Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Movie Review

by Casimir Harlow
Movies & TV Review

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Movie Review

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One of the greatest Batman stories ever told...

Long before Nolan unleashed his defining Batman reboot trilogy – even before Tim Burton’s dark original adaptations – writer Frank Miller decided the Batman universe needed a big shake-up. His attack was two-fold: writing a pair of tales which effectively bookended the career of The Dark Knight – giving us a realistic start to the character with Batman: Year One, whilst providing a fitting climax with The Dark Knight Returns.

Regarded as two of the greatest comic book tales of all time, it’s unsurprising that both have proven equally difficult to adapt into mainstream films. Year One was extensively referenced in Nolan’s Batman Begins; The Dark Knight Returns was also used – just less obviously – in The Dark Knight Rises; however the only format where they have been adapted faithfully has been as animated features. A decent Batman: Year One feature was released in late 2011, with an announcement that the next big DC Universe Original Animated Movie would be The Dark Knight Returns and, furthermore, would be delivered in two parts, with the promise that this would allow the filmmakers to do true justice to the groundbreaking novel. This, is only the beginning...

Vowing upon his parent’s death to rid the city of the criminal element, the Batman has, over the years, fought crime in its many macabre forms. For the last 10 years no one has seen or heard from him... that is, until now...

Gotham is in ruins; a broken City, once again infested by crime. The new breed of criminals – the Mutants – terrorise the public. No one is safe. Coming face to face with the state of his City, an alcoholic, ageing Bruce Wayne is shocked to see just how far Gotham has fallen and is forced to confront the hidden demon within, crying to break out and take back the night: the Batman.

Donning the cape and cowl once more, he makes a bid to clean up the streets, but the task will not be an easy one and he will require help, not least from an old friend – Commissioner James Gordon – who is now facing retirement after 50 years on the force. Together they vow to deal with the new gang – the Mutants – once and for all, but first they must confront an old nemesis, who has just been released after years in a mental institution, complete with a new face. But will even extensive surgery be enough to prevent him returning to his psychotic alter-ego? Though he may no longer look the part, he will probably always be best remembered as Two-Face...

“We’ll catch him... The trick will be to keep him alive. He’s possessed, Jim. Out of control. I think he wants to die.”
“Are we still talking about Dent...?”

If you heard the rumours – way back when – of Clint Eastwood starring in a film adaptation of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, then that’s exactly what they were: rumours. Understandable ones, though, considering Miller cited none other than Eastwood’s Dirty Harry as being an inspiration for his ageing, gritty clenched-teeth Batman interpretation. Since The Dark Knight Returns preceded Eastwood’s disappointing fifth turn in the role, 1988’s The Dead Pool, Miller most probably had at the forefront of his mind the battle-weary, ageing Harry Callahan from the ever-quoted – “Make my day, punk!” – fourth film, 1983’s Sudden Impact, and the sentiments translate to Batman in a very effective fashion (they even reference the earlier Dirty Harry: Magnum Force with the pimp/taxi cab sequence). He’s had enough of the street vermin; he’s had enough of the inadequacies of ‘the law’; he’s had enough of seeing innocent members of the public either run scared or turn a blind eye to the wanton violence around them.

He’s also older than before, and he neither wants to – nor can afford to – go easy on these guys anymore. You very much get the same feel for Wayne’s return to Batman here as you did when Stallone brought Rocky back into the ring for his impressive Rocky Balboa, as the Dark Knight is forced to come to terms with what his body can and can’t do any longer; with creaking bones and aching muscles – with the fact that his skills and tactics are the only things still relevant here, as he simply doesn’t have the speed any longer.

That doesn’t mean he can’t make up for it in sheer stopping power, however; his shadow-playing strategy ultimately almost always ends with him ground-pounding his opponents – beating the fear into them. Miller’s Batman certainly takes no prisoners. He goes in hard and faster, breaking bones without a second thought; even, when the situation calls for it, taking up a gun and shooting someone. Back in 1986, it was a Batman that shocked the comic-reading public. Today, it barely registers amidst the likes of Wanted and Kick-Ass in terms of uber-violence, and yet this animated adaptation is still the first Batman film to earn itself a 15 Certificate. No, this one’s not for kids.

“Do you know who I am, punk? I’m the worst nightmare you ever had.”

