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Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 2)!

February 11th, 2013
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DC’s series of direct-to-DVD animated films stepped up to the plate big-time, recently, by taking on direct adaptations of two of the greatest comics that DC ever published.  Both were written by Frank Miller.  The first was Batman: Year One (click here for my review of that adaptation) and the second was The Dark Knight Returns.  In 1986, Frank Miller wrote and drew this seminal story, one that has continued to powerfully influence Batman stories in the comics and on film ever since.  On the surface, the plot is simple: following the death of Robin, Bruce Wayne gave up the guise of Batman.  But as Gotham City sinks into crime and despair, Wayne once again picks up the cape and cowl in an attempt to free Gotham of crime.  This is the Last Batman Story that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises so desperately wanted to be.  Mr. Miller’s graphic novel is a work of genius, a brilliant take on Batman elevated by his complex, nuanced storytelling and gorgeous, unconventional artwork and page layouts.  It’s one of my very favorite graphic novels.

To give their adaptation the room to breathe, in a very cool step, Bruce Timm and his team decided to release this adaptation in two parts.  Part One was a very solid effort.  (Click here for my review.)  It’s not a home run — I wish that they had used the voice actors from the original Batman: The Animated Series, and I wish the animation was of a higher quality.  (I recently picked up the blu-ray edition of Batman: Return of the Joker, and I found the animation in that 2000 animated film to be superior to all of the recent direct-to-DVD DC animated projects.  I wonder why that is?)  There were a few key moments that I felt that got wrong in Part I of the adaptation, and it seemed to me that many of the layers in the narrative were lost in favor of a more straight-forward telling of the story.  But I was still very entertained by the pleasingly faithful adaptation.  I thought it was a very solid effort, and even a straight-forward telling of this incredible story is extraordinarily entertaining.  I suspect that anyone who has never read the original graphic novel will be blown away by this grim, intense Batman story.  Those of us who worship the graphic novel will be entertained, though less impressed because for everything the adaptation got right, we are cognizant of the layers that were lost.

Part II of the animated adaptation is pretty much exactly the same.  I was hoping that things would get kicked up a notch, and since that didn’t happen I was a bit disappointed.  But Part II is very consistent with Part I, and the two fit together into a pretty kick-ass Batman story, the likes of which I really never expected to see depicted in one of these DC animated projects.

Without any recap, we are thrown right back into the story as Part II opens.  Batman is back, cleaning up the streets.  The adaptation makes a bit more of a meal of the scene from the start of Book 3 of the graphic novel, the sort of silly bit in which Batman, disguised as a decrepit old woman, beats the snot out of a bunch of neo-Nazi thugs holding up a liquor store.  In the adaptation, this becomes an elaborate fight sequence.  It’s borderline silly because, throughout the scene, Batman is in this crazy-looking disguise, but I thought it was a fun way to throw us into Part II.  Right away, though, we see that Bats is on his way to a tough confrontation with his former comrade Superman, now a lackey of the government, as well as a final showdown with the newly-active Joker.

In this film, the Joker is voiced by Michael Emerson (Ben from Lost).  It’s a very interesting choice, as we get a much calmer, more sophisticated, more effeminate version of the character than we have seen before.  It fits decently well with Frank Miller’s depiction, though I didn’t feel Mr. Emerson quite reaches the heights of maniacal crazy that I expected.  But for the most part Mr. Emerson’s performance works very well.  It’s cool to hear the ultimate villain from Lost as the ultimate Batman villain, and this calmer version of the Joker makes sense in the context of the story, in which we must believe that this former mass-murderer could realistically be booked on a talk show.  (By the way, nice work casting Conan O’Brien as “David Endochrine,” though my god I wish they’d been able to land Mr. Letterman himself for the voice.  How amazing would that have been?)

This adaptation is a little frustrating, frankly, because for everything they got just right,  there’s another moment that they didn’t quite land.

