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.
Blu-ray Combo Pack Special Features
- Standard and high definition versions of the feature film
- UltraViolet™ Digital Download and Streaming Version
- Sneak Peak at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2, the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie
- Featurette – “Her Name is Carrie … Her Role is Robin” – An all-new featurette. Experience the role of Robin, through the eyes of a female warrior.
- Featurette – “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story” – A documentary comprehensively chronicling the remarkable life of the creator of Batman.
- Two bonus episodes from Batman: The Animated Series handpicked by producer Alan Burnett: Two-Face, Parts 1 and 2
- Digital Comic – “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” (digital comic with cover art and three full comic pages)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 will be available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on September 25th. Look for Part 2 on DVD/Blu-ray sometime early next year. It is Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action