On Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is yet another DC Animated Film (Son of BatmanWonder WomanGreen Lantern: First FlightJustice League: Crisis on Two EarthsJustice League: The Flashpoint ParadoxJustice League: War, Justice League: Doom, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights) released in two parts, with the first in 2012, and the second in 2013.

It more specifically is an adaptation of the 1986 comic book The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Both Peter Weller’s (RoboCop film series, Odyssey 5) and Michael Emerson’s portrayal of Batman and the Joker are done quite well. I enjoyed the appearance of Lana Lang harking to Superman who would later appear in the second part of the film., although she is clearly feminist, somewhat abrasive, and overweight (suggesting to the audience that feminism makes women unhappy with their own lives). Also the Wonder Woman reference via Selina Kyle was additionally cute.

According to the ScreenRant review of Part 1:

The Batman that many people know (and love) today was spawned not in the 1930s, when the Caped Crusader first appeared in comic books – but rather in the 1980s, under the revisionary design of writer/artist Frank Miller, creator of Sin City and 300. Miller’s seminal Batman story arcs – Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns – have directly influenced every iteration of the superhero thereafter, including Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises (respectively). In short, it was Miller who put the “dark” into The Dark Knight.

DC Universe has already paid homage to Miller’s work with a Batman: Year One animated film, but with The Dark Knight Returns, director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Bob Goodman are taking on what might be the most ambitious (read: potentially disastrous) DCU project, ever. Does the animated version live up to its legendary comic book source material? Or is Miller’s graphic novel too complex and twisted for the cartoon world?

Skeptics should rest easy, as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a rousing success in many ways, and easily conquers its own faults by delivering a Batman movie experience that is unlike any other. Note that I say “Batman movie experience,” because to limit Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 to just being a great animated movie experience would be selling it short.

The story centers on a fifty-five-year-old Bruce Wayne, now forcibly retired from Batman duty as the result of a national crackdown on superhero vigilantes. Disgruntled and swimming in booze, Wayne floats through Gotham’s streets, watching complacently as the city falls to savagery and crime – thanks in large part to a gang of psychotic young punks who call themselves The Mutants.

As Gotham City darkens, Bruce begins to feel an old presence rising from the depths inside him – and when one of his old foes returns to commit a brazen string of crimes, Batman can be abated no longer. Before he fully knows it, Bruce is back in costume and unleashing punishing justice to the criminal lot of Gotham; but the Mutants and their ferocious leader are a new breed of criminal – one that even Batman may not be able to best.

Oliva and Goodman stick like glue to Miller’s comic, which is probably the smartest move they could make. Most of The Dark Knight Returns from the page is replicated in this film, including the shifts between Batman’s story and ongoing news broadcasts that provide larger thematic and expository context – a welcome inclusion for those of us who were (needlessly) worried that the animated film would sacrifice the layered complexity of Miller’s tale. That complexity reamins intact, as do many of the comedic moments that come from transitions between the actions of the principal characters and the often-satirical commentary of the news broadcasts.

Most of the supporting characters and personalities from the comic book news broadcasts are also in the film: various satirized news anchor personalities, ‘on the street’ commentators and “talking heads” such as an overweight Lana Lang (from Superman) advocating Batman’s return, and Dr. Bartholomew Wolper (Michael McKean), the psychiatrist who preaches that Batman is a menace who inspires supervillain psychosis. Like in the comics, these peripheral characters and moments expand the scope of the story, transforming it into a larger rumination on Batman as an icon and symbol, instead of it just being a story about an aging Batman trying to get his groove back. The broadcasts also frame the story and pacing of the film, allowing Oliva and Goodman to delve into important scenes, while using broadcast exposition to move us through new developments easily and clearly. Although the comic version relied a great deal on Batman’s internal monologue, the filmmakers avoid that path and fill any gaps in understanding through the use of visual implication or supporting characters putting certain matters to voice.

