With every new release DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation are trying to raise the bar on animated superhero films. Are they succeeding? Yes and no, but I’d say mostly yes. Recently their choice of stories to adapt have become more ambitious, more revered, and that couldn’t be more true than when bringing Frank Miller’s classic, The Dark Knight Returns, to the screen. A lot of what this adaptation gets right is owed to their unwillingness to deviate much from the original work. It can also be said that’s where anything they get wrong comes from, too. It’s this utter faithfulness to Miller’s work that can be both a blessing and hindrance when bringing the story to life in a new medium. In this sense, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 reminds me of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, which received criticism for at times being too faithful to Alan Moore’s script and not forming their narrative to better fit the film. A comic book isn’t simply a storyboard to be filmed and turned into a movie, the two mediums are separate and should be developed separately.
That being said, Miller’s original story of an aging, retired Batman donning the cowl once again to save a Gotham overrun by crime, corruption, and complacency comes through strongly in the animated film. Most everything your remember from the comic is here. Even some extraneous plot lines that could have been condensed or removed for the sake of pace, like Two-Face’s rehabilitation and regression. It’s a nice exploration of the villain and how his psychosis can’t be cured with a little plastic surgery, but we don’t need it in the movie and the focus could have been on The Mutant uprising from the beginning.
Providing the framework for The Dark Knight Returns is the constantly running news commentary and talking heads debating the ethics of Batman. The story relies more on these news briefs than the comic does, especially since we’re not given an inner monologue for any character, and I don’t think they hold up as well under the strain. Or, it could be that in today’s world we suffer from the 24 hours news cycle and I’m just sick of it.
The mutants are here with their strange slang and red lit, Geordi LaForge visors and they work really well – visually. The visors shine brightly in what is a mostly dark, somber palette for the film and it makes The Mutants menacing. Which is then lost when they open their mouths. The slang of The Mutants never read so hokey in the comic but somehow once you’re hearing characters saying things like, “Slice and dice!” or “Spud” it’s tough to take seriously. In fact, there are a few elements I never felt were ‘too over the top’ when I read The Dark Knight Returns, like Bruce’s inner dialogue with the “spirit” of Batman, but once seen animated and alive it’s all a little cheesy.
From an animation stand-point, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is on par with the DC Animated features that precede it. It’s far darker – go figure – but it allows bright moments to shine brighter. For instance, the iconic lightning streaking the sky as Batman leaps across it looks wonderful and once Robin, Carrie Kelly, is on the scene she pops off the screen. The character designs are true to what Miller gave us in the book, most noticeably with Batman who’s a hulking figure with an ominous silhouette. Again, seeing this Batman animated and moving makes the design appear more ridiculous than I remember, but once he’s trading blows with The Mutant’s leader you don’t care. You’ll just revel in the cracking and crunching of bones. Seriously, the sound design, especially for the fight scenes, is excellent.
There was a bit of concern throughout the blogosphere over Peter Weller’s acting for Batman, and I will admit at first it does sound quite flat. But as the film continues you find yourself digging his line delivery almost for that reason. The juxtaposition of the manic and wild performance of Gary Anthony Williams’ Mutant leader to the calm, steady Batman is just what you want. Ariel Winters has a lot of fun with Robin and she brings just the right sense of determination to a Carrie yearning to be noticed and appreciated.
Within The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 there is quite a lot to like. The fighting is brutal and excellently directed, quiet moments are short but sweet, the performance are good if not really good across the board, and the animation is top notch, maybe some of the best DC and Warner Bros have produced yet. Fans fearing they’d forget something or over simplify Miller’s groundbreaking story have no need to worry, but it’s not a perfect movie because it wants so badly to recapture the comic. The teases of Michael Emerson‘s Joker are just that, teases, and I’ll admit I like what they’re teasing. The Joker won’t be unleashed until next year’s Part 2, releasing late 2013, and I’m far more interested in the conclusion of The Dark Knight Returns than its beginning. What they’ve produced here is a solid adaptation who’s devout version of Batman’s later years will likely be loved by fans and enjoyed, but maybe a little mocked, by newcomers to Miller’s final days of The Dark Knight.