Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (Blu-ray)

Old heroes never die…they just get darker.

Warner Bros. animation continues its trend of releasing direct-to-video animated features based on some of the most famous storylines in DC Comics history. This time around, they’ve tackled a biggie: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Taking a cue from big-budget blockbusters, they’ve split the adaptation into two segments, beginning with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1.

It’s the future. Bruce Wayne (Peter Weller, Robocop) has long since retired, sharing the knowledge of his famous alter ego with the soon-to-retire Commissioner Gordon (David Selby, Dark Shadows). A new street gang, The Mutants, is taking over Gotham City, spreading random violence everywhere they go. This forces a geriatric Wayne to don the cape and cowl once more as Batman, cleaning up the streets of Gotham one last time. Elsewhere, teen girl Carrie Kelly (Ariel Winter, Modern Family) learns of Batman’s return and develops a serious case of hero worship.

The graphic novel this tale is based on is one of the most famous of all time, considered by many to be a classic. Even though artists and writers like Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had taken a more serious approach with the character in the books, most people still associated the Batman character with the mega-campy Adam West series. The Dark Knight Returns changed all that, presenting a vision of Batman far darker and more serious than any that came before. It was a huge influence on pretty much all the Batman stories that followed, including the live action films. Imagine the beautifully gothic art deco visuals from Tim Burton’s Batman combined with the intellectual complexities of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and you get the idea of what Miller brought to the character.

What does this mean for an animated adaptation? As with the Batman: Year One animated feature, the creators going for an almost-but-not-quite shot-for-shot adaptation of the graphic novel. They very smartly “fill in” a lot what happens in between panels in the comic, making both the plot and the action easy to follow, even when things get crazy. The creators also wisely do away with Miller’s first-person narration, which appears in almost every panel of the comic, instead working key pieces of the narration into the dialogue, but never in a way that feels forced. The animation is cleaner and more streamlined than Miller and inker Klaus Janson’s gritty, jagged linework, but the visuals impress overall, with smooth movements, subtle facial acting, brutal fight scenes, and plenty of dark atmosphere.

What’s the problem, then? The dark visuals, the gloomy tone, the ruminations on the nature of crime—it’s all been done in countless other Bat-tales over the last twenty years or so since the graphic novel’s publication. Because Miller’s work has been so influential, this faithful adaptation comes across as just another Batman story, instead of the definitive Batman story. This one offers the novelty of an older Batman coming out of retirement, but even that won’t feel different for everyone who saw Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which also had Batman returning to action years after hanging up the Batsuit. To be fair, we must remember this is part one of a two-parter. In the graphic novel, the second half is when the always-controversial Frank Miller really cut loose with his, er, personal indulgences, so we might get something truly mind-bending in part two. For this first half, though, the plot is relatively simple: Batman comes out of retirement to fight the Mutants. If all you’re looking for is some decent Bat-action, you’re in luck, but if you’re looking for an experience to live up the original’s pedigree, you might walk away with a shrug.

Peter Weller is a great choice to play an older, world-weary Batman. He often gives the character a softer, sadder tone. This might be off-putting to some, but I thought his voice made for a nice contrast to the hard, gruff Batman voice we usually get. Ariel Winter is good as well, adding some levity and youthful energy to the movie. Without her lightening the proceedings, it’d be Grumpy Old Batmen. Wade Williams (Prison Break) voices Harvey Dent, who of course struggles with his other half, and Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap) adds a little bit of humor as a quirky TV psychologist.

No doubt made with high def in mind, the 1.78:1/1080p visuals on this Blu-ray are impressive, with vivid colors and deep, solid black levels. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is good as well, with a booming score from composer Christopher Drak and immersive sound effects making the most of all the speakers. The highlight of the extras is a biography of Batman creator Bob Kane, covering his life, career, and personality. It has comments from friends, family, and fellow comic pros, not to mention archival interview footage from Kane himself. A shorter behind-the-scenes featurette focuses entirely on the Carrie Kelly character. From there, we get two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, a digital comic version of The Dark Knight Returns, an extended preview of Part 2 (which gives us a glimpse at the creators’ storyboards and rough animatics), a standard def DVD copy, and an UltraViolet download.

Yes, Batman uses a rifle in one scene. A lot of people did/won’t like this, saying ol’ Batty Boy should never use guns on account of that’s how his parents were murdered. Most comic fans are quick to point out that he did actually use a gun for a while back in the 1940s, not to mention that this story is supposed to be a darker, meaner take on the character. I seriously doubt the gun thing will ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the movie, but you never know.

A mixed bag. Casual viewers will likely enjoy the Bat-action, while hardcore comics fans have this seen sort of thing dozens (hundreds?) of times already. Slick visuals and great voice acting, though, push this over the top into recommendation territory.

The Verdict

Not bat-guilty.

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