The atmosphere of Miller’s world is translated perfectly to the screen, making The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 one of the darkest and most disturbing Batman movies in any medium. This is a story in which we first got a truly frightening image of Batman as a violent, obsessive, semi-psychotic vigilante, and that’s exactly what we get in this animated film. Scenes of Batman breaking criminals’ bones (or literally beating their faces to a bloody pulp) are fantastic for the crowd that prefers a grittier and more adult version of the character; however, the film is definitely too intense for children under double-digit age.

A big point of contention with this particular project will be the look of it: Miller’s graphic novel was illustrated in his distinctly dirty, chaotic, scribbly style, which doesn’t lend itself well to modern animation. Out of loyalty, Oliva sticks with the overall design and concepts of Miller’s artwork, but marries it to the more exact style of high-quality anime films. This creates a unique and gorgeous visual palette, in which we still get Miller’s BTDKR designs (a big, blocky, bruiser Batman being the most iconic); we still get the darkness, grit, grime and hyper-’80s feel of future Gotham City, but here it all looks carefully and expertly animated. Iconic moments from the comics are lovingly recreated in the film, and in general, the Blu-ray visuals alone are worth the price of purchase.

Being a film, Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 also has a chance to expand on some of the more static images and moments in the comics, which brings a level of intrigue to the film even for longtime fans. Such moments include Batman’s confrontation with a corrupt military official, as well as the action sequences and set pieces, which are staged in exciting, often brutal, and totally Batman-esque fashion by Oliva. Dark Knight Returns  unequivocally delivers a satisfying action quotient and some classic fight scenes, to boot.

The voice acting is, for the most part, spot on. Peter Weller (Robocop) is not necessarily the first name you think of when imagining a voice for Batman; but then again, Miller’s dialogue in BTDKR isn’t like any other Batman story before or after it. While fans will always clamor for voice actor Kevin Conroy to be handed every animated Batman role, Weller’s strong and steady monotone is (in my opinion) the perfect delivery method for the dry, sardonic Batman dialogue Miller intended. A nice casting choice.

Modern Family star Ariel Winter is plucky enough to voice Carrie Kelley, the young girl who takes up the mantel of Robin, while versatile voice actor Gary Anthony Williams (The Boondocks) uses his signature growl to make the Mutant leader sound like a fearsome foe. The only real fail in casting is David Selby (Social Network), whose light, airy tones sound totally wrong coming out of Commissioner Gordon.

Story-wise, Part 1 covers the first two installments of Miller’s four-part story (“Dark Knight Returns” and “Dark Knight Triumphant”), opening with Bruce Wayne becoming Batman again in order to stop Two-Face, and ending with his war against the Mutants (which has an ominous side-effect). Part 2 will cover an epic showdown between Batman and The Joker, and the fallout of that battle, which sees Batman marked as a fugitive with Superman assigned to bring him in.

Dark, gritty tone, iconic character designs and imagery, thrilling Batman-style action and all the subtext, social-relevancy and multi-faceted story pieces from Miller’s comics? Yep, it’s all accounted for. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a must-buy for any Batman fan – including those who swear by the comic version of the story. Given everything it gets right, this may be DC Universe’s most cinematic and satisfying work to date.

According to the ScreenRant review of Part 2:

Continuing where The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 left off, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 picks up months after Batman’s return to crime fighting, and his defeat of the ferocious Mutant Gang leader. With Gotham City’s worst crime organization now splintered, Batman works alongside his newest Robin, Carrie Kelly, cleaning up all the rogue factions of Mutants.

However, The Dark Knight’s triumphs (pun) bring some unforeseen consequences: Newly-appointed police commissioner Ellen Yindel views Batman as an outlaw and calls for his arrest; after years in a catatonic state, The Joker is revived by Batman’s resurgence and plans new mayhem; and even in the Oval Office, the president readies his pet Superman for forceful intervention, should Batman continue to make mockery of the law banning super hero activities.