We should be grateful, really – it was the only way to do the book justice. A dark tale of Government-funded teenage street gangs and mass-murdering, raging psychotics; of retirement-age cops and almost-as-old vigilantes? From the dialogue to the violence; from the story to the subtext, this was adult-only fare, and, in a way, I’m glad that it wasn’t watered down for some 12A live-action feature (I’m not saying an adult feature film with a suitable 18/R-Rating wouldn’t have been preferable though, but it’s doubtful any Studio would ever take such a hit in terms of potential profits). Sure, on the face of it, a 15-rating doesn’t seem all that different really, but, for an animated feature it’s actually quite a telling sign.

There’s really no other way to adapt Frank Miller tales. The man behind the Sin City and 300 graphic novels – both of which were adapted into viscerally, unflinchingly violent films – he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his hard-edged tales. In his world, people – even comic book heroes – get hurt, and they get hurt badly.

“You’ve got rights. Lots of rights. Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy. But right now you’ve got a piece of glass shoved into a major artery in your arm. Right now you’re bleeding to death. Right now I’m the only one in the world who can get you to a hospital in time.”

Indeed the Director of this two-part animated film adaptation, Jay Oliva, has done a fantastic job in bringing Miller’s masterpiece to the screen, irrespective of the fact that it will likely only find a relatively niche market. Oliva’s been on the ground for several other DC Universe Animated Original Movies – working as storyboard artist for Batman: Year One and Batman: Under the Red Hood (as well as doing the storyboards for 2013’s Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel) – and he is clearly willing to push and pull the format in order to get the desired effect, blending CG backgrounds with hand-drawn images to arguably better effect than ever before, even if they still largely stick to traditionally-styled DC animations, rather than the more adventurous and more exciting exotic stylisation (think Peter “Aeon Flux” Chung and the animated segments of Kill Bill) which might have worked even better on this piece.

The pacing of this two-part adaptation perfectly captures the crescendo of action and violence that boils over as the story progresses, slow-burning it to begin with, but throwing set-piece after set-piece at you once Batman returns. They raise the ante with each successive confrontation, and even manage to incorporate the entire Batman vs. Mutant Leader arc into the still-relatively short 76-minute runtime in a way that feels arguably more convincing than its live-action cousin (you’ll draw a lot of parallels with The Dark Knight Rises and the Batman vs. Bane arc).

“You don’t get it, boy. This isn’t a mudhole... It’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon.”

You can certainly see why the decision was made to split the source novel into two animated films – Part 1 and Part 2 – because it’s simply too big for one. It’s too much story. Even with the separation, they work some serious magic to cover so much ground in this first part, ending it at the perfect moment, and on the perfect note of satisfying mini-climax blended with palpable hint-of-what’s-to-come.

Indeed my only gripe is perhaps with what they haven’t incorporated into this feature. Not scenes, or action, or violence – the voiceover. Arguably integral to Miller’s source work, the voiceover allowed us previously unprecedented access into Batman’s psyche – the thought-processes of this ageing vigilante; what makes him tick. It’s beautiful to see his sense of justice; his violent thoughts undercut by a fantastically dark and biting wit that will only leave you smiling about the fact that this guy really is driven by the notion of seeing wrongs put right. He finds justice in the darkest recesses of his soul, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

It takes nearly a minute to fall from this height. And despite what you may have heard, you’re likely to stay conscious all the way down. Thoughts like that keep me warm at night.

Here they don’t entirely strip out the voiceover – to do so would rob the story of more than just a rich enhancement, but also much of the ‘dialogue’ that helps bring the scenes to life – but instead they incorporate some of Batman’s internal monologue into his dialogue. Whilst it’s better than nothing, the voiceover is still sorely missed (so much so that several of the quotes I’ve used here come directly from the novel, and never made it into the animation – most of the ones without quotation marks – allowing you to get an idea of some of the choice pieces that are missing).

Still the vocal cast chosen are near-perfect. Sure – once again – the name on everybody’s lips to voice an out-of-retirement Batman was Clint Eastwood, but fans should step away from that dream: Eastwood will never touch a Batman project, let alone make his first ever vocal contribution to an animation be for this. Instead we get a great choice: another man famous for portraying an iconic take-no-prisoners cop; the original Robocop himself – Peter Weller.

