Thursday, November 04, 2010

Hood Ornament

I used to have a serious comic book habit. I still have an archive of thousands of comics taking up space in my house. One of the things that broke the habit was the so-called "grim and gritty" superhero archetype, which seems to have taken over the entire genre since it was pioneered by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen way back when. The last superhero comic I bought on any kind of regular basis was based on the 1990s Batman Animated series and its descendants, which, seemingly alone, seemed interested in preserving the "fun" quotient that got me reading comics in the first place. (For what it's worth, I know that there are still plenty of "fun" comics out there, but I generally read these online these days or wait until they're collected into paperback; or check them out of the public library).

I loved The Batman Animated Series, but the direct to video superhero empire that Warner Brothers is currently building on its bones may well put me off superheroes for good. They're re-creating the darkening of the superhero archetype (in concert with certain movies, it must be said) and removing some of the fun. A lot of the fun, actually. And they've become more violent than I'd like. Case in point is Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010, directed by Brandon Vietti), in which one of the nastier images from the comics--Robin beaten to death by The Joker--is re-enacted, while giving birth to a new iteration of The Red Hood, a figure familiar to anyone who has followed Batman for a long time and one who encapsulates the inherent violence of the contemporary superhero genre. In this film, he first appears carrying a bag full of the heads of mobsters he's killed. That should tell you all you need to know about the tone of this film.

Of course, I realize just how hypocritical I sound, given that I watch and praise countless violent horror movies and action movies and whatnot without a squeak about the violence. Hell, I'll cop to it. If this was just a blip, or a minor variation, I'd probably even dig it. But it's not. The grim and gritty superheroes chased the other varieties from the comic stands, and it's in the process of doing the same thing in movies and cartoons, in which ever more violent means are employed against ever escalating stakes. It's not really an accident that my favorite superhero movie of the last decade is The Incredibles. That gets the fun quotient right. I much prefer that to the dirge of Chris Nolan's Batman movies, but Nolan is winning the war. Alas.

None of this is really fair to the product that the makers of Under the Red Hood have provided, which on its own terms is pretty good. This is all down to my own issues and sensibilities and the fact that all art is subjective. Under the Red Hood has a vision of Batman; it's an over-familiar one at this point, I think, but it's one that's certainly still viable. The animation choices are different from the old 90s BTAS, leaning more to realism and more toward the adult-oriented animations from Japan, though it doesn't LOOK Japanese, which is nice. Bruce Timm is listed as a producer, but this doesn't much resemble anything from his previous DC Universe work.

The plot here fills in some of the narrative lapses of the original comics story upon which it's based, and streamlines things a bit. It removes some of the villains, focusing on the relationship between Batman and his darker secret sharer, The Red Hood, a vigilante who goes where Batman won't. There's an actual moral dilemma in this film, one that's not obviously manufactured a la the Joker's bargain with the ferries at the end of The Dark Knight. It grows organically. It works. This has excellent voice work, too, with Bruce Greenwood making a splendid Batman, Neil Patrick Harris doing good work as Nightwing (the first Robin, all grown up), and Jensen Ackles as The Red Hood. This is all well and good.

But this isn't really any fun. Not really. It's dark and depressing and Gothic and, well, I've seen all that. I've seen it for the last 24 years or so. This is thrown into stark relief once Nightwing exits the film. Harris's voice work is perfect for a happy-go-lucky superhero here, and the character actually lights up the film while he's on screen. He's not on screen enough, unfortunately, and the rest is just a slog.

Warner's rolled this out with great fanfare and acclaim; it'll sell well for them. For myself, the version of Batman I've been enjoying most these days is The Brave and the Bold, which IS fun (especially its depiction of Aquaman, which is comedy gold). Naturally, it doesn't have a proper DVD release. Typical.


Mutantville Productions said...

I totally understand where you're coming from on this one. I've given up on comics over the past few years for very much the same reasons. You should check out Geoff Klock's book How TO Read Superhero Comics and Why. He is very much on your frequency about superhero stories needing to be fun. I've been meaning to catch up on Brave & the Bold and may just do so based on your recommendation. Did you ever see The Specials? It's my favorite hidden gem of superhero movies from the passt decade. Give it a look on Netflix instant watch when you can!

Here's the link to Geoff's blog. You would totally fit in there. It's just a shame that he doesn't post with the same frequency he once did but things always flare up whenever a new movie worth discussing is released.


Putergurl said...

Great commentary here on the general state of things in the super-hero/villian world. Where's the camp and the fun? From the "Whammo!"'s and "BOFF!!"s of the old television series, to the "joke villians" of the movie "Batman and Robin" I do miss the lighter side of it all.
At the risk of psychoanalyzing too much, I think it's all just reflection of the times and the wider commercialization of the genre. Appealing to a wider, older audience means straying from the perfectly impenetrable superheroes we could accept as children (or with a child's mind)and give them human faults and insecurities.
Couple this with the general darkening of the world stage; media is just reflecting how we see the world right now. As our public figures began to regularly fall into scandal and disrepute, even Superman died. The world is at times a dark and scary place and often we cannot seem to get anything completely right despite our best intentions.
We have to hope for and pay attention to more of the lighter stuff, just as we have to hope for a lighter side of things in general.
Pull up "The Incredibles" and get your hope back (great pick, that); I think I'll go watch "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" again.