For a few decades, the character of Batman create by Bob Kane was seen as a gallant, crimefighting avenger and brilliant detective, ready to take down criminals across Gotham and keep citizens safe from the violence which claimed his parents’ lives. Along the way, the billionaire-turned-superhero became also seen as a big brother / father figure to young men such as Dick Grayson and Jason Todd, who also lost parents to violence and subsequently became Robin: The Boy Wonder who would help Batman and sometimes save him if need be.
In 1986, DC Comics released the 4 issue limited edition mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in a special prestige format. It wasn’t one you could pick up at the comic shops initially but instead available through mail order. After rocking the world of Marvel’s superhero Daredevil, writer-artist Frank Miller teamed with inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley to tell the story of a burned out retired vigilante who lives in his large empty manor as a shell of a man who fears what the world has become and can’t get past the fact his first assistant no longer speaks to him, as he obsesses over the fate of his second. This depiction of Batman’s psyche at the end of his career gave fans and media a brand new darker perspective into what Bruce Wayne’s life would be like in a realistic world, deconstructing his status as a super hero much like Alan Moore would later write about similar characters in Watchmen.
The reaction from media and comic fans would prompt future writers to adapt the darker elements of the Batman mythos into their works, trending away from the somewhat optimistic view depicted in cartoons like The Super Friends or early 80s comics. Filmmakers Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan showed the influence of The Dark Knight Returns in their films as did animation producer Bruce Timm in Batman: The Animated Series. For over two decades, fans of this mini-series (later collected as graphic novel) would speculate could it ever be adapted fully as a movie (live or animated) and who could portray Batman faithfully.
This question has finally been answered with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1. This animated movie adapts materials from the first two issues of the min-series and starts with Bruce being somewhat suicidal, driving in a formula-1 race and nearly being killed in the process. He’s 55 years old, having been retired for ten years from being Batman, whom most kids don’t believe ever existed. Though it’s never stated exactly why, the retirement appears connected to the death of Jason Todd.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Jim Gordon is a few weeks from retirement and has to death with a particularly murderous street gang called The Mutants, led by the mysterious psychopath known simply as The Mutant Leader. Various news interviews move the story along as we see one of Batman’s most dangerous foes, Two-Face, finally getting surgery to repair his half-scarred face after years of treatment and ready to return to society as Harvey Dent.
Harvey’s near immediate disappearance following his first public press conference as a reformed man triggers a return to the cape and cowl that Bruce has been fighting off mentally for some time. He can’t hold back what’s been building within him, which in some ways mirrors Harvey’s struggle with his personal demon. A brutal thunderstorm sets the perfect atmosphere that night as folks begin to see crimes foiled by ‘a huge man dressed like Dracula’. Batman emerges to face this new world but even with his manhunter instincts, incredible arsenal and a new Robin (a young girl named Carrie Kelly) who joins him along the way, there is one enemy that may ultimately thwart his comeback… namely, time.
With so much regard given to the original comic, it was hard to imagine anyone doing an adaptation worthy of the material. Fortunately, Bruce Timm’s production team gave the reins to director Jay Oliva and the results are very good. He’d worked as storyboard artist on several of the WB’s DC Universe movies and directed Doctor Strange as well as one of the segments of (the underrated) Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, so he had some good experience heading into this. It seems though he took his overall animation and art style from the Spawn animated series from HBO in the 90s. Many scenes here (especially ones taking place in dark or nighttime settings) have similar movements to that show.
One element that was difficult to picture in animation was the comic art style of Miller and Janson, which had a lot of heavy details and sketch lines. For this piece though, character designer Jay Suzuki cleaned up the designs well, while retaining the unique look of Batman (who looks rather blocky and bigger than in most works) for this movie. Between Suzuki and Oliva’s efforts, the iconic imagery and mood of the comic is translated very well in this presentation. The 80’s style music by Christopher Drake combining electronic synthesizer pieces with hard rock backgrounds came handy as well, especially during the action scenes.
There are other considerations to discuss however, most notably the screenplay by Bob Goodman. In watching this movie, it occurred to me there was one element I’d taken for granted while reading the Dark knight Returns comics. Throughout much of the story, there are many internal monologues that provide entertaining insight to Batman’s methods. (Fans of the TV series Burn Notice may relate here when thinking of Michael Weston’s voiceovers.) Those monologues are not present here but are used for exposition to help describe events half the time; the other times they’re simply omitted and are missed initially. Likewise, the appearances of the U.S. President (who in the comic is drawn and written almost exactly like President Reagan) are also missed.
These absences were hardly noticed the second time I watched this movie though. The story still held up well and had a couple minor improvements such as extended confrontations between Batman and The Mutants as well as a tense scene with a despondent army general. Other cool bits include seeing Robin awkwardly try to help Batman at one point as well as seeing Bats trying to climb a rope after years of little practice. Also, it was good to see the action start off straightaway with no opening sequence. You know why you’re there; the movie knows why you’re there. No need for delay here. Compared to the very faithful but somewhat lifeless animated adaptation of Batman: Year One (based on yet another influential comic by Frank Miller), the screenplay makes very good changes necessary for a film.
Now we come to the voice acting. In an era when Kevin Conroy has (deservedly) become the most recognized and admired Batman voice actor for animation (and some live action) fans, and Bruce Greenwood is carving a niche for himself in portraying him in Under The Red Hood and Young Justice, how would screen actor Peter Weller fare behind the microphone? When the project was first announced, many were hoping Conroy would return or that perhaps actor Michael Ironside would reprise the role as he did when a segment of The Dark Knight Returns was adapted in an episode of the Batman Animated Series entitled ‘Legends of the Dark Knight.’
It might be best to compare Weller’s performance to Ironside since both did the most similar takes on Batman. Ironside was grizzled and no nonsense. Weller though is grizzled, cold and… creepy. He’s a bit monotone for Bruce but when Batman comes out he is truly frightening to listen to at times, because you know this old man is going to kick your butt and there’s probably very little you can do about it. This quality honestly makes him more perfect to portray Batman at this stage of his life, and as usual voice director Andrea Romano manages to bring these aural nuances out to impeccable quality. There’s also one amusing part where he calls out from the Batmobile through an electronic speaker and you’ll likely get a Robocop flashback, something I’m certain was not lost on this production team.
All in all, the movie is really good. I had trepidation going into this even with Warner Animation’s track record for delivering high quality comic-based releases. I do wish the extras were more substantial like they have been on other releases. The only ones worth mentioning here are the two-part episode of the Batman Animated series showing Two-Face’s origin and a brief set of clips and storyboards from The Dark Knight Returns Part 2. The rest of the extras are average at best. Still, the movie is the main point of this review and it was very enjoyable and worthy of recommendation to any Batman (or just plain action) fan.