Review – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Parts I-II

By February 1, 2013
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The DC Universe Animated Original Movie series has been a really great outlet for fans of DC characters. While Marvel is currently the king of live-action superhero film just because of the sheer volume they’re churning out (both in-house and at other studios), animation is one of the arenas that Marvel has been lagging behind in. Since September of 2007, the series has churned out 16 films, all spearheaded by the best minds behind such acclaimed shows as Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited. Sometimes, the movies are original stories, but also just as regularly they are adaptations of beloved DC Comics tales that are finally realized in full motion animation.

One of DC’s stories that’s always been in high demand for an adaptation still stands as arguably the single most influential Batman graphic novel of all time. In an era where Adam West’s goofiness was the most prevalent image the public associated with Batman, writer/artist Frank Miller took on the character not to necessarily reinvent him, but to reintroduce him as what he was always originally intended to be: a dark, brooding vigilante that was brutal to his enemies, fierce in his will, a champion of the people, and yet dangerous to everyone.

In 1986, this reintroduction came in the form of Miller’s seminal comics work The Dark Knight Returns. The story tells us about a Bruce Wayne in his mid-fifties who, ten years prior, managed to trap the vicious persona of the Batman after enduring heavy losses, and after being forced into obscurity. Although, it’s not long before this old man loses the ability to cage the writhing beast within him, after his city is placed under siege by a murderous gang of psychopaths with a simple desire to conquer the city. DKR is a story that returns Batman to his roots in many ways, and in the process has garnered critical acclaim, a cult following, and a place among the primary legendary tales in the entire storied history of both Batman and DC Comics.

This automatically begs the question: can you adapt this story successfully? Perhaps more importantly, should you even try?

All of the DCU animated films that have been released have had a time limit of around 75 minutes, and most comics fans will tell you that this is not enough time to capture the full story of The Dark Knight Returns with any semblance of justice. As a result, Warner Premiere and DC announced that the film would be adapted in two parts, bumping up the full run time to about 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Now we’re talking. It’s a little frustrating that we can’t have one experience of the full story, but if this means that the adaptation will be given proper service, then I’m all for it.

I’m going to try not to get into too many specifics where the story is concerned. Without belaboring the point too much, suffice it to say that this is a fairly direct adaptation with very few moments that sway from the original work. In an interview conducted by the Superman Homepage, screenwriter Bob Goodman said that his own influences would cause him to either collapse ideas into more efficient flows for the new medium the story has entered, or apply some of his own ideas to Miller’s more political statements in order to balance things out for a wider audience.

There aren’t any major outright changes that I personally detected, only a few instances where the delivery of an idea may have been shifted slightly from how certain themes were presented in the book. As a result, even with a bit of an individual flair, Goodman’s role is very much as a curator of the original work, preserving the ideas and aims of Miller’s story as if restoring it for the centerpiece of a Batman museum.

The characters were all carried over very directly, with the same tones and voices that fans of the book will remember. The voice casting in this regard was nearly perfect, with Peter Weller turning in a performance as Batman that had the harshness and sardonicism that clearly defines Miller’s conception of the older Bruce Wayne. In truth, there was a lot more emotion from Weller than I was expecting, because my personal conception of an older Bruce Wayne’s voice when reading the book is a bit more harsh. In my head, I always heard a sound reflective of a man spending his years-long career as Batman scraping his vocal chords together to sound like a beast. So much so, that he made that signature, guttural growl his permanent sound because of the damage he’d done to his real voice after so many nights forcibly modifying it.

With this adaptation, though, Weller doesn’t miss a beat. Even if his Batman is covered in a thick layer of cynicism and derision for the decay of society and the prevalence of illegitimate authority, he still manages to feel human (no matter how much Batman himself would want you to think otherwise).

Other characters are filled out surprisingly well, with voice director Andrea Romano turning in some of the best work of her career. In materials related to other DC Comics work, Romano has said that she always aims to find a “voice with character” in the selected performers, as opposed to actors expending too much energy in creating a cartoon voice.

Certain standouts include Ariel Winter (Modern Family) as Carrie Kelly/Robin, Michael Jackson (not that one) as Alfred, David Selby (Dark Shadows) as Commissioner Gordon, Mark Valley (Human Target) as Superman, and Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap) in a playfully and delightfully irritating performance as Dr. Bartholomew Wolper. The most satisfying casting choice has to be the infinitely creepy and detached deadpan of Michael Emerson (Lost) as the Joker, more dangerous than ever by the time his reason for living returns to him.

The design of the film, particularly with the character models, is about as close to the book as you can get in animation. Batman himself is nothing short of a behemoth. Watching both parts of the film with a friend the other night, he delighted at the vibrant and surprising imagery of a Batman that looked to be on the side of 400-pounds moving with the quickness of a ninja. The grimace and sheer darkness of the Batman defines the look of the entire film, and that furled brow and those piercing white eyes that sharpen to points and slits really makes this film feel like an authentic extension of the book.

The environs of Gotham and in other locales like Corto Maltese feel like they’re ripped off of the page, especially in the main location with the towering Gotham Life building hanging over the city as the defining figure of its skyline. It’s also a great choice by director Jay Oliva and others on the design team to maintain the late-eighties setting of the story, evident in the clothing styles, the music, and even some of the vernacular. It just adds another level of authenticity to the whole experience.

The music also really struck me. Composer Christopher Drake (a veteran of nine previous DC Animated films as well as being Guillermo del Toro’s handpicked composer for the animated Hellboy outings) manages to evoke some of Hans Zimmer’s scores for The Dark Knight Trilogy while actually darkening the overall feel and bringing a bit more structure to the music announcing Batman. By the end credits of Part I, Drake’s score had me completely invested in the watching experience of this story, adding the truly new layer that you can’t experience just by reading the book. This film has a great score.

When looking at each part individually, I probably tend to prefer Part I, but my standard in this regard applies to the actual book as well. Part II, or books 3-4 in the original miniseries, tend to lose me a little with it’s somewhat over-the-top ideas and it’s rather simplistic characterization and use of Superman. One of the things I wasn’t expecting, though, was for the scene involving Batman’s final confrontation with the Joker to have as much cinematic weight and emotion as it did. While it’s not quite as intense as the book accomplishes, the film comes surprisingly close to emulating the shock, horror, and awe of Batman’s final conversation with his nemesis, as well as making the emotions resoundingly clear: a perversion of love on the side of the Joker, and seething hatred on the side of the Batman.

I’ve never been one to say that The Dark Knight Returns is a perfect story, or even a perfect Batman story. It’s place, though, as one of the definitive modern-era works featuring the character and his world is unshakeable for very good reason. The Dark Knight Returns influenced a generation of Batman fans and observers, playing no small part in the conception of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. It influenced an untold number of comic book creators who’ve gone on to tell their own timeless and definitive Batman tales, including the likes of Scott Snyder (The Black Mirror, The Court of Owls), Paul Dini (Heart of Hush, Arkham City), Greg Rucka (Death and the Maidens, Bruce Wayne: Murderer?), and Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth, Batman Reborn).

As a representation of that seminal 1986 comic book by Frank Miller, the film adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Parts I-II is definitely an achievement. It presents the old tune in a new way with all of the grandeur and attention it deserves, and likely stands as the best animated DC Comics film in the company’s history. For a story I’ve seen before, I’d say that’s not bad at all.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.