- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with DVD-ROM and Blu-ray enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Batman: Under the Red Hood (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $29.99)  Warner Bros. Animation attempts to turn another famous comic-book story arc into a teen-rated, direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray cartoon.

Unfortunately, writer Judd Winick’s intense resurrection of Jason Todd (aka Robin), previously seen in the main Batman comics back in 2005, is simply run through the Bruce Timm animation factory with predictable results.

Within a great story of revenge and a tight screenplay by Mr. Winick, viewers watch loads of familiar characters, including the Joker, Nightwing, the Riddler, the Black Mask, Amazo, Ra’s al Ghul (as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein) and a grumpy Dark Knight, mix it up in a serious stew of drama.

Despite harsh scenes of the Joker unloading a crowbar on Robin, eyes getting gouged out and brutal, bloody fistfights, viewers still are saddled with ineffective animation that seriously lacks style.

The voice-over work doesn’t help the situation, either. I’m too used to Kevin Conroy as Batman to change things up with Bruce Greenwood. Additionally, the vocal portrayal of the Joker by John Di Maggio falls flat when compared to Mark Hamill’s wicked efforts. Heck, I’d even take Cesar Romero at this point; too bad he’s not available.

So, once again, although the Batman: Under the Red Hood bursts from the screen in the high-definition format, what will it take to get a groundbreaking animated effort that pushes the boundaries of the superhero cartoon?

Maybe Disney’s purchase of Marvel Entertainment will give the boys at Pixar a chance to show how it should be done.

Best extras: Consistent with the DC animation franchise on Blu-ray, fans get an enormous selection of stuff to help them forget the main feature.

I’ll start with two minidocumentaries that must be watched.

First, and exclusive to the Blu-ray, the 20-minute “Robin’s Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd” explores one of Batman’s greatest failures  the inability to prevent the death of his partner — through interviews with creators Dennis O’Neil, Len Wein, Judd Winick and others as they recall the days of the “A Death in the Family” story arc and Jason Todd’s ultimate return.

Next is the 24-minute “Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson” feature. It offers plenty of artwork from Bob Kane and Frank Miller accompanying a dissection of the character by folks such as DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio, former DC President and Publisher Paul Levitz and a couple of superhero historians.

Extra cartoons also abound on the disc, with a DC Showcase of Jonah Hex leading the way.

Starring the voice of Thomas Jane (pulling from his best Punisher impersonation) and Linda Hamilton as Madam Lorraine, we get a 12-minute look at the vigilante gunfighter who delivers a bit of ironic payback to Lorraine through an animation style bowing to Japanese influences.

In fact, I’m actually seeing shades of Full Metal Alchemist character designs here. Bravo, Mr. Timm.

Additionally, viewers get a selection of toons (only in standard definition, boohoo) from the 1990s classic shows “Batman: The Animated Series” and “The New Batman Adventures,” including the two-parter “Robin’s Reckoning,” “The Laughing Fish” and the unforgettable “Mad Love,” which introduces the Joker’s love interest, Harley Quinn.

Read all about it: DC Comics offers two trade paperbacks covering the entire “Batman: Under the Hood” saga ($9.99 each). They include Batman issues Nos. 635 to 650 and Batman Annual No. 1 along with some dynamite Doug Mahnke art. Also, grab the “Batman: A Death in the Family” trade ($19.99) to see why Jason Todd is so deranged in the first place.

Clash of the Titans (Warner Home Video rated PG-13, $35.99)  A computer-effects-heavy remake of a classically campy 1981 opus to Greek mythology debuts on Blu-ray to dazzle the eyes and bore the mind.

Despite the beautiful high-definition transfer, the movie suffers from a lack of heart, laughs and direction amid the chaotic, testosterone-driven action that stars Sam Worthington as Perseus, the bastard son of Zeus and a mortal female.

Even the dream lineup of Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph “Voldemort” Fiennes as Hades can’t pull the film’s story out of its cookie-cutter doldrums.

With that reported, however, viewers will love those special effects, which bring to vivid life a battle with massive scorpions, an odd encounter with witches and a fight against Medusa.

Still, I remain a big fan of the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion original. So let’s not release the Krakken.

Best extras: A disappointing Maximum Movie Mode offers a cornucopia of visual elements that play alongside, on top of, next to and over the movie but do not offer the director intimacy or interactivity seen in the Warner Blu-ray extras of “The Watchmen,” “Sherlock Holmes” or “The Dark Knight.”

Imagine a series of screens highlighting pre-visualization segments, stills, storyboards and interviews with the actors, production staff, writers and designers competing for space with the movie, which simply ends up looking like a behind-the-scenes documentary.

 A selection of 10 clickable Focus Points stop the MM mode and allow viewers a less confusing look at some of the characters and scene construction.

Unfortunately, we learn nothing about Greek mythology or much about legends such as Zeus, Hades, Calibos and Perseus, a missed educational opportunity for sure.

Read all about it: Bluewater Productions offers “Ray Harryhausen Presents: Wrath of the Titans” ($15.99), a trade paperback compiling the three-issue comic-book miniseries that explores what happened to Perseus five years after his defeat of the Krakken.

The Losers, (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $35.99)  While on assignment, a team of Special Forces soldiers is betrayed and nearly killed by a mysterious CIA operative named Max, and the group goes underground to pay back its government.

Sounds like a great premise, and it worked well as a comic book, but not every sequential-art series needs to be made into a movie.

This stale, cliched 97-minute film, released earlier this year, arrives in Blu-ray and cannot possibly compete with the original DC Comics/Vertigo series starring the fun writing of Andy Diggle and colorful illustrations of Jock.

That series stretched over a 32-issue story arc between 2003 and 2006, and the movie does not have the time for the cast of intense characters (such as too-cool sniper Cougar) to shine. It manages only to pick and choose a handful of points of humor and action that made the books so satisfying.

Even with superhero movie veterans in place, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (the Comedian in “The Watchmen”) as Clay and Chris Evans (the Human Torch in “The Fantastic Four” and soon to be Captain America) as Jensen, the film looks more like a storyboard for the comic book than vice versa.

Best extras: The creators say the comic’s origins lie in trying to mimic classic action films, but their scope of brilliance and satire goes well beyond the genre.

A 10-minute featurette, “The Losers: Action-Style Storytelling” slightly points this out amid the marketing kudos for the film.

The comic-book creators’ interviews are supplemented with full-screen visuals of original panels from the series that tell a much richer story than the movie.

Read all about it: DC Comics compiles the first 12 issues of the comic book into the trade paperback “The Losers: Book One” ($19.99).

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