Out of the large catalog of stories that involve Batman from over 70+ years of continuity, there probably isn’t a tale more loved and revered by Batman fans than The Dark Knight Returns. The story of a 55 year old Batman coming out of retirement to handle the rise of gang violence on the streets of Gotham only to be opposed by first, the Gotham Police, then later, the United States government has remained a popular one. With story and art by Frank Miller it, along with Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, has been sited as one of the comics of eighties that brought mainstream comics out from the guise of just being “for kids” and into the realm of mature literature. It’s collected edition was carried in book stores without the stigma of being just a “comic book”. It was considered visionary for tackling the themes of youth violence, the near nihilistic tone of society and the power of the media. To some, it is considered one of the most prolific Batman stories as it’s influence can be seen in the character to this day. To people like myself, it is the most overrated comic in the world.
The plot for this comic is convoluted in an attempt to hide it’s lack of character development and to make it’s heavy-handed messages (which somehow both condemned and promoted the “Might makes Right” thought process and sensationalism of the Reagan Era) seem deeper. I did not read it as it came out, so this may be where my bias stands as I had no reference to it’s relevance other than what I’ve stated above. I read a collected edition of the mini-series around 15 years ago. Back then, it seemed dated. Now, it’s a fucking dinosaur. This was the series that Miller first tried out his style that he would make famous in Sin City. It’s works for Sin City but in this book, it makes Batman and company look like bloated football players with odd shaped heads. The story is no better as it feels like Bats moves around almost aimlessly throughout the series, waiting for something to happen. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the appeal of this book. There’s a good chance that this story is where my lack of love for the character stems from. So when they announced that they would be doing the next DC Animated Direct-to-Video feature on The Dark Knight Returns (in two parts no less!), I was not looking forward to it. The only good thing I could see from transferring this tale to an animated film is that it would probably speed up the pacing and it would be in the hands of a creator who better understands Batman in the form of Bruce Timm. As it stands, I was right about the latter but not so much the former.
If you’ve read the first half of the original Dark Knight Returns Series, then you already know the story. Batman has been out of action for awhile, retired after the death of Jason Todd. Gordon is on the verge of retirement himself and Harvey Dent appears to have gotten his shit back together with the help of a plastic surgeon and a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Bartholomew Wolper (voiced by Michael McKean). Gotham City is a very dystopian setting with Mutant gangs terrorizing the populous. It gets to the point where Batman can’t take it anymore, so he throws the cape back on and decides to kick some mutant ass. The public embrace the return of the Bat while high society, the likes of which include Dr. Wolper, protest loudly, claiming Batman to be a fascist. This begins a chain of events that leads to Two-Face returning to face Batman followed up by a showdown with the Mutant Leader. The first battle is a cake walk but his bout with the Mutant leaves Batman near death. A young girl, Carrie Kelly, is inspired by the Bat and dons a Robin costume. She ends up coming to his aid and gets him back to the Batmobile where Alfred is able to fix him up and get him back to the cave. With his new Robin in tow, Batman decides to use brains over braun and with the help of Commissioner Gordon and three feet of mud, he faces the Mutant Leader a second time in front of his followers. The outcome causes many of the Mutant gang members to abandon thier criminal ways and take up vigilante justice under the mantle of the Sons of Batman. Society is torn by this, some in support of this brand of justice and others, mainly the rich, further condemn the Bat for his influence. This sets the stage for Part 2 (due out in Winter 2013) which will bring on the heavy hitters including an arch enemy and a Super guy.
The production values to this feature are of the usual high quality of DC Animation. The voice work done by a suprising cast of actors including Peter Weller (Batman), Ariel Winter (Carrie/Robin), Wade Williams (Two-Face), David Selby (Commissioner Gordon), Michael Emerson (Joker) and the aforementioned McKean, is first rate and the casting seems creepy in it’s perfection. The animation style is also very enticing as it pays tribute to the original Miller style while updating it to a more paletable look. It sands off it’s rough edges and makes it abit more accessible. This tends to be a trend with most of the story as the director Jay Oliva, screenwriter Bob Goodman and producer Bruce Timm all provide a more inviting feature that still pays proper reverence to the source material. It almost pays tribute to it to a fault, mainly in the fact that almost every scene is treated as something precious.
The main question I have for the producers and creators of this film: WHY THE HELL IS THIS FILM IN 2 PARTS? This is a company that was able to bring us the six issue story that is Superman/Batman Public Enemies in one movie. They also were able to take the twelve over-sized issues that make up New Frontier and present it one sitting as well. Why did they feel the need to take a four issue prestige format mini-series and break it into two films? As I already mentioned, the pacing of the original comic dragged. This was an opportunity to improve on the original by streamlining the events into a faster, more adverturous tale. It was a bad move to go the other way. This leaves the first film with a very blase climax for the first half. It also make the second half extremely top heavy as you have to deal with both The Joker and Superman. I was getting sleepy during the first 4o minutes of this feature. That has never happened for me before during a DC Animated movie. I really think that if they kept it to one movie instead of bleeding fans of this work for the extra cash, it would provide a more satisfying film watching experience. This misstep is slightly corrected by a proper amount of extras on the disc.
The Special Features are on par with the other WB releases of the past few years. We get a sneak peek at Part 2, a featurrette on the importance of a female Robin and the women’s right movement of the eighties, a featurette where Bob Goodman and Bruce Timm discuss the “reinvention” of comics by Frank Miller and Alan Moore (this one has a special appearance by Grant Morrison!), as well as two episodes from Batman: The Animated Series (Two-Face parts 1 and 2). The major point of the collection is the 40 minute Documentary, Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story. There is one odd ball in the bunch, though. For no real reason, the Sneak Peak at Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, which I mentioned earlier in this article and has been out on DVD for a VERY LONG TIME, is included as well. So with the exception of the filler material I just mentioned, there is a lot of content to check out on this disc.
So the only thing left to ask yourself is “Do I want to buy it or just watch it”. Well, even though some of the special features sound pretty cool, you’re better off just checking this one out on itunes or netflicks or whatever on-demand service you have access to. This was not the worst DC Animated short I’ve seen but it was nowhere near the best either. Batman bias aside, with the people involved with this project, they had the ability to make a better film. Instead, they remained slaves to the source material and ended up putting out a somewhat boring feature. Maybe Part 2 will change my mind. Then again, maybe not. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is available on DVD and Blu-ray in stores everywhere.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!