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.
Blu-ray Combo Pack Special Features
- From Sketch to Screen: Exploring the Adaptation Process (HD, 44 minutes): Director Jay Oliva provides a commentary for Part 2 by way of this extensive, smartly compiled and edited production documentary, complete with panel-to-screen comparisons, character design and concept artwork, and a dissection of some of the differences between the last two issues of “The Dark Knight Returns” and its animated adaptation. More of a Maximum Movie Mode-esque feature (as opposed to a straight audio commentary or behind-the-scenes documentary), despite being a standalone extra rather than a running PiP commentary, “From Sketch to Screen” offers crystal clear insight into Oliva’s approach to the second half of Miller’s epic.
- Superman vs. Batman: When Heroes Collide (HD, 9 minutes): “Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman?” A look at the complex roles Superman and Batman play in Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns,” the ways in which their individual evolutions as characters and icons affect those roles, and Miller’s intention with his Superman/Batman showdown, the portrayal of the government as an illegitimate authority, and more.
- The Joker: Laughing in the Face of Death (HD, 14 minutes): The Joker, his induction into the Gotham Universe as twisted trickster, his murderous schemes and sprees over the years, and his mad resurrection and fall in Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns.”
- Additional Episodes: From the DC Comics Vault (SD, 68 minutes): “The Last Laugh” from Batman: The Animated Series, “The Man Who Killed Batman” from Batman: The Animated Series, and “Battle of the Superheroes!” from Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
- Sneak Peek: Superman Unbound (HD, 10 minutes): An extended preview of the next DCU animated movie.
- Sneak Peek: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (HD, 10 minutes): An extended promo for Part 1.
- Digital Comic Excerpt (HD): A much too short 4-page excerpt from the second half of Miller’s Returns.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes): The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download. It is Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action.
Source: Images and Tech specs courtesy of Blu-ray.com