BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD

Everybody who’s a DC Comics fan knows the stories of the five Robins that have been with Batman. First was Dick Grayson, who later became Nightwing. Second was Jason Todd, who was murdered by the Joker. Third was Tim Drake, who became Red Robin. Fourth was Stephanie Brown, who is now Batgirl. And fifth is Damian, the biological son of Batman/Bruce Wayne. The stories of these five people are unique and a lot of fun to dig into and discuss with fans. Everybody has a favorite Robin.

Batman: Under the Red Hood is the story of the second Robin – only after he was killed by the Joker and brought back to life by Ras al-Ghul. Judd Winick wrote the script, based on the Batman arc he wrote that revived Jason Todd, and it serves pretty well, but I know it couldn’t do true justice to the whole story. There’s a lot of history in this tale, and all of it worth telling.

As far as this direct-to-DVD effort goes, the story can’t relate all the years Jason was around after Batman caught him stealing the tires off the Batmobile (something that fans simply couldn’t imagine being done even back in the early 1980s). He lasted for five years before getting killed, and was dead for seventeen years before he was brought back to life.

All the fans believed Jason was dead. After all, didn’t DC Comics run a phone contest for fans to decide his fate? (Right after that, Warner Brothers – the parent company – got hold of DC and asked what they were going to do with the warehouses full of Batman AND Robin products they had to sell!) So a third Robin was immediately in the offing.

Comic heroes are notorious for not staying dead. Used to we could point at Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes and say, see? Bucky’s dead. Only now Bucky is the new Captain America and Steve Rogers was dead – except that he’s now back alive too.

Simply put, there’s a lot of emotional context and resonance and real-time history missing from the pared-down story on this disc. However, it is slam-bag full of all things Batman. First of all, there’s lots and lots of action. And there’s a ton of Bat-toys. Then there’s the appearance of Nightwing, Ra’s al-Ghul, AND the Joker.

There’s a lot going on in this movie. The beginning of the film is gripping, and the assault on Jason Todd/Robin is brutal. Watching it with my twelve year old was a little hard because I didn’t expect that level of intensity. The Joker was played as perverse and evil, and he stayed that way through the film. I love how he turned the tables on Blackmask.

The art is rendered beautifully. Loved the explosive action, the detail, and the cityscape. The world depicted here really felt like Gotham in all its glory and grime.

I found the ending a little disappointing, though. Plenty of questions were raised, and everybody got a look at the heroes’ moral compasses, but the main question concerning Batman’s relationship with Jason Todd wasn’t satisfactorily answered. Batman makes a choice at the end, but where does he stand after he makes it?

I know part of this story is still ongoing in the DC Universe, so the movie is an excellent lure to pull readers into the six-part Red Hood story now being published. But in these direct-to-DVD adventures, I’d really appreciate a whole story. This one ends almost where it starts, and we still don’t know the true outcome.

This Blu-ray disc comes with lots of extras, including two episodes of the original Batman The Animated Series. These episodes recount the origin of Dick Grayson/Robin, so they’re a special treat. There’s also a lot of material (interviews and comic content) depicting Jason Todd’s history. And there’s sneak peek of the next DC Comics direct-to-DVD movie, Superman and Batman: Apocalypse. The best part, though, is the Jonah Hex short feature written by Joe R. Lansdale.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

After seeing Ang Lee’s version of the Incredible Hulk a few years ago, I was dead-set against seeing the new release. Just didn’t need the aggravation. But two things changed my mind. Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. just blew me away, and my ten year old developed a raging interest in the Hulk while at a recent science fiction convention.

So bright and early this morning, after reconstructive nasal surgery yesterday, I took my wife and son to see the movie at 10:30. I’d stayed away from any reviews because I wanted to see the film cold and walk away with my own opinion. I figured being post-op would allow me to be numbed if the movie stunk.

Instead, I got a trip back to my childhood, and a chance to introduce my son to the television Hulk I grew up with (not exactly the Marvel Comics, but close). The second film has evidently completely done away with the previous film and leapfrogged from the television series that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. While the title shots rolled, so did a similar short backstory that echoed everything that the television series had perpetrated during the creation of the Hulk.

Interestingly enough, the serum that changed Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) into the Hulk was part of the same Super Soldier project that created Captain America back in World War II, though General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt in a great supporting role) didn’t mention Cap by name. However, that link was one more linchpin tying the Marvel/Hollywood universe together. The cameo with Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark was another one. There are also references to SHIELD although Nick Fury was conspicuously absent.

After the opening credits finished and the backstory was in place, the movie jumped right into Bruce Banner’s life just as it would have in one of those television episodes. The backdrop of Brazil was amazingly beautiful, and watching Banner trying to learn the language and co-exist with the culture while maintaining his isolation was great. The premise of a man on the run isn’t a new one, but it’s really well rendered in this movie. I felt immediately for Banner’s plight.

The story seemed to move slowly at first. I have to admit, I had a Hulk jones. Probably most filmgoers did. My ten year old took it in stride, though his patience was waning at the end. We wanted the Hulk, we wanted, “Hulk smash!” echoing in our ears.

The first taste we got of it only left us wanting more. The fight scenes were occluded by the shadows and the darkness of the factory, but the choreography was pretty well done. I was almost frustrated, but I knew it was early in the movie. The monster remained just out of sight.

