Starting where the famous storyline from 'A Death In The Family' left off (which some people may remember was part of a fan vote opened up by DC comics back in 1988 in which the fate of the second Robin, Jason Todd, was decided), DC Universe's new film, 'Batman: Under The Red Hood,' continues the adaptation of the 2005 comic book titled 'Under the Hood.' Dawning on Gotham City is a new Red Hood ready to take over the drug trade. Red Hood's intentions, merciless behavior and vigilante-like savagery worries not only Black Mask, the reigning lord of Gotham's underworld, but Batman as well. Not knowing who is behind the red hood, Batman assumes that the Joker is somehow involved; after all, he wore the red hood before. However, Batman quickly discovers that this new character possesses movements that neither belong to the Joker nor to a copycat. Followers of the storyline know exactly who is under the red hood, something that is not difficult to guess and which is presented about 30 minutes into the film. While I will abstain from directly revealing this mystery, it will be easy to derive from the review, so if you feel like this will be a spoiler, please proceed with caution. Furthermore, fans of the 2005 comic book know that the big shocking reveal evolved over a long period of time, which in turn posed a challenge for screenwriter Judd Winick (who also wrote the original comic) and director Brandon Vietti, since they only had about 80 minutes to tell the story through an animated movie.
The film is very well animated and the darker tone feels more like Batman: The Animated Series. The level of violence is certainly more intense than in the series, thus making the movie somewhat unsuitable for young children. Missing from the great voiceover cast that includes John Di Maggio as the Joker, and Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing is Kevin Conroy as Batman. Bruce Greenwood does an outstanding job as the Dark Knight, but diehard fans may be relatively dissatisfied. The storyline, action sequences and overall characterization create an absolute cinematic spectacle. Adding to all of this is an action-packed, electronically-driven and dark score composed by Christopher Drake. Brought to the spotlight by director Guillermo del Toro, Drake worked on a few of the Hellboy animated TV movies in addition to “Hellboy: The Science of Evil” video game, but perhaps his contributions to the other DC Universe films including Wonder Woman, Batman: Gotham Knight and Superman/Batman:Public Enemies are better known. Amazingly, Drake composes the entire score for Under The Red Hood combining electronic synth sounds and rhythms with orchestral samples and no live instruments, something that he has done with exceptional results in previous scores. The level of programming and production found in this score is beyond remarkable. The score works extremely well following the action sequences that include android assassins, mobsters, the Joker himself and all of the cool gadget-dominated signature Batman fights. On top of that, the score functions particularly well when detailing the dark chapter in Batman and Robin's life and the flashbacks that accompany the latter. Essentially, Christopher Drake's score models itself around Hans Zimmer's music for Batman Begins & The Dark Knight and Shirley Walker's and the Dynamic Music Partners' work for the animated series in the 90's, ultimately resulting in a great prototypical score for The Caped Crusader.
'A Death in The Family' serves as the score for the first sequence of the movie showing Jason Todd being tortured by the Joker. The first part of this track is mostly a synth-based piece in which Drake highlights the introductory visuals with numerous sound effects, orchestral rises and a few brass notes derived from his main musical ideas found in the rest of the score. For the most part, Drake lets the brutality of the Joker show with little music accompaniment and, in fact, only when we see Batman desperately trying to reach Robin we hear the powerful sound that Drake will bring back in later tracks. This is only short-lived as Robin sees himself trapped in a warehouse with a bomb about to explode. Drake's score doesn't interfere with the explosion and the aftermath showing Batman dealing with the tragic outcome. The track 'Main Titles,' continues with somber string lines pointing to the emotions felt by Batman as he begins to assess the destruction from the explosion. At 0:40 seconds into the track, the actual credits roll on screen and the gradual music build-up begins until we see the title of the movie. The string ostinato, guitar chords and drums employed are reminiscent of The Dark Knight, but it is not a simple emulation of Hans Zimmer's work. Drake adds some orchestral subtleties and keeps an obscure tonality — clearly staying away from any sort of heroic theme.
Introduced as a cybernetic android with superpowers, ‘Amazo’ is part of one of the most entertaining sequences in this film. Not surprisingly, the track that follows it evolves nicely over fast percussive rhythms, low piano and brass accents, culminating with a strong three-note theme (similar to Drake’s own for Superman/Batman:Public Enemies ) as we see Nightwing on screen. This theme will quickly resurface in “Batmobile to Arkham,” too. As the high-paced ‘Amazo’ fight ends, the music subsides, patiently waiting until the first Red Hood vs. Batman showdown in the track titled ‘Batwing.’ When the Batwing chases Red Hood through the streets of Gotham City, a more powerful and thickly orchestrated execution of the motifs heard during the main titles can be heard. Moreover, the music stays very focused on the details and nuances presented visually and, once again, allows the imagery to convey the message when needed, especially during the big explosions. Ultimately, Drake does a formidable job of scoring and enhancing this particular section.
