When it comes to films about Batman, the one story from the comics that everyone seems to want to see fleshed out on screen is Frank Miller’s classic, The Dark Knight Returns. The Nolan Batman franchise had moments that winked at the Miller classic, such as the premise of Batman coming out of retirement in The Dark Knight Rises, but until now we’ve never been treated, as far as I know, to a straight-up adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns… and it was worth the wait!
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 takes place in a future Gotham City ruled by crime and violence. Long since retired as Batman, Bruce Wayne (Peter Weller) waits his final days out, obsessing over how bad things have gotten in the city. When Harvey “Two-Face” Dent is finally given a restructured and healed face, instead of the desired effect of healing Dent of his criminal yearnings, it instead sets him off anew. Seeing little choice but to get back into action, Batman first sets his sights on finding and stopping Dent’s latest plan before focusing on the grander task of saving Gotham from the Mutant Gang running the streets. Along the way the story spins around itself, as the reemergence of Batman rekindles old debates and feelings about vigilante justice, super heroes and villains and the power of a society to save itself.
If you are familiar with the source comic, this film ends shortly after Batman publicly faces off with the Mutant Gang, and before some of the more memorable moments from the comic still to come when Superman finds his way into the tale. Still, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 sets up the pieces on the board wonderfully, as did the original story, and when it wraps up, you can’t help but want more. As of this writing, however, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is more than a few months away (listed for Winter 2013), so it looks like I’ll just be re-watching this one in the meantime.
Fans of the popular Batman: The Animated Series, like myself, may initially be thrown off by the voice acting. Honestly, Kevin Conroy’s voice is locked into my brain as the go-to voice of Batman, and while Peter Weller does a fine job in this film, it did take some getting used. Likewise for Commissioner Gordon, whose voice is equally as recognizable as Bob Hastings as opposed to the portrayal by David Selby in this incarnation. The changes in voice acting separates the film from the animated world a little bit, but since The Dark Knight Returns always lived in a Frank Miller-styled Batman universe anyway, it’s easy to look at the choice that way.
While Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 seems to lack the darkness and grit of the graphic novel (less due to a lack of faithfulness to the source story, it’s just as violent and disturbing as I remember, but more due to the absence of Frank Miller’s scratchy, dirty art style), it still delivers on successfully translating the classic tale to the screen. I’d even argue that the media landscape nowadays was necessary to make the adaptation a success, as the framing and expository device throughout the comic regarding using television interviews and news broadcasts feels even more true-to-life today. The channel-changing, short attention span, snippets of news and talking points environment of now has only grown worse since the original story was written, and today’s reality only enhances the violent, Mutant Gang-victimized Gotham City of Batman’s darker future.
If you don’t have a copy of The Dark Knight Returns sitting around, the Blu-ray edition comes with a snippet of a digital version of the original comic mini-series. A little clunky reading a comic on your TV, so perhaps this is more laptop or desktop-friendly an idea, and it is only a small part of the story, but it’s still fun to look at at then compare to how they brought it to life onscreen. Other special features include featurettes about the Batman creator Bob Kane, the new Robin character Carrie as introduced in The Dark Knight Returns, some bonus cartoons and, my favorite supplement, a preview of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2. I was expecting a trailer or a snippet from the concluding half of the story, but instead what I got was a behind-the-scenes discussion on the creation of the next film. Unexpected and far more interesting than just seeing some trailer footage.
If you’re a Batman fan, just hearing the words “The Dark Knight Returns” likely gets you excited, so this film was probably already on your radar. If you’re like me, however, you may’ve been slightly pessimistic about the tale being done justice in a direct-to-video animated feature. I’m here to tell you that this film delivers on its potential, and is worth checking out. Now I can’t wait for the second part, though I suspect I’ll have to get used to Michael Emerson’s voice as the Joker; much like my issues with Batman and Commissioner Gordon’s voices, my mind is predisposed to expect Mark Hamill.