It was tough work, carrying 220 pounds of sociopath to the top of Gotham Towers – the highest spot in the city. The scream alone is worth it.

Anybody who’s seen the fifth season of the excellent TV series 24 (still waiting for that movie!) knows that Weller’s got that ageing no-nonsense tough-guy act perfected, and his distinctive, gravely tones help the dialogue to resonate even without that much-missed voiceover. The rest of the cast are all well-chosen, but it’s Weller that stands out.

David Selby, who cut his teeth on TV shows like Dark Shadows and Falcon Crest, and has most recently appeared as an attorney in Fincher’s Social Network, makes for a suitably craggy 70-year-old Commissioner Gordon. Sure, he’s not Gary Oldman, but his voice suits the older part. Wade Williams – best remembered for his regular role in Prison Break (but who also had a bit part as the warden in The Dark Knight Rises) – is no stranger to voice acting, having done a couple of Batman animations before, as well as a Green Lantern outing; here he makes for an effective Harvey Dent.

If I had the time – or the right – I’d say a prayer.

Also worth noting are sport commentator Michael Jackson playing still-loyal (though now with a walking stick) butler, Alfred, and Michael McKean as one of the cynical psychiatrists, who not only believes he has rehabilitated Harvey Dent, but believes that it’s actually the presence of Batman himself that is causing all the violence on the streets. McKean is no stranger to this kind of weasely, opinionated-but-ineffectual role, probably an actor best remembered as one of Christopher Guest’s entourage on his movies, including Spinal Tap, but also more recently seen as Perry White in Smallville.

Then there’s the new Robin. One of the most daring aspects of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – not just at the time either – was the fact that he cast a teenage girl in the role of the new Robin. Sure, she looked and acted more like a tomboy, but that didn’t change the fact. Indeed this new shift-up allowed for a fresh start in the relationship, especially considering the still-heavy memories of what happened to the last Robin. Here 14-year-old Ariel Winter takes up the part and does a good job with it. Also no stranger to voice acting (she’s been doing it almost as long as she has been in the business, contributing to everything from Bambi II to Cloudy with a Change of Meatballs), she made her debut playing the child version of Michelle Monaghan’s character in Shane Black’s excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but is best known for her regular role in the TV series Modern Family.

This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle – broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would... but I’m a man of thirty – of twenty again. The rain on my chest is a baptism – I’m born again.

One of the single best elements of the piece is the stunning score by regular DC animation composer Christopher Drake, who crafts a fantastic blend of heroic themes and atmospheric undercurrent, with nods to everything from John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 to any score from one of Michael Mann’s 80s productions (like that to Manhunter), as well as, of course, Zimmer’s seminal work on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. It broods with intensity during the nighttime scares, cranks the tension up for the action, and delivers perfectly when it comes to rousing heroic sentiment. As the story draws you in and hooks you, the score enchants you at every turn and enhances this piece in every way.

Even more than 25 years on, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns remains one of the greatest Batman stories ever told, and a part of me still hopes that the Studios will eventually see the light and commit to adapting it into a harder-edged, live-action feature which does justice to the mature material. Sure, Eastwood’s too old now, but he would have never agreed to it at any stage; and maybe it’s too much to expect Bale to return to the part in a decade or so (and he probably wouldn’t suit it, whatever his age), but they could find somebody with respect for the work, and there are directors lining up to bring it to the Big Screen – not least Miller’s 300 cohort, Zack Snyder, who has repeatedly asked to be given permission to put it into production, garnering Miller’s consent on every occasion. Who knows – perhaps if Man of Steel hits a home run, Snyder might have enough clout to stick this on his roster.

In the meantime this excellent new DC Universe Animated Original Movie will probably keep fans more than happy, and may well end up being the closest thing we ever get to a movie adaptation. So long as they get Part 2 right, I suspect this will end up being the best animated feature the sub-Studio has produced. I can’t wait.

In ten years I’ve never felt so calm. So right. This would be a fine death...

Until then, sit back and enjoy an ageing Batman tearing around the streets of Gotham once more; taking out his enemies with unrestrained violence and untempered attitude; turning Gotham into a warzone with his new Batmobile (wait till you get a load of this one!) and going toe-to-toe, Bane-style, with the man ultimately standing between him and a full return. It’s fast, it’s brutal and it’s a whole load of fun.




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