Released in 1986, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most seminal Batman stories ever written, and certainly one of the finest super-hero comic-book stories ever told. The Dark Knight Returns forever changed the depiction of Batman, and it has been influencing comic book writers and artists not to mention filmmakers ever since. The dark, gothic look and tone of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was heavily influenced by The Dark Knight Returns, and the first hour-and-a-half of Christopher Nolan’s similarly-titled The Dark Knight Rises (in which an aging Bruce Wayne, haven not been Batman for nearly a decade, puts back on the cape and cowl, attempting to rebuild his body and then doing battle with a muscle-bound terrorist attempting to take control of Gotham City) is nearly a direct adaptation.
That’s a bit of a joke, of course, partly based on my disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises (click here for my review, though my dissatisfaction with the film has grown since I wrote that initial, mostly-positive review), but it’s certainly true that many of the major story-beats from that film were taken directly from The Dark Knight Returns. They even directly took the scene in which two cops, a veteran and a rookie, respond after first seeing Batman again on the night of his return. (“You’re slowing down?” ”Relax, kid. We’re in for a show.”)
I first read The Dark Knight Returns only a few years after it was initially published. I was WAY too young to read it, not question. I didn’t understand everything in the story (the twist about Harvey Dent’s psychosis at the end of Book one totally went right over my ten-year-old head) but I was nevertheless gripped by this dark, violent, gripping story. I have since read The Dark Knight Returns countless times, and it has lost none of its power. I’ve written about it before on this site, naming it one of my favorite graphic novels of all time.
I was thus very excited and also very nervous when it was announced that Bruce Timm & co. would be adapting this groundbreaking work as their next direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated project. This is exactly the type of comic source material that I desperately want to see Mr. Timm and his crew adapt — a classic series from the DC pantheon. But The Dark Knight Returns is so good, so beloved, that the idea of a lame, sub-par adaptation was far worse than the idea of no adaptation at all.
One of my biggest continual complaints with these DC Animated DVDs has been that they’re way too short. They all seem to be clocking in at between 60 and 70 minutes, which has resulted in most of their adaptations feeling incredibly rushed. New Frontier was the biggest offender in this department. The designs were incredibly faithful to Darwyn Cooke’s original story, and the plot points were all there, but there was no soul to the project. The scenes, the characters, they didn’t have a chance to breathe. When I read the DC was splitting their adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns into two parts, I was very pleased. That seemed like a good sign. (I wish they’d just release it all together in one two-hour feature-length epic, but if this is the way to get that longer version, I’ll live!)
The animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns opens, as does the original, in Gotham city in the sickly yellow light of day. Bruce Wayne, ten years after having given up being Batman, nearly perishes in a car race when he pushes his vehicle far past its safe operating limits. I was a little worried watching these first few minutes. The animation was stiff. The cars — clearly animated on computer — seemed out of place, and the cheapness of the animation showed any time we got a glimpse of the crowds, which weren’t animated at all, just still backgrounds. Uh oh.
Things improved dramatically with the next scene, a wonderful conversation in a fancy bar between Wayne and the soon-to-retire seventy-year-old Commissioner Gordon. This conversation takes eight panels on the third page of the original comic, but here it’s fleshed out into a wonderful several-minute-long scene. Right away, we can see the benefits of not having to squeeze this story into one 60-70-minute piece. It’s a great conversation, telling us everything we need to know about these old war buddies, battered but not quite broken by the long years. OK, I thought, this is more like it, things are getting better.
Then, as in the comics, we see a slightly drunk, angered Wayne stalk out of the bar and begin wandering the streets of Gotham City, eventually finding himself back in Crime Alley. Two young punks, members of the “mutant” gang, try to mug Wayne. Bad idea. The scene — a great moment from the comic — was realized perfectly. The animation was smooth and lush, with layers of shadow and gloom creating a grim but somehow beautiful mise-en-scène, and the voice-acting was perfection as Wayne dares the punks to attack him — “Come on!” he yells, fists clenched. It’s a great moment, perfectly realized, and from that moment I was in for the ride.
I know the story backwards and forwards, and surely even a newbie would know that it won’t be too long before Wayne is going to put on that cape and cowl and the Dark Knight will, well, return, but I was captivated by the story as it unfolded. The sequence in which Batman does finally return to the scene, busting up one crime after another, each time only giving witnesses, and the audience, the barest glimpse of himself, is marvelous.
The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is, over-all, a tremendous achievement and a thrilling adaptation of this classic story. Anyone who has not read the original comic should be prepared to have their butts handed to them by this intense, violent tale, and I think hard-core fans will be very pleased. (And they even kept in the curse words! I couldn’t believe the “Shmuck face” line got preserved, but I am so happy that it did!)
I was impressed by how many little touches from the comic were preserved. Frank Miller had a weird way of drawing the bat-symbol (particularly apparent when the bat-symbol would appear behind the various newscasters seen in the comic), and that has been perfectly preserved in the animated adaptation. Speaking of those newscasters, I loved how, just like in the comic, we’re constantly shifting in and out of the action to see glimpses of various news reports, layering in extra details of the world into the story.
