Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Review

Posted: January 17, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

DVjv46AsKGx4mn_3_lWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

It’s a great time to be a Batman fan. Superheroes are more respected and credible than ever before, and the Caped Crusader is seen as being among the best. The Tim Burton films were milestones for the superhero genre, the 90s Animated Series is one of the most loved by fans, Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are top-notch videogames, the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy is widely considered the greatest franchise in superhero history, and the character is loved by just about everyone under the sun. However there was a time where Batman was seen as just silly entertainment for children, an impression from the Adam West TV series that stuck around long after the show. Despite the stories returning the character to his darker routes throughout the 1970s, it wasn’t until Frank Miller’s 1986 comic story The Dark Knight Returns that the general public took notice. The book pushed the character and his world to very dark extremes, generating some controversy as well as media attention. Today, the book is considered a landmark and one of the greatest Batman stories ever written. On a personal level, it’s been a favourite of mine since I first read it at thirteen and I’ve always thought a film adaptation could be incredible. While a live-action adaptation probably isn’t going to happen, the folks at DC got me the next best thing with a two-part animated film depicting the ageing Batman’s war on crime.

The film is set during the late 1980s in an alternate history. Batman (Peter Weller) has retired from his war on crime after the death of his protégé Jason Todd, the second Robin. As Bruce Wayne, he lives as a shell and has become a borderline alcoholic with a death wish who spends his evenings watching the news depict the horrors which afflict Gotham. Recently, a new gang has risen in Gotham called the Mutants who perform violent crimes, at times for no reason. Their actions, coupled with the return of old foe Harvey Dent (A.K.A Two-Face) (Wade Willams) force Bruce to don the cape and cowl and come out of his ten year retirement. However in doing so, he gathers the attention of the Mutant’s violent leader (Gary Anthony Williams), the new Police Commissioner Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals Barrera), a formerly catatonic Joker (Michael Emersen), and a government employed Superman (Mark Valley).

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is an extremely faithful adaptation of the source material. Most of these DC animated films are only about 75 minutes, thus many elements are removed or heavily altered. Here however, the producers wisely split the story in two parts, or for the purpose of this release one two hour and twenty minute film. Some elements have still been cut, but everything that needs to be there is there and the film really captures what Miller was going for in 1986. The surface story of Batman returning to crime fighting and the challenges that lay ahead of him is very interesting. In many ways, it’s the ultimate Batman story, with the character having to go against a few of his greatest foes and allies while also facing against his own personal demons. It’s a very rewarding story which unfolds in a satisfying manner. The film also retains the graphic novels satire of the media, the government, and the cold war. All this builds to a story which is not just about Batman fighting crime, it’s also about larger ideals. It’s also important to note that these elements aside the film still works very well as an action movie. There are a lot of great set-pieces here, notably the infamous final battle between Batman and Superman, but there’s also some very well-staged shootouts, chases, and more low key fights. It’s also interesting that these scenes have a far more violent edge than is usually seen in a Batman story.

DC has put together a pretty interesting cast for this adaptation. Peter Weller seems like a particularly good choice for Batman. He has the right type of commanding voice and there’s a sense of age to it as well. His casting is also smart in that it evokes Weller’s most famous film, Robocop, another action movie with tremendous satire of the 1980s. I also really liked Michael Emerson’s take on The Joker. He’s still very much the Clown Prince of Crime, but there’s more of a silence to his performance that other versions don’t have. It was also nice to hear Maria Canals Barrera as Ellen Yindel. Overall, it’s a solid cast and while none of the performers leave much of a legacy on the characters, no one really fumbles the ball either.

Earlier, I praised the film’s devotion to the source material, but that creates a problem too. As much affinity though I may have for Miller’s graphic novel, it’s not a perfect work and those problems have carried over to the adaptation. For example, as much as I enjoy the satirical edge the work has, it isn’t handled perfectly. In fact the political satire is almost completely absent in the first half so when it becomes a major part of the second the shift feels a little odd. There are also times when the satire becomes a little too silly, to the point where it contradicts the oppressively dark world of the film. The work also contains a lot of the “Miller weirdisms” he’s become somewhat notorious for recently, such as a bizarre Nazi side character and the tiny robot children things The Joker uses. None of these issues really kill the film, but they do stand out. Additionally, the film suffers from the usual things which hinder these DC productions; a low budget and a strict schedule. The animation, for example, is overall fine, but doesn’t feel any better than what you could see on television. This goes for the voice acting as well. While I like the cast overall, every so often there’d be an off line reading and I attribute that to a rushed schedule. Had the filmmakers been given more time, they could have polished a lot of these elements. On element of the production value that I do want to praise however is Christopher Drake’s score, which is quite good.

An many ways, DC’s line of animated films can be compared to Marvel’s multi-billion cinematic universe. Both series’ release multiple films a year which tend to follow similar patterns and give their audience more or less what they’re expecting. The difference is every so often DC will put out a really bold and challenging animated film. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is such a film. In fact next to Man of Steel, I’d say it’s the best superhero movie of the year. The film doesn’t really expand the legacy of the characters and it does have some problems, but it is also a very faithful adaptation of one of the best and most important Batman stories ever told. It’s dark, engrossing, well-written, and very entertaining. It’s a good film for outsiders, but for fans, this is a must see.

A-

Comments
  1. Such a great two part film series. Batman vs Superman :D

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