I should probably start this review by stating I’m not the hugest fan of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

I know, I know…blasphemy.

That’s not to say I never loved it.  Quite the contrary – for years, I adored the mini-series.  I’ve got it in its original prestige format editions (I miss that format), as well as multiple editions of the softcover, hardcover, and the absolute edition.  I was pretty young when it came out in 1986 and I remember specifically the day my dad took me with him to a comic shop in Queens, NY, where he was dying to get his hands on that final issue.

That being said, there are aspects about it I never liked – the Mutants and the way they talked.  Batman’s reference to Robin as a “soldier” still doesn’t sit well with me.  That weird lady with the nazi pasties.  For all the good the story has, some of Miller’s eccentricities just take away from it being a timeless work for me.  As a product of the time it was released in, it’s a great book.  As a timeless tale of the Batman….I think it falls short.

Still, there are those, including current Batman writer Scott Snyder, who cited DKR as their favorite Batman story of all time.  And truly, it was a turning point for the character that it still important, despite ultimately being an Elseworlds tale.

So when Warner Brothers announced that they’d be adapting the story into not one, but TWO animated movies, I was hopefully optimistic.  There are other Batman stories I would have loved to have seen first, especially free of continuity animated movies (Gotham by Gaslight comes to mind).  Also, I don’t think Miller’s character designs really translate well to animation.  His Batman is bulky and large, and rather funky looking (see the New Batman Adventures episode “Legends of the Dark Knight,” where they adapt the fight between Batman and the Mutant Leader). 

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part One is directed by Jay Oliva, who’s done a number of “Young Justice” episodes, as well as Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow and Doctor Strange.  He’s done some solid work (Doctor Strange notwithstanding), but for a project of this size to not be directed by someone like Brandon Vietti or Lauren Montgomery was a surprise to me.  The Dark Knight Returns is just too fan-revered to not go with a sure bet for me.

Casting choices include Peter Weller as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Emerson as the Joker, David Selby as Commissioner Gordon, and Wade Williams as Harvey Dent.  While Joker doesn’t have too much to say in this initial installment, the shining spot is definitely Weller’s Batman/Wayne voice.  It’s solid and intimidating, without being outright forced like some actors try to portray the voice.  There’s very little difference between Wayne’s voice and that of Batman’s, but it fits in with a character who doesn’t have quite the public persona he did as a younger man.  Unfortunately, Selby’s Gordon just did not work for me.  It was a bit too high pitched for forced, as if he was trying to imitate a cartoon from the 80’s.

But what about the movie itself?  We get through the fight with the Mutant Leader (which I believe is the second issue of the mini, The Dark Knight Triumphant), which means that, essentially, the next film will focus half on the Joker, and half on Superman.  What’s tricky about adapting DKR is that the story is very episodic to me.  Despite having one overarching narrative, each book is kind of a done-in-one story.  You’ve got the confrontation with Harvey, the Mutant Leader showdown, the Joker, and then Superman.

As a result, the film itself tries its hardest to bring the first two stories into one cohesive narrative, but it falters a bit in its attempt.  It still feels episodic.  Not only that, by not having a break, or an understanding of the time that’s passed between the two stories, it feels like this is all happening a bit too quickly.  It doesn’t make the film a bad film, but it does make it feel like you’re watching two episodes of a TV show lumped together to make a movie.

The story is extremely faithful to the original. The time period is clearly defined as the time period of the initial series, with references that are not updated to make the story flow with the 2012 release date.  Jason is mentioned multiple times (despite having come back from the dead – I know Miller didn’t know that when he wrote the series, but the story feels as if no Robin has existed since then, and it would have been nice for the filmmakers to make the update), and there’s references to history (such as Jim Gordon referencing Pearl Harbor) that clearly define this tale as taking place in the 80’s.  It’s not a bad thing, but the film is, much like Watchmen, preaching to the choir.  This is a film made for the fans of the series who want a wholly faithful adaptation.

And despite the attempts at faithfulness, I did notice some alterations made to the story.  Nothing too overt, and maybe it’s just been a while since I read the series, but there are definitely some scenes I wasn’t familiar with, and the Batman voiceover is, of course, gone.  So scenes like “Rubber bullets.  Honest,” have to be replaced by someone else recognizing that Batman is using them.  Also, despite the understanding that Batman was definitely off in the series, I never felt he was quite as unhinged as he is in the movie.  Because of the dialogue meant to replace the book’s inner monologue, it’s clearer he’s off his rocker, and Batman and Bruce are two completely different people living in the same body.  It’s an interesting choice, and one that will definitely take away the compassion you may have for the character – that’s the affect it had on me, anyway.

So, ultimately, I feel like the film is a successful adaptation of the story, but the story itself is something I’m not head over heels for.  If you love The Dark Knight Returns, it’s about time to realize you’re never going to get a live action adaptation, and accept that this animated interpretation is probably as good as it’s going to get.  I think it’s successful in what it sets out to do and, though I would have preferred that they didn’t split the film in two, the preview of what’s to come definitely has me excited – the second half of the series, featuring the Joker and Superman, are definitely more up my alley than the first half.  Let’s see how they handle the lady with the swastika pasties.

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Batman – The Dark Knight Returns, Part One

  1. That’s disappointing but I appreciate the review. I was going to buy this before watching it but now I think I’ll just stick with a rental.

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