Review: The Dark Knight Returns – part I and II
In 1986 Frank Miller released arguably one of the most influential and most loved reimaginings of the Batman mythos. After a ten year absence an aging Batman comes out of retirement to battle a ruthless new breed of gang terrorising Gotham City.
The Dark Knight Returns along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen dropped in the late 80s with the force of an atomic bomb. While the comic book industry was starting to grow stale, these two visionaries challenged perceptions of what a comic book could discuss, brought in economic and political concerns and reinvigorated the industry. They helped the funny pages grow up significantly. It’s hard to not talk about them in tandem as they had such a dramatic effect on the industry.
Bringing such a ground-breaking story to life was always going to present a difficult series of challenges, and as a fan of both the animated genre and someone who was lucky enough to read the original limited edition series when it was first released I can say that very little is lost in translation. This two part animated feature is visually stunning, wonderfully acted, has a nostalgic retro soundtrack and maintains all of the impact of Frank Miller’s comic, with a few niggles only noticeable to the discerning comic book guy.
The landscape of Gotham City has changed dramatically. The Batman hasn’t been seen in a decade. The Joker exists in a vegetative state in Arkham. Two-Face has been rehabilitated, facially reconstructed and is about to be released. Commissioner Gordon is a week from retirement and a vicious gang known as The Mutants has the good citizens of Gotham cowering in their homes during a scorching heat wave engulfing the city. Something’s got to give.
Eking out a vigilante free life has taken its toll on Bruce Wayne and he throws himself into harm’s way to recapture that lost spark. It’s not enough. Compelled to act he reclaims the night as Batman, but this is a much darker beast of a man. His methods are brutal. Criminals are hospitalised. Bones broken. Tendons severed. He walks the tightrope taking his prey right to the brink of death but never crosses the line.
His return has a profound impact on the city, particularly when a surprising new Robin enters the fold, but the scales must remain balanced. Old enemies reappear. Two-Face returns to his coin-flipping ways. The Mutants’ psychotic leader wants to take Batman down and Joker makes a horrific return, even by his standards, woken up from his self induced slumber by the Batman’s actions.
This sets off chain of events leading to the final showdown between the two, brewing for decades. If that wasn’t enough, world events are coming to a head with much farther reaching implications. Initially seen as a nuisance, Batman’s return remains an embarrassment for the new commissioner charged with his capture and for a government slowly losing control. Drastic measures are taken when a staunch former ally, now working for the US President, is sent in to tame this bucking bronco with the outcome sure to leave the most ardent comic fan breathless, speechless and reeling in disbelief.
Director Jay Oliva has done an outstanding job with this adaptation. He’s managed to retain the oversized muscle tone of Frank Miller’s distinct art style which made each of the characters so imposing and larger than life. The plot remains true to the original with a few minor tweaks here and there and the omission of each character’s internal monologue isn’t anywhere near as detrimental to the overall story. In fact, only comic aficionados will notice the difference.
The voice acting is top notch with seasoned voice director Andrea Romano drawing together an outstanding cast. Peter Weller is brilliant as the grizzled old crime fighter playing a gruff Batman/Bruce Wayne in the vein of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. His raspy tone and inflection is perfection. Ariel Winter brings the right amount of youthful exuberance to Robin and Michael Emerson’s almost nonchalant and subtle take on the Joker is magnificent but it was Mark Valley’s take on Superman that stole the show for me.
The veteran actor of Boston Legal and the criminally underrated series Human Target (well, the first season anyway) has always played a straight shooter or flag waving military man in previous acting endeavours He’s a likely candidate for the Big Blue Boy Scout, but it was the sensitivity he brought to the role, the sad nuances that filtered through that layered his performance so beautifully.
Aside from the animated feature the Blu-rays are jam packed with exclusive features. There are short specials detailing the Joker, the revelation and necessity of a female Robin and the duality of Superman and Batman all discussed by various DC staples including Bruce Timm and the charming Grant Morrison. There are classic episodes from the Batman Animated series, short previews of upcoming adaptations and a long look at film-making process in From Sketch to Screen with director Jay Oliva. The highlight is by far Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story, a fascinating and in-depth look at the life of the man who created the Dark Knight Detective.
The Dark Knight Returns is a stunning adaptation of one of the most pivotal comics in the industry’s history. It manages to treat the source material with respect, reverence, yet still walks its own path. It is a crucial addition to any self respecting comic fan’s collection and one hell of a movie in its own right. Get it. Watch it. Love it.