What works?  Well, most importantly, the depiction of Clark Kent and the big final fight with Superman is pretty terrific.  One bit of brilliance of Frank Miller’s original story is that, while this Last Batman Story of course contains a final show-down between Batman and the Joker, that is not the climax of the story. No, once Batman has finally finished with the Joker, it is a confrontation with a former ally — Superman — that brings the Batman’s career to a close.  That final fight with Superman is probably the thing that The Dark Knight Returns is most known for, and I am pleased and relieved to say that they did a great job.  The fight is brutal, and very faithful to the comic (with just one glaring exception, which I’ll get to in a moment).

As with Part I, they once again do a nice job incorporating all of the news broadcasts into the story.

They don’t pull any punches with the Joker’s massacre of the David Endochrine Show audience, nor his violent rampage at the amusement park afterwards.  I love that they found a way to work in one of the best lines from the comic, in which Batman, seeing all of the Joker’s victims, angrily castigates himself for “all the people I’ve murdered… by letting you live.”  I was pleased to see the Joker’s obese, repugnant henchman included, and they did a terrific job animating the creepy, ugly robotic little robot kids.  (Those two robotic kids are among the weirdest elements of the story, and I was pleased how well they were brought to life in the film.)  Speaking of weird and repugnant aspects of the story, I was also pleased to see that the elderly, escort-service-running version of Selina Kyle (Catwoman) was included in the adaptation, along with the exceedingly creepy moment in which we see that the Joker, after kidnapping Selina, has dressed her up as Wonder Woman.

It’s funny, though, that for an adaptation that definitely does not shy away from the more violent, adult aspects of the source material, they did blink in a few instances in a way that disappointed me.  Most disappointingly, in the big Superman fight, they slightly tweak the final moment of the fight.  In the original graphic novel, after poising Superman with Kryptonite, Batman grabs Superman by the neck and we hear Bruce Wayne saying “I want you to remember, Clark… in all the years to come… in your most private moments… I want you to remember… my hand… at your throat…”  But in the film, they remove that line about “my hand at your throat” and instead put in a silly line about how Bruce could have increased the strength of the Kryptonite to kill Superman, but didn’t.  It’s a weird softening of a very intense, iconic moment.  Why did they change that scene?  I mean, this adaptation included Frank Miller’s design for the neo-Nazi Bruno, which is a woman with no top, wearing swasticas covering her breasts.  I NEVER expected to see that in this animated adaptation!  I thought for sure they’d change that, but nope, there is Bruno, breasts and all.  So why did Batman’s hand around Superman’s throat seem too far for this adaptation to go?  It’s puzzling.

The other moment that fell short for me in this adaptation is the depiction of the blackout in Gotham.  First of all, I was a bit confused as to the geography.  My understanding from the comic was that the Soviets launched a nuke at Corto Maltese, which Superman deflects, but the detonation in the atmosphere causes an electromagnetic pulse that affects the United States, including Gotham.  That seems to be what happens in the adaptation as well, but there were a few shots in which it seems like people from Gotham can see the detonation, which seems weird.  But, whatever, in the comic, the chaos of the riots in the city, during the blackout, are eventually curbed when Batman rides in on horseback and rallies the people — both the everyday citizens and the violent gang-bangers — to his cause.  It seems a little silly as I type it, but it’s one of the most powerful sequences in the comic.  But in the adaptation, it didn’t feel nearly big enough.  The music should have been more dramatic, the animation should have been grander.  And while I thought that overall Peter Weller did a terrific job voicing this gruff, old Batman, I thought his delivery of Batman’s speech was way too flat, not nearly booming and dramatic enough.  I dunno, it just felt like, OK, Batman solved the problem, next scene, rather than being a powerful emotional climax to the escalating chaos in Gotham City.

Am I being overly critical?  Maybe!  The Dark Knight Returns is one of the greatest comic books of all time, and certainly one of the greatest Batman stories ever told.  I want to be able to hold this animated adaptation over my head and say “See?  THIS is what Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film should have been!!”  I want this animated adaptation to have the same power as Mr. Nolan’s first two Batman films, and as the original graphic novel.  And, well, it doesn’t.  But while not a masterpiece, the adaptation is still a pretty terrific Batman story, grim and dark and extremely entertaining.  I guess that will have to be enough!

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