Breathing Life into Frank Miller’s Creation
A Review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1
By: Lawrence Napoli
[[wysiwyg_imageupload:3310:]]Batman is my favorite super hero, but that does not mean I bow low at the altar of anything bearing his name. The original, brooding vigilante by Bob Kane: good. The campy Adam West TV show: bad. The first Tim Burton movie adaptation: good. The Joel Schumacher follow ups: bad. Knightfall: good. Batman Inc.: bad. There are so many iterations of this character for so many stories told in so many ways and in different forms of media that he is DC’s most valued asset and one of the best fictional characters of all time. But Batman has a very long history and even I cannot admit to being as proficient with all the pertinent tales and adaptations as a hardcore fan would. Younger fans of the recent video games, “the New 52” and the Chris Nolan Dark Knight trilogy may be drawn to Batman, but without experiencing some of his ground breaking moments from the past, one really can’t appreciate where he’s at or where he’s going. Frank Miller’s 4 issue comic book limited series The Dark Knight Returns published in 1986 is one of those moments and the DC Universe animated original movie of the same name not only demonstrates an honest representation of Miller’s work, but is a perfect introduction to the past greatness of the Dark Knight for loyal fans and noob’s alike.
Part 1 of The Dark Knight Returns is, quite literally, the first 50% of the original Frank Miller story. It establishes a 55 year old Bruce Wayne, 10 years retired from Batman and Gotham City’s decent back into crime during his absence. You’ll see Bruce’s struggle with accepting what Gotham’s become, you’ll see an almost panel for panel and verbatim recreation of his initial confrontation with Two-Face’s gang, you’ll see Carrie Kelley, you’ll see Batman’s confrontation with the Mutant gang, you’ll see the “Batmobile,” you’ll even see a little blood, but you won’t see any graphic imagery or violence to push this above a PG-13. Therein lies the slight disappointment of an otherwise ambitious production to give movement and sound to one of Batman’s most important and dramatic tales.
[[wysiwyg_imageupload:3311:]]The art style is an authentic homage to Frank Miller and is consistent for most of the film, although I was somewhat concerned when I saw the low-res CG style they used for the vehicles in Bruce’s racecar sequence in the beginning. Thankfully, this is severely limited and hopefully does not return for Part 2. At 76 minutes, Part 1 does feel rather brief and the reason for that is the viewer doesn’t get all the brooding, inner monologues between the action sequences. I felt those moments provided much needed exposition to the reader in regards to Batman’s more savage nature and his personal outlook in this gritty version of Gotham City. This animated feature compensates by distributing more cut-aways to Carrie Kelley’s perspective, media coverage of Batman’s return and the political debate over Batman’s true value as a menace or a hero. The debate, however, is easily the weakest link to the social commentary Miller nailed on the page because the film simply does not have the screen time for it. The reason why it was so important in the comic books was that it set up the eventual confrontation with Superman as more than two icons butting heads, but as a cataclysmic collision of diametrically opposed fundamentals in regards to justice, security and society. Fans of the books will have no problem filling in these juicy tidbits for themselves, but rookies won’t have much to read into as the film features as much action and Batman in costume as possible as opposed to lofty ideology.
The voice acting was a little hit or miss for me. Batman is voiced by Peter Weller, but you’ll know him better as Robocop. No, his performance does not evoke some illusion of the caped crusader as a tin can, but honestly did take some time for me to get used to and eventually accept. In my humble opinion Kevin Conroy will always be the definitive animated voice of Batman, yet Weller’s rendition is not without merit. His dulcet tones seem somewhat out of place in this edgier vision of Gotham and he doesn’t display any particular range of emotion even when Batman goes into rage mode against the Mutant leader. Sure, I felt that Batman was always “in control” on Frank Miller’s pages, but I also felt a lot more emotion like frustration and desperation. Still, his voice carries a unique signature of unbridled authority and I presume that was director Jar Olivia’s first priority in casting for this character.
David Selby’s rendition of Commissioner Gordon was a miss, Wade Williams’ Harvey Dent was so-so, Gary Anthony Williams’ Mutant leader sounded like Kratos from God of War and Michael Jackson’s (the voice actor, not Thriller) Alfred Pennyworth was acceptable. The only vocal performance that really hit a home run was Ariel Winter’s Carrie Kelley. Everything about her voice seems natural to that character’s face and it really shows in the scene where Batman asks who she is. Although he only has a couple of moans and groans in Part 1, Joker is voiced by Michael Emerson whom you’ll remember as the creeper from Lost and Jim Caviezel’s partner in Person of Interest. The Blu Ray/DVD combo features a sneak preview of The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 and it shows a very impressive rendition of the Clown Prince of Crime that stands up to the legendary creation of Mark Hamil.
[[wysiwyg_imageupload:3312:]]If only some of the above seems to interest even the most casual of Bat Fans, the Blu Ray/DVD extras should sell you completely. I already mentioned the preview of Part 2 which is not only informative, but always really cool seeing the actors perform at the microphone in character. It also includes two full episodes of the original animated series which introduces Harvey Dent/Two Face; although the episode where kids discuss the urban legend of Batman (which alludes to Frank Miller’s work specifically) probably would have been more appropriate. There’s also a featurette called Her name is Carrie–Her Role is Robin which discusses some of the plot choices Miller made in his original work such as making this version of Robin a young girl and features commentary by industry professionals like Grant Morrison. However, the best extra to this whole package must be Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story which documents the historic rise of Batman’s creator from his humble beginnings to the character’s introduction in comics, its various adaptations and how all of the success affected his life. This documentary is almost as long as the animated feature itself and features lots of interesting firsthand accounts of Bob Kane from the likes of Stan Lee and other friends and family. The documentary is so good and concise that I feel I’m somewhat selling it short by not giving it a review of its own.
All in all, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is a very good buy so long as you are purchasing the Blu Ray/DVD combo. That is the only version that contains all of the previously mentioned extra features that makes it a value well beyond the difference in price from the regular DVD copy. There are simply tons of goodies for any fan of Batman and as much as I truly enjoyed the animated feature by itself, that alone is not worth $15 – $20. Still, the quality of the work has me eagerly anticipating Part 2 because the intensity of the plot escalates ten-fold when Joker breaks out, Superman causes a ruckus and Oliver Queen drops in to say hi.