Those of you who have read my previous reviews of DC Comics’ animated films know that the first thing I do when I get them is turn the case over and check the running time. While 90% of their films have been clearly aimed at adult comic book fans, the running times suggest a younger target audience who doesn’t have the attention span to sit through a two hour film. No such worries with The Dark Knight Returns…while the film is a more robust 77 minutes it is only the first of two parts. The second will be even longer at 95 minutes. So were talking close to three hours to tell this cherished tale.
I’ve always felt that the 1980s was perhaps the most important decade in comics, at least the most important since the 1960s. Comics were largely unchanged from the 1950s to the 1970s. There were a handful of socially important and landmark stories like Denny O’ Neil and Neal Adam’s run on Green Lantern and Stan Lee’s drug issues of Spider-Man which were published without the Comic Code seal of approval. But comics finally grew up in the 1980s thanks to an influx of talented writers and artists as well as a strong and diverse independent comic book market. The 1980s gave us Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen; Frank Miller’s gritty take on Daredevil; Bill Willingham’s fabulous Elementals for Comico; and DC Comics’ Vertigo and Marvel Comics’ Epic imprints with more adult-oriented titles, to name just a few…
But nothing quite captured the thrill of comic fans than Frank Miller’s dark and subversive look at a near future Caped Crusader in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In 1986 when the first issue of the four-part mini-series came out, it was all fans were talking about. Now more than 25 years later, Miller’s masterpiece is finally brought to the small screen with major shoes to fill. Part one covers the story in the first two issues of the four issue series.
For the uninitiated, DKR tells the story of a near future Gotham City that is far worse than it has ever been. Criminal gangs run rampant throughout the city, notably a gang called The Mutants who call to mind the sociopathic “droogs” from A Clockwork Orange with their penchant for ultra-violence. Bruce Wayne is now in his mid-50s and has been retired as the Batman for ten years, becoming a bitter, lonely recluse. But even he cannot overlook the extreme brutality of the Mutants and once again dons his cape and cowl…a little older, and a little slower, but still deadly as ever.
One of the recurring themes of Miller’s original story are the newscasts that play over and over, reporting on one sadistic crime after another but also, in this new politically correct climate (and wow…was Miller a flippin’ prophet or what!) they label Batman as the criminal and a fascist whose actions are to blame for the rampant crime. This is played out in ridiculously surreal fashion as the Mayor of Gotham actually sits down with the hulking leader of the Mutants to work out a peace agreement. But not all observers are opposed to Batman’s return. 13 year-old Carrie Kelly (Winter) buys herself a Robin costume and seeks out Batman in hopes of becoming his new partner, even aiding him when he battles against the Mutant’s leader.
Bob Goodman’s script follows closely to Miller’s original and that’s a good and smart thing. It’s one thing to capture the dark and depraved future Gotham in the animation style but if Goodman’s script didn’t have the same nihilistic feel and dialog, it would have never worked. And this feel is all across the board from Wayne himself, to the soon retiring Jim Gordon, to the everyday person on the street, terrified to leave their homes at night.
Equally effective was the animation which perfectly captured Miller’s more abstract style that he used on the book. Batman’s bigger, bulkier than in his younger days and what he lacks in his old speed and quickness he makes up for in full-on assault style tactics including a tank-like Batmobile. There’s even the now iconic image of Batman leaping across the sky with lightning raining down in the background that was used on the cover of the first issue.
Batman: Return of the Dark Knight isn’t a thrill-a-minute pace but then neither was the comic. Miller wanted all of the background elements of Gotham’s dystopian future to be just as important as Batman’s return. But there is certainly a lot of action particularly in Batman’s two epic fights with the Mutant leader featuring the most vicious choreography ever seen in a DC animated film. The stellar cast of voice actors features Peter Weller in a mesmerizing performance as Batman; Gary Anthony Williams as the chilling voice of the Mutant leader; and David Selby of Dark Shadows fame (the TV show not the Tim Burton film) as Jim Gordon; DC’s animated films have been a mixed bag…mostly good but with a fair amount of duds as well but Batman: The Dark Knight Returns hits almost every nail square on the head and drives them home flush. The film does just to one of the most important mini-series in comic book history.
Her Name is Carrier her Role is Robin (12:00) a look at the new, first female Robin as well the roles of women in comics from the Golden Age to the present.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Digital Comic
Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story (38:00) Adocumentary exploring the life and career of Batman creator Bob Kane featuring clips of various interviews Kane did over the years.
Sneak Peek at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns part 2
Two bonus episodes from Batman: The Animated Series handpicked by producer Alan Burnett: Two-Face, Parts 1 and 2