Frank Miller’s 1986 genre defining and milestone graphic novel, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns has been adapted in the latest installments of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies. The extended storyline demanded that the story—initially broken into four chapters—be broken up into two parts. The highly anticipated last chapter was made available on Blu-Ray, DVD or Download on January 29th. The Dark Knight Returns as a comic defined the look and tone of Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego for a generation, twisting both tropes of the comic book page and the media’s 24/7 news cycle down to their aging knees while all the while inexplicably breathing new life and reflection on both. We’re hard pressed to find fault with DC attempting to share the story with a new audience in a new medium, and aside from dyed in the wool fanboy nit picks, we’ve gone in depth comparing and contrasting the original art form with the movies to be mostly satisfied with the result. Peter Weller (Robocop, Star Trek: Into Darkness) stars as the aging Batman, eventually facing the maniacal Joker voiced by Michael Emerson (Ben Linus on Lost, Person of Interest).
Both the movie and the book start out with a moustachioed and retired Bruce Wayne (Earth-31) totaling his racecar over the finish line in the Ferris 6000 motor race. After cheating death, Bruce meets up with outgoing Commissioner Jim Gordon for more than a few drinks and then a solo stroll through Crime Alley. He is confronted by some of the Mutant gang and scares the boys away. A restless night and a trip to Batcave after the encounter with Gotham’s new string of baddies motivates Batman back into the cowl, to the chagrin of our faithful Alfred Pennyworth. Sound familiar?
Christopher Nolan (and Tim Burton, for that matter) have a lot to owe this book for characterization and major plot points.
Another animated property, Batman Beyond owes it’s entire existence and frequently nods at this touchstone of future Bat-legacy.
Following the pace of the book are reveals that Two-Face has had plastic surgery and is ‘cured’ by Doctors Herbert Willing and Bartholomew Wolper. With a a newly minted dollar coin with both sides clean, Harvey is released from the Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled. Toward the end of the first movie, we are shown that there is another famous rogue set to be released, the infamous Joker.
Batman has his first comeback and announcement to Gotham of his return by way of the neglected Batsignal and a more sober interaction with Gordon.
Two-Face resents the very attempt to cure the duality of his nature, and Batman sees a reflection in the eyes of the former District Attorney before leaving him for the Gotham P.D.
Bruce is scarred by what happened to his last Robin, Jason Todd, and a memorial glass case with the Robin costume in it seems to taunt Bruce as a sign of his failure. “Never Again”, he swears. Little does he know that hacker and Girl Scout Carrie Kelly is watching the news and waiting for a chance to prove herself as the Girl Wonder. She gets her chance at the end of the first film with an assist to Batman as he takes on the Mutant Leader in the garbage dump.
The Batmobile makes an appearance as a gigantic tank, outfitted with rubber bullets.
Both stories are set very much in the Cold War, and a Soviet threat in fictional Corto Maltese is the backdrop for the political comments made by Miller positioning Superman as a puppet for the Reagan Administration. To see Ronald Reagan animated with a convincing voice actor (Jim Meskime) was a real throwback. Clark is the ultimate do-gooder, loyal to country before friends. The President asks Clark to tell Batman to cool it.
Seems like the Reagan Administration doesn’t need to be distracted by domestic affairs in Gotham when there is a war on.
The third act of the story deals with Batman, Robin, and Alfred confronting and dominating The Big Blue Boy Scout and the ‘reformed’ Joker. Even after the failed Two-Face release, Dr. Bartholomew Wolper brings Joker on to the late night David Endochrine Show (paralleled to David Letterman in the book, and voiced in the movie by comic book nerd Conan O’Brien)! Joker unleashes smile gas on the audience and floats away on a Cabbage Patch Kid robot. He’s killed his doctor, now to kill the Bat in one final battle in the Tunnel of Love at the county fair.
Batman faces fellow Justice League founder Superman by arming himself with an incredible suit of armor, some help from a Green DC hero, and all of the electrical current in the city.
Will Batman defeat the Man of Steel?
I won’t spoil that. You really should spend these three hours watching…or read the book. In fact. I say both.
Overall, a faithful and rendered adaptation of the original work made it to the movie. Watching with the book open was literally eye-opening to me. As a 14-year-old, drooling over the somewhat messy but masterful linework of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, with Miller’s ex-wife Lynn Varley on colors, I may have missed most of the story or just didn’t care about it too much.
Writing and thinking about comics, and learning about the history of characters in pop culture and the DCU has made me appreciate what masters of the form folks like Miller, Grant Morrison and animation producer Bruce Timm truly are.
My first several reads of the book landed me on splash pages, whereby Batman was in a version of each of his iconic costumes.
I imagined him damaging the suits so badly in the previous night’s fight that he had to have Alfred dig deep into the Batcloset for older versions.
I brought my own voice to the Joker, as he taunted Batman with a Batarang in his eye, “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA”, the weight of the word balloons stopping me like an unexpected solid curb as I shuffled my feet over the ground of the thing. Batman’s voice in my head is so real, and it’s not Christian Bale. It’s this old man, sick of watching the world go to shit around him, fighting the fight again, when he knows he doesn’t have a choice. It’s not obligation exactly that makes him put the cowl back on, but that’s close.
Frank Miller’s drawings are sinew in the muscle, and by default animation is plastic, and as much as the tone can be dark, the movie version of The Dark Knight Returns is a seitan burger compared to the ground chuck in the book.
What is the best about the movie version is that it just makes sense. I know more about the book now because of this, and I’m grateful for that. On the page, it can be hard to follow the talking heads. Characters and motivations are introduced and all plot points are resolved.
The screenwriters enhanced the Michael Emerson dialogue in the Joker’s finale, and initially I had no truck with that. Then I remembered he was Ben Linus and you had better let him creep the audience out.
The movie hit all the beats and overall told a much clearer, cleaner story. The Batman & Robin relationship here is strong. Mostly, it does not matter who the sidekick is in the costume, but that Batman can use someone to be a father to. Last week’s Batman & Robin Annual starring Bruce and his son Damian Wayne is also a great exploration of this dynamic.
I’ve outright criticized Frank Miller’s work before, and honestly have no idea what his politics are about (nor do I care much to explore this) but I will always count this as the best Batman story there is. Happy to have seen an adaptation bring this to a different audience, and I hope this movie inspires some of those interested in the Dark Knight Trilogy to explore this perennial best seller for DC Comics.
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League of Ordinary Gentlemen Podcast Episode #141 — CXLI League of Ordinary Gentlemen Podcast Episode #141 — CXLI
The Gentlemen talk Mara, Superior Spider-Man, H’el on Earth, a possible Guardians of the Galaxy movie and Roman Nume-rules!
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