Friday, March 22, 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 & 2

Back in high school I was a comic book fan, but I shied away from the major titles for some reason. I never really read “Spider-Man”, “Superman”, “Green Lantern”, “X-Men” or any other DC/Marvel property until much later in my twenties (I mostly read manga or titles based off movies or video games). There was one exception - my father had purchased a trade paperback of Frank Miller’s 1986 opus “The Dark Knight Returns” for a few measly dollars at a library overstock sale, and after flipping through it I decided to give it a read. It blew my fucking mind! I had never read anything so gritty, violent or engrossing before in my life. I think I read it cover to cover within the space of a day during various study hall and common periods. It remains a personal favorite of mine to this day.

Nearly 26 years after its initial release the folks at Warner Premiere and DC Animation decided to finally adapt the book into a 2-part direct-to-video animated event. I was super excited to see if the story held up after all these years, but waited until both were available so I could watch them back-to-back (Part 1 was released on September 25, 2012 and Part 2 was released on January 29, 2013). I finally got around to seeing them a few weekends ago. The combined result is one of the most amazing animated films I’ve ever seen. I will be reviewing the two parts together.
The story takes place in a future where superheroes have been barred from dispensing vigilante justice by the government, and in the ten years since Gotham City has become a cesspool of crime due to a violent street gang called The Mutants. The majority of Batman’s foes have either been killed or have been institutionalized in Arkham Asylum (Two-Face and The Joker).

Part 1: 55-year old Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) decides to bring the Batman out of retirement when Harvey Dent (Wade Williams) begins a new crime spree after being released from Arkham Asylum. He also has to contend with The Mutants, training a new Robin (Ariel Winter) and proving to the world that it cannot survive without the protection of superheroes like him.

Part 2: The Joker (Michael Emerson) manages to stage an elaborate escape from incarceration in order to have one final confrontation with his nemesis. At the same time tensions escalate in Corto Maltese between the U.S. and the Soviets, and The President convinces his superhuman puppet, Superman (Mark Valley), to step in and deal with that situation as well as put an end to Batman’s vigilante ways once and for all.
I’ve watched plenty of movie adaptations based on comic books I’ve read and adored over the years, some successful and others not so much. I am going to go on the record and say that this is the most accurate recreation of the source material I have ever seen. I mean that quite literally as it takes the comic books and adapts them frame for frame with the exact same dialogue. I never knew it could be done (Sin City came pretty close to doing this a few years back), but it was and I am one ecstatic fanboy due to it.

The plot is intricate and epic. Not only do we get to see Batman go up against his greatest enemies, we are also given a massive Batman vs. Superman fight that truly is a battle of brawn against brains. It flows effortlessly from one subplot to the next, and though it does feel a little episodic now and then it all works together as a whole. I was surprised that the filmmakers decided to keep the 80s angle intact, especially the fact that Ronald Reagan is President in the original story. It gives the story a strange, alternate version of the past, not unlike “Watchmen”, that is a lot of fun and offers some decent commentary on the politics of the time.
There is also the media angle that was quite prophetic. It seems that the world within this story is hooked on television, believes everything they are told by the media and is obsessed with celebrity. Even the villains that Batman has put away are looked upon as minor celebrities, which is plainly obvious when The Joker decides to be interviewed on a talk show. We all know it’s going to be a disastrous affair, and I’m sure the audience at the show does as well, but they still turn up in droves to see this mass murderer in person. It’s kind of pathetic and extremely interesting due to the current state of paparazzi culture.

The casting is perfect for the most part. I’m glad that the filmmakers decided to focus on doing the source material justice and not hiring as many celebrities as they possibly could to provide voices for the characters. Peter Weller as Batman, while seeming a little out of place at first, turned out to be a great choice. He puts his deep and gravelly voice into overtime to sell the character as an old, bitter man who feels that he absolutely must do whatever it takes to make sure Gotham City survives. There was never a moment where I got distracted by saying to myself “He sounds like Robocop”, so that’s a good thing. There are times where the contrast between his voice and the bubbly girlishness of Ariel Winter’s Robin works comic wonders and provides most of the lighthearted moments within the story (“Am I fired?”). When it comes to the villains it was a brilliant choice to cast Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest, Saw) as The Joker. In this story the character is a lot more demented and scary than we’re used to, and Emerson pulls it off. He’s no Mark Hamill, but he’s a close second.
The action, where there is some, is intense. Everything is animated extremely well and the character designs are pretty spot on when compared the comic book. Director Jay Oliva knew to leave well enough alone and allowed the comic book to speak for itself. It was probably the easiest and hardest job he’s ever had.

One of my favorite aspects of the comic was how it tied in other DC Universe characters and updated them. We see Catwoman/Selina Kyle as an old, overweight and supremely wealthy entrepreneur. We also see Oliver Queen/Green Arrow as a rundown invalid (he lost one arm) who is still eager to use his skills for good. And last but not least is Superman, who has become an enforcer for the U.S. government and answers to The President. It’s extremely interesting as it also expands the story beyond the walls of Gotham.
I also have to give props to Christopher Drake and his superawesomeamazeballs musical score. It’s like he took what Hans Zimmer did in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and made it his own. Gone is the ultra-heavy bombast of those works, but the electronic elements remain. The pulsing rhythm that accompanies the action scenes gave me goose bumps. I WANT THE SOUNDTRACK!

As of writing this I declare that the complete Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is now my favorite animated superhero film. The reigning champion has been Batman: Mask of the Phantasm for the past 20 years with Justice League: The New Frontier a close second. It is exciting, violent, thought provoking, horrifying and immensely entertaining. When it was over I wished it would keep on going because the world within the story is so damned interesting… but that would mean that we’d have to watch an adaptation of “The Dark Knight Strikes Again”, and no one wants that. Do they?

5 out of 5

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