Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (Blu-ray Review)

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 cover

We’re introduced to bad-ass old Bruce Wayne as he’s driving a formula 1 racer down the city streets of Gotham. I was reminded of Paul Newman, the gorgeous silver fox actor famous for also racing cars, but I’m not sure any younger watchers will get the reference. However, since the race is referred to as the “Newman Elimination”, perhaps I’m not the only one.

That led to me wondering who the intended audience was for this original animated movie. Those who know the story of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — which includes most comic readers by now — will find the going slow, as elements are established that they’re already familiar with. Those who don’t will wonder why Batman’s old and there’s a girl Robin. Perhaps it’s “someone who wants more Batman stories on film, so they don’t have to read comics.” Although someone coming to it now would likely wonder why this Batman story is full of so many cliches, items that have become commonplace in the 30 years since the tale was originally told.

Then again, since this part of the movie has become “old guys are still tough”, maybe the audience is the people who read the comic back when and like hearing that the aged can still be the center of the universe. The director, during the promo for Part 2 (see Special Features below), mentions how this story was the top request from the fans to see animated, so maybe a lot more people want it than I’m aware of, and I’m simply not part of that group.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 cover

Visually, the female reporter looks like Frank Miller drew her — the other characters, not so much. They’ve been redesigned and made more typical to work in animation. Peter Weller’s voice is wonderful to hear, and it enhanced the character instead of distracting from it. David Selby is also terrific as Commissioner Gordon. On the other hand, I didn’t think Michael McKean’s voice matched the visuals for Dr. Bartholomew Wolper at all. (Credit note: Bruce Timm plays Thomas Wayne, Batman’s daddy, which is poetic, since he’s responsible for the character’s animation renaissance.)

The plot is how Batman returns from retirement to face a supposedly cured Harvey Dent and a Mutant gang (who look very 80s, with the spiked hair and the Star Trek Geordi glasses). The problem with a story about how “things are different now” is that we’ve all heard that so many, many times in our entertainment, and our stories are now full of vigilantes. None of us believe that government or the police are there to help us any more, so this story feels very familiar. Heck, for most comic readers, it is, as the industry has fed on it and what it inspired for decades. The bits everyone recalls, with Superman and the Joker, will appear in Part 2, due next year.

Although I was disappointed that the style didn’t more closely follow Miller’s, this looked really cool on my HD big-screen TV. The animation was smooth and easy to get lost in, as a world on its own. The story wasn’t as deep, though, without the meaningful captions providing internal monologue, which added a lot of mood and atmosphere to the print version.

The things that made the story visually dynamic and distinctive on the printed page have unfortunately been lost in the need to make the images move. Miller’s innovations in using, for example, the talking-head TV screens, included the page layout as a whole, with the overlapping artwork. Here, each image is full-screen, so the storytelling is more straightforward. The parallelism of multiple things going on at once is lost, which gives Dark Knight Returns a bit of a dumbed-down feeling.

Then again, it needed to fit in with the other films. This should have been the first animated Batman movie, not the 15th in the DCU series, but they needed the success of those others to get to this one. However, 15 minutes into the hour-and-fifteen-minute film, there hasn’t been much exciting to watch. There are nods to classic panels, of course, as well as homages to atmospheric film shots, but it doesn’t puff up the otherwise flat storytelling significantly.

In my opinion, Miller’s story was never great on its own — it was the way he told it, unique to comics and incredibly fresh at the time, that made The Dark Knight Returns a modern classic. He developed a new storytelling language, one we now take for granted. That’s been lost here in the animation. I think they could have done something as visually significant, but it would have required more money and a more artistically oriented development team, and I suspect that Warner wasn’t looking for that kind of project these days.

Then again, Warner has a problem in selecting material. They need to do the best-known stories in order to get the sales and attention they need to make the projects successful. They also need stand-alone stories that have something like a conclusion, which are still rare. Original work is more difficult (and probably costs more). That’s the promise of the DC library, that they already have the stories and characters they need.

Fundamentally, I have problems with a story that says you just need a violent enough threat to bring back a hero who’s given up. That way lies the current DC universe, where those who can’t come up with new stories just ramp up the gore and destruction.

Special Features

(Trailer and more information previously posted.)

I was most interested in “Her Name Is Carrie … Her Role Is Robin”, the new 12-1/2-minute featurette. Executive producer Michael Uslan starts us off by mentioning the women’s rights movement. That didn’t bode well, since I wouldn’t put forth Frank Miller as a leading proponent of comic feminism. And it clashes strangely with all these white-guy writers and producers on screen, including Mike Carlin, Bruce Timm, and writer Bob Goodman. (Plus Grant Morrison, I don’t know why. Bless Timm, though, for summing up the film as “pissed-off old Batman”.)

Carrie is not a very good example of improving female roles in comics, anyway, because she was a one-shot character that demonstrated just how different this story and world was intended to be. She wasn’t sufficiently followed up on. Anyone who seriously cares about improving the way women are portrayed in comics shouldn’t watch this. It will make you want to throw things at your TV screen as the self-congratulatory air of “we did something special” infuses the atmosphere.

The other items on the disc are:

  • Sneak Peek at Part 2 — 7 minutes, producers and actors talking, sketches and panels shown featuring Superman (played by Mark Valley!), Green Arrow, and the Joker (Michael Emerson)
  • Sneak Peek at Superman/Batman: Public Enemies — 8 minutes, and I think this previously appeared on Superman vs. the Elite
  • The “Two-Face, Parts 1 and 2” episodes from Batman: The Animated Series
  • the 38-minute documentary “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story”
  • the Dark Knight Returns digital comic is promoted as being included, but as typical, it consists of a cover and three pages with a plug for DC’s digital comic store

I was disappointed at the light content here, but then I realized that the really significant stuff is most likely going to appear on Part 2. Next year, let’s see what that brings. (The studio provided a review copy.)


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