Superhero movies are not often perceived as sophisticated or thematically dense, particularly not low-budget productions which are usually seen as disposable entertainment. Batman: Under the Red Hoodis a rare type of superhero outing, however, with an immense sense of style that’s matched by a smart screenplay which offers more than just colourful action sequences. The eighth in the DCU Animated Original Movies line by Warner Premiere, Under the Red Hood is an adaptation of two comic book story arcs, denoting the first time that these storylines have been told on the screen in any form. Guided with a sure hand by director Brandon Vietti, the real strength of this production is the way it caters to all viewers, making this an enjoyable experience for both die-hard fans and DC newcomers. Even those with just a fleeting knowledge of Batman should be enraptured with Under the Red Hood, as it’s easy to be caught up in the pacing, style, dialogue and narrative, making this one of the strongest additions to the DCU animated canon.

In Gotham City, a new threat has emerged in the form of the Red Hood (Jensen Ackles), a masked vigilante working to bring the city’s crime lords to their knees. Not surprisingly, his antics attract the attention of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Bruce Greenwood), who sets out to discover the identity of the Red Hood. Occasionally aided by former Robin, Dick Grayson (Neil Patrick Harris), who now calls himself Nightwing, Batman also has to deal with the Joker (John DiMaggio), who has resurfaced with new plans to wreak havoc around Gotham. During his investigation, the Caped Crusader is forced to confront old demons, contemplating a failure in his past which resulted in the death of Jason Todd, who took up the Robin mantle after Grayson.

Most of Under the Red Hood is an adaptation of Judd Winick’s comic Under the Hood, but it also contains pieces of A Death in the Family, which tells the complete story of Jason Todd’s killing at the hands of the Joker. Winick actually wrote the screenplay here, tweaking his own comic for this adult-oriented animated feature which introduces a lot of fresh material in the Batman cinematic universe. Under the Red Hood thankfully does not get bogged down in the convoluted moralising of Christopher Nolan’s Batman flicks, but it does introduce sizzling psychological complexity and thematic resonance. The tale dissects Batman, the Joker and several other characters, delving into the dissonant philosophies of these people and bestowing them with genuine depth. This all comes to a head in the unforgettable climax, which is one of the most riveting sequences in the entire Batman canon, animated or otherwise. Under the Red Hood does not waste a single frame, efficiently using its 75-minute runtime and never losing momentum. Added to this, it manages to fit so much into its short duration without giving us the feeling that the film is rushing through its plot points, which is a huge accomplishment. However, Nightwing inexplicably disappears in the second act, and as a result he feels like a wasted opportunity. Fortunately, this is about the only aspect of the narrative which fails to gel; for the rest, Under the Red Hood is a home run.

Even though Under the Red Hood concerns itself with inner conflict and character drama, it’s first and foremost an action movie, and it most definitely delivers in this respect. Visually, this movie is a beauty, with superb battle sequences involving Batman, Nightwing and the Red Hood. The animators have outdone themselves, delivering fluid, unflinching fights which look spectacular. Vietti should take charge of more of these projects, as Under the Red Hood is perhaps the most stylish of all the DCU Animated Original Movies. The attention to pacing and rhythm is above average, not to mention the PG-13 rating allows for some dark content. Parents should take note of the rating – there are several on-screen deaths and a fair amount of violence, but it all fits in the context of this story. Admittedly, the animation still remains fairly basic, with impressive broad strokes but only minor detail, but it’s not a big deal – the use of shadows as well as the brilliant framing and fluidity of the animation compensates for this, even if a higher budget might have facilitated a stronger motion picture.

As Batman, Bruce Greenwood is no Kevin Conroy, but he’s definitely one of the best stars to have taken the role in recent years. He’s a firm and charismatic Bruce Wayne, and a gruff (but not incomprehensibly gravelly) Batman. Moreover, Greenwood is committed to the role, delivering a performance that doesn’t sound like he’s simply reading off cue cards. But it’s the casting of Jensen Ackles and Neil Patrick Harris which allows Under the Red Hood to soar. Ackles is excellent, bringing pathos and smarm to the role of the Red Hood. Likewise, Harris is an exceptional Nightwing, light-hearted and charismatic. Meanwhile, John DiMaggio also makes a positive impression as the Joker, coming close to reaching Mark Hamill levels of brilliance. Rounding out the main players is Jason Isaacs, who is strong despite limited screen-time as Ra’s Al Ghul. It’s a sublime cast all-round, with not a single weak performer among them.

Batman: Under the Red Hood stands as one of the best DC animated releases to date, second only to the epic two-part Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It’s an exceptional story that deserved to be told, and it’s hard to imagine a better adaptation being produced anytime soon. And considering the restraints of the low-budget straight-to-video format, Under the Red Hood is a goddamn miracle.

8.5/10