I'm 32 years old and I still watch cartoons. Such a statement causes my family to tut and shake their heads, like I'm really that unwilling to grow up, but cartoons these days are a million miles away from a lot of the stuff that was around years ago. There have always been serious (or nearly serious) cartoons (one of my favourites is/was Ulysses 31) but the sheer abundance of modern cartoons that forsake goofy villains and talking animal sidekicks and feature some variation on the idea of a superhero fills my heart with giddy joy.
BEN 10 is a little goofy, but BEN 10: ULTIMATE ALIEN is both an interesting idea (the same characters but older) and more sensible/mature/a little brain-melting for kids (one episode sees the team meet a time-travelling professor, who's been stuck in time for literally forever. He remarks at one point how he "went insane, until that got boring and he went right back to being sane again"). MEGAS XLR provided a comedic slant on the giant fighting robot genre that hasn't seen much action since Voltron, and featured Bruce Campbell playing a MODOK-like alien called Magnanimous, who piloted a giant Elvis robot with a chainsaw hand. How many kids are going to get THAT?! GENERATOR REX is Guyver for kids. The reboot of HE-MAN kept Orko as a comedy character but stopped Cringor/Battle Cat talking, and melted Skeletor's face off in the pilot episode. The new THUNDERCATS has removed Snarf's ability to talk, knocked several years off the characters' ages, and kept them on their homeworld of Thundera, where they wage war against Mumm-Ra (still evil, still cool) and the 'evil' of technology/progress.
And then there's BATMAN.
The 1990s animated series was brilliant, primarily because it captured the tone so perfectly. Gotham was an art deco nightmare cloaked in perpetual night, where freaks robbed banks aided by goons wearing Halloween masks. There was violence, and fear, but filtered through a PG certificate (characters could fall from any height, as long as they landed in water; blood was very, very occasionally shown, though wounds typically weren't, etc). Batman was as much a part of the shadows as his enemies, but protected society instead of attacking it. There was lightness, sometimes, but the tone largely remained dark, and the show was all the better for it. The few spin-off movies took things slightly further (MASK OF THE PHANTASM remains not just one of my favourite animated films, but one of my favourite films full stop). PHANTASM saw not only a skull-masked assassin offing crime lords, but Batman duking it out with The Joker in a dilapidated World Fair, before knocking one of his teeth out with a splurt of blood. SUB-ZERO focused on the tragic origin of Mr Freeze, and showed that not all villains are the typical understanding of 'evil'.
BATMAN BEYOND saw a very old Bruce Wayne hand over the mantle of the bat to a young man called Terry, and featured various peeks at old/familiar characters, but in a 'alternate future' setting (for instance, The Joker is absent completely, Barbara Gordon isn't crippled and is the new Commissioner) that worked well, despite the focus to a different sort of Batman (one who was probably more like Nightwing than the typical Dark Knight).
In fact, a lot of the DC animated series have been very good, like the JUSTICE LEAGUE ones. Mainly, this is down to cartoons being able to show/do what feature films cannot, and also because there is a clear respect for the source material.
Which brings me, eventually, onto BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD. The Red Hood was an original alter ego of the man who would become The Joker (a fact that's nicely dealt with in this film) but the current version is...someone very close to Batman. I thought already knowing who he is might spoil my enjoyment of the film, but in truth watching Batman figure it out was thoroughly enjoyable - two particular scenes stand out: one involves something Red Hood says to Batman, the other involves the 'reveal', and the off-screen reaction of Alfred.
But, for those not in the know: Black Mask (a crime lord with a burnt-on black skull for a face who appears to be channelling Tony Montana) runs Gotham's seedy underbelly. That is, until the gun-toting Red Hood appears and starts killing any of Black Mask's crew that refuse to swear allegiance to him instead. However, he isn't simply another maniac - he stipulates that if any drugs are sold to kids, he'll kill whoever sold them. A gangster with a heart of gold? Not quite. Try 'Batman with a skewered moral code'.
Everything, and I mean everything in RED HOOD is brilliant. The animation, score, character designs, pacing, dialogue...even the title sequence (which utilises live action) is great to watch. The only thing that caused me initial concern was the realisation that different people were voicing Batman and The Joker. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the voices of these two, to such an extent that they're incorporated in mediums removed from TV - namely, computer games (DC UNIVERSE ONLINE and ARKHAM ASYLUM/ARKHAM CITY). They haven't voiced every iteration of these characters, but it's safe to say they're the very definition of synonymous.
Bruce Greenwood (who's voiced some Marvel animated features) and John Dimaggio (Bender in Futurama) take on the roles of Batman and The Joker, and both are great. Greenwood nails Batman straight off the bat (arf arf!) but Dimaggio takes a little getting used to, his Joker being a little more gravelly than you'd expect. But, then he laughs and it all falls into place...Jensen Ackles (from SUPERNATURAL, one of my favourite shows) voices Red Hood, and a bunch of other top/familiar actors provide other vocal duties. Black Mask is the highlight of the film, for me, as he's a different kind of psychopath than The Joker; one who is prone to spontaneous outbursts of violence, but is collected enough to realise when he's being played for a fool. Usually.
Interestingly, one of the recurring themes is how two otherwise-savvy villains (Black Mask and Ra's Al Ghul) underestimate The Joker, the most notoriously mental of all Batman's foes. Both men think they can control him, but since The Joker is chaos, that's a futile hope and perhaps tells you more about their arrogance than even they realise (they're both men used to controlling everything, so to control The Joker would show everyone else just how powerful they are - ie if he's in their pocket, there really is no stopping them).
In a nice touch, Nightwing plays a major part in the story, and his quips and unconcealed awe at the skills demonstrated by Red Hood really help lighten what is otherwise a very dark story centring around grief, regret, remorse, all that fun stuff. There are also several wonderfully integrated flashback sequences, which see ghostly memories played out in front of Batman. One of these is especially, and surprisingly, poignant.
Batman is a character birthed from grief and death, and the events in RED HOOD force him to confront past memories and mistakes, and show that, infallible as he may appear, underneath the cowl he is only human. As much as I enjoy seeing superheroes endlessly wailing on bad guys, I much prefer to see them get a pasting every now and again - even if only on an emotional level - as a reminder that no one is safe from a lot of the things that affect 'normal' people, not even guys who wear their underpants outside their trousers.