Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

As published in F*** Magazine Issue #34

Movie review                                                                                                               10/10/12


Starring the voices of: Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, Gary Anthony Williams, David Selby
Directed by: Jay Oliva

Some Batman fans weren’t all too pleased that Christopher Nolan had chosen the title “The Dark Knight Rises” for the final instalment in his Batman film trilogy – because to them, the acronym “TDKR” referred to The Dark Knight Returns, and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ alone. ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, written and drawn by Frank Miller with inks by Klaus Janson and colours by Lynn Varley, was published in 1986 in four issues and is arguably one of the most important graphic novels ever created. Along with Miller’s other defining Batman work ‘Batman: Year One’ (which has also been adapted into an animated film), ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ was credited for making Batman truly grim and gritty again. No more pink aliens, colourful Batsuits or ridiculous one-liners folks: if you like your Batman dark and no-nonsense (as he should be), this graphic novel is to thank for that.

Fans got little tastes of what an animated version of this now-classic yarn would look like in an episode of ‘The New Batman Adventures’ entitled ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’, and in the ‘Artifacts’ episode from ‘The Batman’. Now, at long last, we have an actual, full-length animated version of the story with this two-part film, the latest in DC’s mostly stellar stable of direct-to-video animated movies.

The film is set some time after Batman’s (Weller) retirement; Gotham having become a dystopia terrorised by a gang of mutants. Commissioner James Gordon (Selby) is near retirement himself, and is now privy to Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne. Harvey Dent (Wade Williams), formerly Two-Face, has apparently been cured of his affliction, his face repaired by a plastic surgeon and his psyche supposedly mended by head psychiatrist Bartholomew Wolper (Michael McKean) of the ‘Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled’. The increasingly violent activity of the mutant gang, with the brutish mutant leader (Gary Anthony Williams) at the helm, brings Batman back out of retirement. He’s got a new Robin too: teenager Carrie Kelley, much to the disapproval of Bruce’s aging butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Jackson (no, not that one)). However, much as they need Batman, the people of Gotham are divided as to whether they’re willing to welcome him back, some viewing him as a fascist vigilante who is as much responsible for creating Gotham’s supervillains as he is fighting them.

Those still on a high from the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, and its impending arrival on home video formats, should definitely check this animated film out. Christopher Nolan has included more than a few nods to ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ in his films, including the tank-like appearance of the Batmobile and the small scene between the two cops (“boy, are you in for a show tonight, son”) in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. This film has, in turn, also been influenced by that trilogy, featuring a musical score from Christopher Drake that, with its low electronic drum beats and repetitive bass line, is quite Hans Zimmer-y, and the theme sounds suspiciously like it was plucked straight out of ‘Inception’.

Thing is, as iconic as the story is, it isn’t exactly accessible to the average reader, being pretty rough around the edges in its brutality, featuring a ‘Dirty Harry’-style take on Batman and drawn in Frank Miller’s decidedly grungy style. This film, while staying as faithful an adaptation as a PG-13 animated flick can, refines it a little, the character models cleaner while still recognisable as following Miller’s designs. The animation is of a better quality than that of the ‘Batman: Year One’ adaptation, and has something of an anime feel – if not in character design, then in backgrounds, lighting and ‘camera’ movement. This is quite a dramatic and dynamic looking film, the animators having done a very good job translating Miller’s story from the page to the screen, and including a decent amount of cool-looking action that’s still adequately brutal. The clash between Batman and the Mutant Leader in a mud pit is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the movie, and doesn’t disappoint.

Besides the visuals, it’s the voice work that’s crucial to completing the transition of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ from page to screen, and the film shines in this regard too. Peter Weller makes for a great elderly Batman, his voice naturally deep and gravelly as opposed to sounding forced or silly as some think Christian Bale’s Batman voice did. Also, it’s RoboCop as Batman! Now that’s something to geek out over. The DC animated films have had a tradition of featuring television stars as voice actors and this one is no different, with Ariel Winter (Alex from ‘Modern Family’) as Carrie Kelley. It may be a little odd for the uninitiated to see a red-headed tomboy dressed in the Robin outfit, but Winter sells it, sounding every bit the plucky teen-turned-new-protégé. For this reviewer, David Selby as Commissioner Gordon is the standout. His performance is very reminiscent of that of Bob Hastings from ‘Batman the Animated Series’, albeit tuned to sound a little older.

The main difference between the book and the film is that most of Batman’s inner monologues have been excised, probably because these would be rather clumsy as voiceover bits. This could be seen as either a good or a bad thing: for many, Batman’s ‘narration’ of the comic was a big part of what made it so memorable, offering a good look into the emotional and physical toll being Batman has taken on him. However, it also showed that Frank Miller was developing signs of “early onset Miller-itis”, with lines that may sound silly if spoken out loud. The newscaster exposition sequences, on the other hand, are intact. While a useful narrative tool in the graphic novel, these ‘talking heads’ scenes are very static onscreen, and the weakest spots of this animated movie. Thankfully, there’s a great story to follow here, and there are bits and pieces which satisfyingly tie this back to the Batman we’re all familiar with, such as the inclusion of stalwart Batman allies Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, a flashback to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and Jason Todd’s Robin costume standing in the Batcave as a memorial to the slain Robin.

Though it may annoy some that they have to wait for the conclusion, it was a relatively good decision to split this film into two parts, because with a ‘Part 2’ coming early next year, this one doesn’t have to cram the story into its 77-minute runtime. ‘Part 1’ ends on quite the cliffhanger that well and truly whets the appetite for the follow-up. It’s good to see the Dark Knight return, and if you’re still on a Batman kick from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, this is sure to keep you on that high.


Jedd Jong 


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