I was extremely disappointed when I read that the original Batman: The Animated Series voice-actors weren’t being brought in to reprise their roles. I would have KILLED to have heard Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voice Batman and the Joker, respectively, in this adaptation. It frustrates me that the DC folks didn’t bring them back. That being said, Peter Weller (Robocop himself) is incredible as Batman/Bruce Wayne. After Kevin Conroy, Mr. Weller is the best voice for Batman that I have heard in any of these animated projects, and he’s absolutely perfect for the tough, grizzled old Batman seen here. His voice is so deep and resonant, dripping with menace and danger, it’s just absolutely perfect coming out of the mouth of this large, tank-like version of old Batman.
David Selby plays Commissioner Gordon. I was thrown at first when I heard his voice — it was more high-pitched than I’d expected Gordon’s voice to be. But I quickly settled in, and I must say Mr. Selby took Gordon’s iconic Pearl Harbor monologue (a particularly fine bit of writing by Frank Miller) and knocked it out of the park. Wade Williams and Ariel Winter do fine work as Harvey Dent and Carrie Kelley, respectively, and it was great to hear Paget Brewster in a small role as Lana Lang. But I was really impressed with Michael Jackson (not the deceased pop-star) as Alfred. Mr. Jackson was wonderfully dry and amusing in the role, giving Alfred great dignity but also great humor and good sense. It’s the best Alfred I’ve heard since Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s performance from Batman: The Animated Series twenty years ago. And, of course, there’s the great Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind), who is absolute gold as the voice of Harvey Dent’s psychiatrist Dr. Wolper.
The adaptation makes some mis-steps. They didn’t quite land the dramatic moment when Bruce Wayne sees Harvey Dent the way Harvey sees himself. In the comic, it’s a quick one-panel shot, but I thought the film lingered on the moment too long, ending with a weird fade where I think a dramatic cut would have worked better. The script over-all is very faithful, but there are a few moments in which they add in a line that is too obvious, over-explaining to the audience things that should be apparent. When Batman fights the Mutant Leader in the mud pit, there’s an added line in which Bats explains that the mud is slowing the Mutant Leader down, enabling Bats to be able to hold his own with the younger, stronger villain. Duh, we got it. In the batcave after the battle, when a wounded Batman staggers away into the dark of the cave, they added in an exchange in which Carrie asks Alfred where Batman is going, and Alfred says “to get his strength back.” OK, weird. Yes, it was sort of implied in the comic that Bruce has some sort of psychological rejuvination in the cave, but Alfred’s statement seems a silly over-explanation of what was best left mysterious. (Plus, it raises more questions than it answers — just what exactly is naked Bruce doing back there in the dark of the cave??) Most egregiously, at the end of Batman’s confrontation with Harvey Dent, in which the parallel between villain Two-Face and hero Batman has just been powerfully conveyed, they add in a dumb line for Batman: “You and me both.” Ugh.
The most controversial aspect of this adaptation, for me, is that they have completely dropped Batman’s voice-over narration. In the comic, the whole story is narrated by Bruce Wayne, written in Frank Miller’s wonderfully terse, hard-boiled style. Now, it’s hard to say whether this would have worked in an animated film. Bruce Timm & co. clearly felt it wouldn’t. The closest thing I can compare this to is Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, a fiercely faithful adaptation of another great Frank Miller work. The film of Sin City DID preserve the Frank-Miller-written voice-overs, and I will admit it was a little silly at times. So maybe Mr. Timm and his team made the right decision. Still, I really miss the voice-over. That narration really gave us insight into Wayne’s character and motivations, something which I sorely miss from the animated film. Also, most of the series’ greatest, most classic lines were from that narration. Like Bruce’s considering how to take down an armed punk: “There are seven working defenses from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal conflict. Three of them kill. The other — HURTS.” Or the classic bit during his attempt to take down Two Face’s helicopter, in which Bats gets shot square in the chest, only to survive because he is wearing body armor: “Why do you think I wear a target on my chest — can’t armor my head…” Or, during his violent assault on the Mutant Gang, his winking narrated comment: “Rubber bullets. Honest.” (They did find a way to squeeze in an explanation that Batman was using rubber bullets when he shot all of those gang-members, but in a far less artful, less humorous way.) I really missed that whole other aspect to the story that the Bruce Wayne narration provided.
In the animated film, we do get one little bit of Bruce Wayne’s internal monologue — when we hear what seems to be the voice of Batman speaking to Wayne, telling him he’s not finished with him yet. That bit is present in the comic, but stood out less when the comic was filled with Bruce Wayne’s narration. In the animated adaptation, it makes it seem like Bruce Wayne has just as much a split personality as Two Face. That idea was, of course, also present in the original comic, but more subtly, which I preferred to the weird hammering-us-over-the-head with the idea that happens with the way that scene plays out in the film. It’s a weird choice, and if there wasn’t going to be any narration in the film I wish they would have dropped that few seconds of voice-over as well.
Still, despite my complaints, I am extremely impressed with this adaptation. It’s hard to have hoped for a more-faithful attempt at bringing this famous, influential story to life. I have had the DVD for a week and I’ve already watched it twice. I am counting the days until Part 2. There are so many great moments yet to come (The return of the Joker! The EMP and the havoc in Gotham! The Sons of Batman’s cavalry ride on horseback! And oh my lord the fight with Superman!!) I hope they stick the landing. I’ll be counting the days.