Tim Roth plays Emil Blonsky/the Abomination and does a really good job though the role is somewhat truncated by needing to fit the film into a two-hour delivery. The bits between Ross and Blonsky, where Blonsky basically sells his soul to the general in exchange for power, are well done. Ross is a complicated character, and Hurt portrayed both sides of the man fairly.

Liv Tyler was terrific as Bruce’s love, Betty Ross. She’s intelligent, emotional, and – next to the Hulk – incredibly fragile. The scenes she shared with the monster (especially since we know they were computer-generated and nothing was really there for her to act with) were fantastic. I loved the scene with her and the Hulk in the cave, especially when the lightning and thunder arced across the night and scared him into growling back at it and throwing a boulder.

I also enjoyed the fact that Banner wasn’t reduced to simply being a geeky wimp. He learned to fight, adding martial arts to his doctoral degrees, and handled himself well until he was outmatched. This was the same kind of intelligent, resourceful Banner we got in the comics and in the television show. Man and monster were both given time on the stage, and both worked well.

Of course, the movie wouldn’t be a Marvel movie without a Stan Lee cameo, and it was there. I didn’t expect it the way it was shown, but it was funny. However, what would have happened to him if he drank a soda containing some of Banner’s gamma-spiked blood?

The movie paces itself well throughout, and doesn’t quite become a scream-fest of action till the end. The section where Banner meets Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a confidant he’s been doing research with on the gamma radiation, is quite unexpectedly humorous. It doesn’t last long, but Sterns’s obvious fanboy appreciation of the monster before him plays well.

Looking at all the numerous crumbs seeded throughout the movie, I knew that Marvel hopes this will only be the start of a brand-new Hulk franchise. Betty is dating a psychologist named Leonard Samson (Doc Samson in the comic series) and Sterns is said to be set up to become the Leader (another gamma-radiation spawned opponent for the Hulk).

I had a good time with the movie. It wasn’t Iron Man but I enjoyed it a lot. The Hulk is a difficult character to deal with, and I think this approach was probably the best way to take it at this time. I was really thankful we weren’t marched through another origin story so soon after the last movie. This way we got Hulk action nearer the beginning.

Go see the movie and enjoy.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: NEW FRONTIER

 

Cover Image

Comics scripter and artist, Darwyn Cooke, created quite a splash when he wrote the mini-series, Justice League: The New Frontier. Those issues have been gathered into a graphic novel.

When I first read the issues, I have to admit to being a little put off. The story seemed to meander a little and took too long to develop in some ways. But it was really interesting seeing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash during the paranoid times of McCarthyism. The art seemed a little too unfinished for my taste for the first couple issues, but it was the first time I’d ever seen any of Cooke’s work. His writing and his art grew on me. By the third issue, I was won over by the storyline and the different look of the characters.

Justice League: The New Frontier is the second of DC Comics’ and Warner’s direct-to-DVD efforts. The first was Superman: Doomsday. Hopefully there will be a lot more to come. The special editions have the trailer for the Batman animated feature that will be coming out soon.

The movie strikes the same tone as the graphic novel. The mid-1950s to 1960 are represented in a number of ways. The suspicion of anyone from outside the country – including of Superman – is well-defined. Hal Jordan (voiced by David Boreanaz, Angel, Bones) as a Korean Air Force fighter pilot is well done and sets up his eventual recruitment by the Green Lanterns.

The Martian Manhunter (voice by Miguel Ferrer, Crossing Jordan, The Bionic Woman) seizes a big part of the story as both an alien newly arrived to our planet, a detective, and an outsider viewing the strange and politically suspicious world of the 1950s. One of the best parts of the movie for my son and I was watching the Martian Manhunter change into various characters while he watched television. When he unexpectedly changed into Bugs Bunny, we both lost it.

I really missed the opening segments of the comic book where the Losers comics heroes took on the dinosaurs of Dinosaur Island. I didn’t like the ending the Losers experienced, but I really noticed them absent from the continuity.

Like the comic series, you have to watch the movie closely to figure out everything that’s going on. The original Justice League origin story featured an alien menace to the world. The retelling of that origin, in the Justice League series recently on television, features a threat from Mars. And this movie also features an otherworldly menace, although it takes a while to build to that threat.

I loved seeing so many of the lesser known heroes of the DC universe in action: the Challengers of the Unknown, the Blackhawks, the Metal Men, Adam Strange, and others. When Darwyn Cooke wrote the original comics, I knew that he loved the characters and was paying homage to so much of their roots. That same kind of care and consideration is evident in this DVD production.

The Blu-ray video was fantastic. The colors were bright and varied. King Faraday’s gray eyes were arctic and really distinguished him. The audio was just as impressive.

As for special features, the disc comes fully loaded. There are two different commentaries and several features regarding the making of the film. One of the best pieces was the preview of Batman: Gotham Knight that’s supposed to come out in July. The anime style artwork looks breathtaking. There are also three of director Bruce W. Timm’s favorite Justice League Unlimited episodes on the disc.

Although Justice League: The New Frontier is a cartoon and is about characters familiar to kids, parents need to know that the violence is at times very graphic and the language can be occasionally coarse. All in all, though, this is a great movie to own, especially in the high-def versions.

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