“Tonight, we are the law! Tonight, I am the law!”
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 was an ambitious gamble that paid off, nicely taking Frank Miller’s classic-yet-strange graphic novel and adapting into a feature. But that was the first part of the tale. Comic readers know that it’s the second half of Miller’s tale where things get really off the wall. Are the animators up to the task?
Here’s where we left things at the end of part one: It’s the distant future. An aging Batman (Peter Weller, Robocop) came out of retirement to rid Gotham City of a ruthless street gang. Now that he’s back, he encounters a Gotham in worse shape than ever. How far will he go to set things right? Carrie Kelly (Ariel Winter, Modern Family) is the new Robin, a young girl who got into the crimefighting game for the thrill of it, and now finds herself out of her depth. The Joker (Michael Emerson, Lost), seeing that Batman is back, decides that now is the time for his big comeback as well, as he arranges a much-hyped TV interview. Superman (Mark Valley, Human Target) is now a full-time government employee, cleaning up the country’s messes overseas. If Batman goes too far, Superman knows it’ll be up to him to take his old friend out—permanently.
For as much as the original graphic novel is an important, groundbreaking work, it’s often not recommended for first-time comic book readers, because a lot of writer/artist Frank Miller’s controversial views on the world are in full force. This leads to a lot of strange, shocking imagery that unsuspecting casual readers might not be ready for. I was surprised, and impressed, to see so much of the comic’s more in-your-face material portrayed on screen.
Take, for example, Bruno. A one-off villain Batman fights in one scene, Bruno is a large, musclebound woman, who struts around topless with swastikas covering her nipples. We’re a long way from the Adam West days here. As I’m familiar with the comic, I watched the movie wondering what the creators would do with Bruno, either by softening her appearance for mass audiences, or cutting her scene altogether. Instead, imagine my surprise when Bruno emerges from the shadows in all her swastika-nippled glory. That right there shows the creators’ commitment to recreating the original. It’s the first of many “shock value” moments that a spread throughout the movie. Here’s a movie that’s not afraid to take risks.
This goes even farther into Superman’s role in the story. Basically a tool of the (arguably?) corrupt U.S. government, Superman in this story spends all his time overseas, fighting America’s enemies, provoked or not. When Superman is asked to look into the problem in Gotham, Superman hesitates not just because he and Bruce were once friends, but because he’d be operating on U.S. soil. The final battle between Batman and Superman is not just punches and kicks, but a confrontation of ideologies. Superman says Batman has crossed a line that should never be crossed, while Batman says Superman has sold out and forgotten what he stands for.
The other big confrontation is between Batman and, of course, the Joker. Any actor cast to play the Joker has to stand in the shadow of Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill AND Cesar Romero. Fortunately, Michael Emerson (Lost) steps into the role nicely. He plays the Joker with a sort of slick, detached cool, emphasizing the master strategist aspect of the character, and downplaying the histrionic, crazed laughter seen in other Jokers. There’s also a sexually charged nature to this take on the character, as he kills with poison lipstick and he’s always referring to Batman as “darling” and such.
In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, Peter Weller gave Bruce Wayne a softer, weary voice. In this part, though, he adopts a heavier, more gruff tone as Batman. Now that we can watch both parts back-to-back, it’s interesting the character transition from “tired old man” to “hardened crimefighter.” Ariel Winter adds some much-needed lightness to the action, as her is full of youthful enthusiasm. David Selby (The Social Network) keeps things grounded as the newly-retired Commissioner Gordon.
The most important talent involved, though, is behind the scenes. Director Jay Oliva (Young Justice) and screenwriter Bob Goodman (Warehouse 13) do a masterful job with the adaptation, consistently making all the right decisions. Instead of a straightforward panel-by-panel, shot-by-shot approach, they have instead gone through the graphic novel and emphasized all the more important moments, and downplaying the smaller scenes. There’s a moment in which the citizens of Gotham put aside their differences and help put out a fire. In the comic, this is only seven panels—not even full page. This is stretched out into a major scene in the movie, though, because the creators realize it’s a major plot point, a turning of the tide for both Batman and the citizens of Gotham. This is just one example of how the creators take the smart path, breaking the comic down to its plot and character basics and then building it back up again, to make it a truly faithful adaptation, not just in its look and preserving so much of the dialogue, but in keeping the plot, themes, and ideas intact—all as Miller originally intended.
The animation has a cleaner look to it than Miller and inker Klaus Janson’s gritty, sketchy artwork, but it too captures enough of the original work. Movements are smooth and natural, and the action scenes are nicely stage and never confusing. A lot of the beats during the Superman/Batman fight are a highlight, as you can almost feel the super-powered punches land. Smaller moments are skillfully animated as well, such as Alfred’s final moments inside stately Wayne Manor at the end.
The visuals are captured excellently on Blu-ray, with solid colors and deep, rich blacks. The sound is clean and clear, with appropriately big booms coming from all the surrounds during the action. The best of the extras are three featurettes, one about the Joker, one about the Superman/Batman fight, and “From Sketch to Screen” in which the creators discuss the adaptation process and some of the choices they’ve made. There are also three bonus cartoons, a short digital comic, and an extended sneak preview of the next direct-to-video animated flick, Superman Unbound. The set includes a DVD and Ultraviolet copy of the movie.
In the bonus features, everyone is quick to praise Frank Miller, but Miller himself is sorely missing. If an interview with Miller (or, just imagine, a commentary) could have been arranged, then the package would feel that much more complete.
I feared this material would be too much for animators to handle, but they surprised me by going above and beyond. Bat-fans would be wise to check out Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2.