Tracks like 'Mob Boss Meeting,' “Black Mask Strikes Back” and “Deal with the Devil” can be described as ambient-sounding pieces that utilize various synth effects, strings at times, and different types of rhythmic beds to emphasize certain moments. Outside the film, these pieces constitute the weakest part of the score, but in the film they highlight important and suspenseful scenes while allowing the dialogue to come through with minimal interference.
“Interrogation” enables the listener to more clearly hear Shirley Walker’s influence on Christopher Drake’s music and scoring approach. While the track is fairly short, the entire clip feels straight out of the darker episodes of the animated series, something that is evidently understood by Drake. This influence can also be appreciated during the first half of “Rooftop Chase”, in which Drake concentrates on building the action and suspense through the use of the electric guitar (something used frequently by the Dynamic Music Partners when scoring for Batman and other DC Comics’ characters). Nonetheless, the incorporation of the themes heard previously plus the addition of numerous phased synths and percussive sounds create an original piece that underlines attentively one of those classic chase moments found in Batman animated features.
If by now the level of sampling programming hasn’t been acknowledged by the listener, “Flashback” provides an ideal moment for meticulously discerning this craft. More importantly, however, this is truly one of the most engaging cues. Drake emphasizes the growth of Jason Todd (Robin) by first introducing some joyous harmonies as we see the child battle the Riddler. He then takes the music into a more grim territory once Robin begins to exhibit violent tendencies that contradict Batman’s teachings.
“Techno Ninjas” plays as a fight breaks out between Red Hood, Batman, and Black Mask’s paid assassins. Mainly comprised of different percussions and subtle accents from a few ethnic instruments, the primary themes are not incorporated, although the whole track is reinforced by the same brass fragments heard before. Sound effects dominate this whole battle, which probably forced Drake to stay away from using too many instrument lines. Even so, the feel and intensity are kept throughout. “Break Out” serves as the antithesis of 'Techno Ninjas' by mainly sustaining the emotional content with string lines and brass crescendos.
The longest cue of the album, “Ra’s Story,” gently introduces small build-ups as Ra's Al Ghul describes to Batman the story behind the man under the red hood. This truly emotional cue contains a few fast paced sequences made up of pulses that will remind the listener of Batman Begins. One thing to note in this track is the wonderful programming of the sampled strings, something that was mentioned earlier.
As the movie comes to a close, ‘The Bridge’ and ‘Final Confrontation’ spotlight the most important battle and its transcendental consequences. Musically, both integrate fragments from the “Main Title” and “Batwing” motif, plus a few ideas from “Techno Ninjas.” The Bridge in particular does a marvelous job underscoring one of the funniest dialogues spoken by the Joker. Drake avoids making any sort of comedic commentary with his music and keeps the tone enigmatic and dark all while strengthening the action. The same trend continues up until the end of “The Choice,” which is technically the end of the storyline. The climatic rise before the explosion is a bit more intense than in the first scene of the movie, but in many ways works the same. Before the movie ends we experience one last flashback, accompanied by the first half of “End Titles.” This time Drake expands the two-chord harmonic progression used before when alluding these memories by adding pizzicato strings and harp arpeggios. Needless to say, this is the most rewarding sequence of the entire film. This is not a happy ending by any means, but it sure feels like one. The second half of the ‘End Titles’ is nothing more than a recapitulation of the ‘Main Titles,’ ending the whole score in a grandiose way.
By focusing primarily on the storyline, visuals, and characters, Christopher Drake writes a score that pays homage to the scoring conventions established by Shirley Walker for the animated series in the 1990’s and also to the modern approach seen in Christopher Nolan's films. Even though this review concentrates heavily on the overall effectiveness of the score inside the picture, the music presented in the album is equally fun to listen to. And while thematically ‘Batman: Under The Red Hood’ is not as strong as Drake’s music for ‘Batman: Gotham Knight,’ the scoring approach is more impressive and effective. Arguably, the anime-influenced style used in Gotham Knight is very distracting and unattractive for those fans of the animated series, in a way influencing the perception of all the elements — including the music — but nevertheless, Batman: Under The Red Hood works almost flawlessly in every regard. Christopher Drake’s understanding of the genre, in particular the psychological overtones chronicling The Caped Crusader have cemented his status as the top composer for the new DC Universe animated features.