It certainly is not a unique character trait among superheroes, but one of Batman's defining characteristics is his refusal to kill. Spider-Man is the boy-next-door hero; you can't imagine him taking a life. Superman is so powerful yet he has a wholesome, boy-scout persona. Batman, it could be argued, has the most deranged, psychotic, and dangerous rogue's gallery that it would be understandable if elected to kill his foes, and yet, his refusal to give in to that temptation, his strength not to sink to his enemies' level, I think, makes him more heroic than if he did dish out Death Wish-style justice. Batman already exists in a dark world, and we need someone who stands above.
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), a straight-to-DVD animated features, explores that aspect of the Dark Knight's psychology as well as another crucial component: his guilt. Comic fans are aware that two events have haunted Bruce Wayne: the murders of his parents and the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Both these traits of Batman, his refusal to kill and his guilt, are at the forefront of the movie and at the center of the story. Batman: Under the Red Hood is at once one of the Caped Crusader's darkest tales and one of his most psychologically and emotionally involving.
A new figure has emerged in Gotham City. The Red Hood (Jensen Ackles) is taking on the city's underworld, intimidating criminals to work for him and killing those who don't. Batman (Bruce Greenwood) struggles to stop the Red Hood and figure out his identity, aghast the Red Hood knows he is Bruce Wayne. Who he learns the Red Hood is shakes Batman to his core. Meanwhile, Black Mask (Wade Williams), enraged at the hits his criminal empire has taken, breaks the Joker (John DiMaggio) out of Arkham Asylum, hiring him to take out the Red Hood.
Many of Batman villains have always held a degree of sympathy or at least a measure of understanding: the tragic Mr. Freeze, devoted to his dying wife; the scarred Two-Face, torn between good and evil; the seductive Catwoman, somewhere between love interest and criminal; the meek Ventriloquist, controlled by a psychotic alter ego. The Red Hood might very well be the most personal foe because in a way, Batman made him.
!!!SPOILER ALERT!!! The Red Hood is Jason Todd, whose death at the hands of Joker is counted by Batman as his greatest failure. After Dick Grayson abandoned the Robin mantle to become Nightwing, Batman once again worked alone until he took Jason, a disadvantaged street urchin, under his wing, training him, teaching him, and fighting along side him. After his death, Batman blamed himself for not being able to save him and spent a long time before he took another partner, not wanting to put anyone else at risk. Revived by Ra's Al Ghul's Lazurus Pit, Todd is resurrected and using everything Batman taught him for all the wrong reasons. Instead of justice, he seeks revenge. Instead of defending the innocent, he's a violent vigilante and crime lord, barely distinguishable from the goons he takes down.
In the final confrontation, we learn Red Hood doesn't blame Batman for his death; he's merely angered he didn't kill Joker to avenge him. In his eyes, Batman did not value or love him as much as he thought. Batman again argues that is a line he cannot cross; it would only lead to more killing until he was no better than the other criminals, but Todd cannot accept that reasoning. The movie captures this tragic downfall of a partnership. Robin going from a happy, bright-eyed kid to a disturbed, bitter killer is heartbreaking, and the final shot and line of a dialogue is a sad coda, a reminder of all that hope and promise gone.
For an animated feature, Batman: Under the Red Hood is pretty violent. People are murdered, tortured, beaten, and nearly set on fire, and while not graphically so, it is pretty intense. One way Red Hood dispatches an assassin startled me some. Coupled with the mature themes, this is not appropriate for younger children.
While the writing and voice acting is pretty strong, the movie could have used a longer running time (75 minutes) to explore all the developments. Black Mask in particular, one of my favorite lesser-known villains, could have been replaced by just about any other crime lord, and it would not have altered the plot much. His idiosyncrasies aren't really explored (although I liked his relationship with his female adviser voiced by Kelly Hu because she's his only henchman who doesn't appear to be afraid of him). Act 3 also feels very rushed once Black Mask hires Joker with a major action (did you actually think Joker would work for Black Mask?) taking place off-screen.
Still, Batman: Under the Red Hood is a strong addition to the Batman canon. It's deep, intense, and poignant in its own way. Not bad for a cartoon, eh?