BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An aging and retired Bruce Wayne sees his city spiraling down into crime and fear at the hands of Harvey Dent and a new threat, the Mutant Gang, forcing Bruce to reclaim the mantle of the Batman to bring order and justice back to Gotham.
PROS: Excellent animation, acting and storytelling; gritty and dark, channeling the original material well.
CONS: As dark as it is, the PG13 rating means most of the ‘in your face’ violence and themes of the original work have been watered down.
BOTTOM LINE: A fine addition to the growing library of Warner Brother’s Premiere / DC Animation titles. Well worth your time and money.
Get a group of Batman fans together, and the conversation will inevitably turn to The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s grim take on the future Batman. Miller painted a Gotham, and a world, where the vigilantes and heroes have all but faded from the public consciousness, but the criminals have continued to grow and thrive. Published in 1986, Miller predicted the rise of the 24/7 news cycle, sprinkling TV news reports throughout the narrative to drive the story forward, giving the reader glimpses of the world and how it has changed that you would not otherwise see in a comic. Politics, too, were a part of this book, as Miller added various social commentaries on conservative and liberal ideals in equal parts from characters and news reports. Also, the cold war rages on and the success Batman sees in fighting crime and making Gotham safe again after such a long absence, embarrasses the President and the U.S. Government, forcing a confrontation with the only ‘official’ hero left; Superman.
The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 covers the first part of the story. Batman was last seen ten years ago and in the intervening years, Bruce Wayne has remained retired, if haunted by the past. Specifically, the death of Jason Todd eats away at him. Alluded to but never specifically explained, Todd was the second Robin following Dick Grayson’s exit and with his death, Wayne made a promise – ‘Never again’. He is also haunted by the death of his parents, the Shadow of the Bat, and the growing feeling that he walked away before he was done, leaving the city to rot, wither and die in his absence.
The movie opens with Wayne driving a racecar and pushing it beyond its limits, causing a crash that would have killed him had he not ejected at the last minute. Commissioner Gordon suggests that maybe he wanted to die. Elsewhere, Harvey Dent, known better to most as the criminal ‘Two-Face’, has undergone rehabilitation therapy and facial reconstruction surgery. Proclaimed ‘cured’ by his therapist, Dent is released and immediately vanishes, reappearing soon thereafter, face wrapped in bandages and threatening the city once again. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon, one month from retirement, is the focus of a gang calling themselves ‘The Mutants’ who say they will kill him before his term ends. All of this, and the endless stream of news reports on his television screen, drive Bruce to realize that Batman is once again needed, so he puts the costume back on and starts working to clean up the city.
The reemergence of the Batman in Gotham is greeted with mixed opinions. Some see him as a force for good who is cleaning up the city and making it safer, other’s, like the parents of 13-year-old Carrie Kelley, herself saved from a Mutant attack by Batman, see him as a fascist who subverts due process and basic human rights, leaving a trail of broken bones and bodies in his wake. Kelley, inspired by the Batman, puts on a Robin costume and begins teaching herself how to be his sidekick. Eventually, she follows Batman and is witness to his brutal beating at the hands of the Mutant Leader. She repays Batman by distracting the Leader and saving his life. He rewards her by telling her his name, Bruce, and proclaiming her, officially, as ‘Robin’ before taking her to the Batcave to begin properly training her. Together, they set a trap for the Mutants to end their reign of terror once and for all.
I’ve always said that I like my Batman dark, gritty and uncompromising, and that is what The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 delivers. Voiced by Peter Weller (Robocop), this Batman is singularly focused and determined to take back the streets of Gotham. No one and nothing will stop him, not even age. But he is quickly shown that not even Batman can hold back the ravages of age and a lifetime of cuts, scrapes and broken bones that comes along with fighting crime. He’s slower than he used to be. But his mind still works and he can outsmart the younger, faster villains if he adjusts his strategy, which he does.
There’s no doubt some fan out there will rip this adaptation apart because it forgot some detail they feel was the whole point of the book (this happens, ya know?), but for this fan, I enjoyed it quite a bit. The first time Batman appears, not really appearing at all (a potential rapist is yanked backwards into the darkness and pummeled), I cheered. When the veteran cop smirks, seeing Batman leaping through the sky while the newb cop is wondering what the hell was that, I smirked too.
The storytelling here is relentless, like Miller’s story that serves as its inspiration. You never have a moment to breathe. You watch this movie and there is violence as Batman breaks bones, throws people through windows, smashes faces with his knee and you think, “Wait – this is PG13?”
A favorite line:
YOUNG COP: “You’re under arrest, mister! You just crippled that man!”
BATMAN: “He’s young. He’ll walk again. But you’ll stay scared, won’t you, punk?”
ALFRED [to BRUCE]: “If it’s suicide you’re after, I have an old family recipe. It’s slow and painful; you’d like it.”
Another favorite bit of dialogue:
ALFRED: “You’ve been through a lot. Your head wasn’t clear at the time.”
BRUCE: “I knew exactly what I was doing.”
ALFRED: “Bringing the girl here?”
BRUCE: “She’s perfect. Smart, brave. With her help, I can end the Mutant problem once and for all. It all comes down to their leader. They worship him.”
ALFRED: “Perhaps your judgement was impaired.”
BRUCE: “I tried to match his savagery last time. That was my mistake. I have to be smarter.
ALFRED: “Very well, sir. I shall cut right to it. Have you forgotten what happened with Jason?”
BRUCE: “I’ll never forget what happened to Jason. He was a good soldier. He honored me. But the war goes on.”
As mentioned above, this is Part 1. I’m glad they chose to take the time to try and do the best adaptation possible by splitting the story in two. There is so much going on in The Dark Knight Returns, so much to chew on and digest, that breaking it up is the only way they can even hope to get as much in as possible. So Part 1 features Two-Face, the Mutant’s and Batman’s return to Gotham.
Part 2? Well, throughout this movie, we catch glimpses of Joker, catatonic and under care in Arkham Asylum. The television is on, and the news is covering Batman’s return. The more he watches, the more Joker begins to respond, first with a finger twitch, then a hand, a look… This sets up Part 2, which comes in 2013 and will also feature the fight everyone is waiting for; Batman vs Superman.
I dug up the trailer for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 for you – see it below, then check out the DVD, in stores now.