The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 was a stunning triumph in the way that it took Frank Miller’s seminal storyline (which forever changed the face of Batman) and effectively captured the dark, brooding, meditation on who Batman is, and what he stands for – despite the obstacles of page-to-screen translation. (Miller’s story used a lot of voiceover narration, for instance, which isn’t a tool film can employ as effectively.) Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is just as faithful and creative in its own translation of the final two volumes in Miller’s four-part story (“Hunt The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Falls”); unfortunately, that faithful recreation also proves to be this movie’s downfall.

There is much social satire built into Miller’s story – and nowhere is this more evident than in the final two volumes, which incorporate a major subplot about the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust, which hung over the world at the time when this story was written (the ’80s). For fans reading the story in the actual Cold War era, this was a relatable and enjoyable thread to follow – but in the context of a 21st century animated film, it comes as a major distraction from an otherwise focused narrative. The sight of a Reagan-esque president spouting cowboy colloquialisms – or Superman battling Soviet forces in Cuba – are sure to be baffling to those who are too young to remember that time, and disappointing to those who hoped the subplot will have as much impact now, onscreen, as it did on the page, back then.

The Dark Knight Returns not only changed the way Batman was viewed – it also changed the way people viewed his nemesis, The Joker. The Batman/Joker showdown in “Hunt The Dark Knight” was a savage and bloody thing (helping to establish the sort of sociopathic murderous Joker seen in live-action Batman films), and one would hope that at least that part of the tale would still hold weight onscreen. Sadly, that impact also loses a bit of its potency in translation. With so much to pack into a 76-minute feature, The Joker’s appearance feels very rushed and (being that this is still a cartoon, even if it’s angled towards adults) very toned-down from what Miller depicted in his book.

Lost/Person of Interest star Michael Emerson has made a name for himself playing creepy/eccentric characters, and one might therefore think that he would be a prime candidate for the voice of the Joker. He is not. I will say that I DO NOT believe that tried-and-true Joker voice actor Mark Hamill would’ve been “perfect” for this part; Frank Miller very purposely created his Joker to be a version the world had never quite seen before (effeminate, deadpan, sickeningly ruthless) and I believe that a different actor should voice that different interpretation. It’s just that Emerson (with his nasally delivery) is not the right candidate, and many of his lines feel detached from the animated character voicing them; not to mention, the sense that the actor is reciting Miller’s words, rather than breathing life into them.

With the Joker segment not quite hitting the way it should, there is still the hope that the epic Batman/Superman showdown that concluded Miller’s story will make up the difference. Indeed, the actual fight between the two superhero titans is gratifying (especially if you know how it ends), but getting there is a bit of a chore.

As stated, the whole Cold War era plotline that finally drives The Joker’s “scheme” and ultimately pushes Superman to confront Batman is woefully outdated, and the film follows many of the source material’s minor threads right down the rabbit’s hole of meandering narrative (ex: Jim Gordon’s experience during the chaos of a power outage – or the history only hinted at during a brief appearance by Green Arrow). For those NOT looking for a beat-by-beat recreation of Miller’s work (read: those hoping for a Batman story) these deviations are especially distracting, while (again) those who love the books might find the sights of things like a satirized President Reagan, Joker’s childlike robot weapons or a fat and wrinkled Selina Kyle to be silly when presented onscreen.

The returning voice cast (Peter Weller as Batman, Ariel Winter as Robin, David Selby as Gordon) are just as solid as the first time around – while Human Target star Mark Valley is a pretty excellent Superman. Talk show host Conan O’Brien even steps in for a cameo as… a talk show host. Like Part 1, the animation style emulates the gritty, blocky design of Miller’s environments and characters, while making it all look crisp and clean in hi-def format. It’s definitely worth a Blu-ray viewing, in terms of visuals.

If there had been a way to streamline all the main threads into a more efficient and/or updated narrative (at the risk of pissing off the fanboys), Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 might’ve been a better movie for the changes. As it stands, the film is a lovingly faithful recreation of the story that spawned it – for better or for worse, depending on the viewer.




One thought on “On Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

  1. Pingback: On Superman/Batman: Public Enemies | The Progressive Democrat

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