DC Universe’s latest animated feature, Batman: Under the Red Hood, is an adaptation of the 2005 Batman comic book storyline “Under the Hood”, which was written by Judd Winick and illustrated by Doug Mahnke.

The “Under the Hood” storyline was slightly controversial when it was first published – but that controversy hasn’t stopped DCU from making one of their best animated features to date, one full of great voicework and some spectacular Batman-style action.

Under the Red Hood finds Batman caught up in an underworld mystery; the ruthless Black Mask has murdered his way to the top of Gotham City’s underworld and reigns as king – that is until a mysterious (and even more ruthless) vigilante called Red Hood shows up and starts taking apart Black Mask’s empire, piece by piece.

Red Hood is as smart and well-trained as Batman himself – the only difference is that Red Hood has no qualms whatsoever about killing “underworld scum.” The Red Hood mantle is something of a tradition in Gotham’s underworld, so Batman’s first guess is that this is just another crook looking to make a name for himself. However, after each subsequent encounter with Red Hood, Batman begins to suspect that the murderous vigilante may have a direct connection to a dark chapter in the Batman and Robin Legacy.

Meanwhile, Black Mask is desperate to stop his empire from falling apart and in that desperation, he turns to the one man in Gotham crazier than Red Hood: The Joker. As you would expect, chaos ensues and the mystery of who is under the red hood is finally revealed – with deep repercussions for Batman.

If you’re familiar with Judd Winick’s storyline, then you already know who is under the red hood. The movie doesn’t exactly make it hard to guess but I won’t spoil the mystery here. The comic book storyline was a slow build to the big reveal, but director Brandon Vietti – who has directed episodes of the Batman: Brave and the Bold TV series and Superman: Doomsday – does a great job of condensing the storyline into a 70-minute movie that favors action over mystery. And because this is a PG-13 animated feature, the DCU team isn’t afraid to keep things a little more adult in tone – good decision when you have villains like Black Mask, Red Hood and The Joker all in one film.  You just know some blood is going to be shed, and the filmmakers manage to get in the adult themes without the cartoon being too scary for youngsters to enjoy as well.

The animation is pretty impressive: it’s a smoother and polished version of the animation style seen in Green Lantern:First Flight or Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, instead of the anime-influenced style we saw in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. I prefer traditional DCU animation style and Under the Red Hood makes it look crisp and clean; it’ll look gorgeous on Blu-ray, no doubt.

The fight scenes in Under the Red Hood are all pretty awesome. There are battles with super-androids, cybernetic assassins, gangsters and rogues like The Joker and the titular Red Hood, and what really makes these fights great is that the DCU team totally get who Batman is and what his capabilities are: he’s a highly-trained detective and a non-powered human who is still more than a match for any of the super-powered foes in the DC Universe. There are cool gadgets, cunning tactics, crazy acrobatics, awesome martial arts and grappling-gun swinging galore; this movie has all the Batman staples and makes them look damn cool.

The voice cast is also in top form. When I heard that fan-favorite Kevin Conroy wasn’t voicing Batman in this film, I was a little disappointed. However, Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike from the Star Trek reboot) steps up and delivers a pretty excellent Batman – no need to worry about any Christian Bale “gruff voice” in this movie. Supernatural‘s Jensen Ackles gets extra fanboy cred for bringing Red Hood to life and making a guy in red mask interesting; Neil Patrick Harris is charming as usual, shooting off one-liners as Nightwing, the original Robin now all grown up.

In my opinion the most impressive voicework in the film has to be John Di Maggio (Bender from Futurama) as the Joker. Di Maggio actually gives fan-favorite Mark Hamill a run for his money as THE iconic voice behind the animated version of the Clown Prince of Crime. He’s as demented and disturbing as you’d want the Joker to be in a story like this, which has many iconic Joker moments and themes.

All in all, Under the Red Hood is the best animated Batman project I’ve seen in a long time, and is probably in my top 3 favorite DCU animated features of all time. It’s simply a great Batman story with great Batman action – if you’re a fan of DCU animated features (and if you’re reading this, you probably are) you definitely need to check this one out.

Batman: Under the Red Hood arrives on DVD/Blu-ray on July 27th.

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