional depth of the main conflict is enough to get you invested. Without feeling like you’ve been emotionally manipulated by the creators.
Add great action scenes, witty dialogue, and funny zingers. Especially from the villains, Black Mask and Joker are plain entertaining throughout. Finally, fantastic voice acting by the cast (with John DiMaggio as Joker stealing the limelight every time he’s on-screen. Really, it’s understandable, why Under the Red Hood still captivates its audience. Despite some pacing issues and animation style far less slick than what DC viewers of today are used to.
Let’s just collectively ignore the interactive sequel DC tried to sell us in 2020. Luckily, DC itself certainly seems to be acting like it.