The Dark Knight Returns (2012 – 2013)

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Director: Jay Oliva

Cast: Peter Weller, Mark Valley

Review Author: Shaun

For the sake of convenience We’ve condensed this two-part feature into a single review.

Part 1:

The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is structured into a mostly standalone tale, with only a few disparate elements scattered throughout as seeds for the chapter still to come. The story will probably be pretty familiar even to those that have never read the graphic Novel. Batman has been retired for over a decade, enjoying a lonely life as the city around him falls to an emergent threat, a gang known as the Mutants. As their crimes escalate, Bruce has to fight harder and harder to keep his inner vigilante at bay until, spoiler: The Dark Knight returns.

The movie excels is in its construction of Batman as a myth, we get to see what might be Bruce’s greatest success: building the Batman not as a man, but as an urban legend of sorts. In his absence, the shadow of the Batman looms large; when he returns, his impact is even greater. The film builds on this idea, culminating in a fantastic sequence where Bruce finally makes his public reemergence to stop a terrorist attack on Gotham.

The action sequences are brilliantly executed, with Batman striking from the shadows in fluid movements, often only illuminated by quick flashes of lightning or the slits of his eyes moving in the background. The animation in these scenes are truly thrilling, and the filmmakers did a great job of striking a balance between Batman being an effective vigilante and being sure to show that this is now an old man under that cowl.

The inclusion of Harvey Dent’s recovery and subsequent regression into madness is a true adaptation of the book, but ultimately not necessary in the context of the movie. With Part 1 really framed around the Mutant threat, the Dent story does little more than provide a prolonged action sequence that could have been better used fleshing out the Mutants instead. That said, the Dent story does, just as in the comic, hold some great reflective moments for Batman himself. These notions work better for fans of the Batman comics, as it relies on established knowledge of the history of these characters for maximum effect.

Another element that doesn’t translate well to the screen is the plentiful news broadcasts. In the novel, these work to underscore the media’s impact on Gotham City and similarly, Batman’s impact on the media. While in the movie, they only really serve their other purpose in the comics: exposition. The newscasts slow the pace of the movie to a crawl, leaving everything that comes after to move even faster in order to play catch up. Had they been used more sparingly or were at least relegated to background noise more often, it might have been more effective.

The voice cast is mostly spot-on, with Peter Weller giving a rousing, somber turn as the aging Bruce Wayne. There are moments where his work becomes a bit cheesy but overall, Weller is able to portray an endearing broken old Bat. Ariel Winter is the only source of warmth in this tale, and her portrayal of Carrie Kelly is charming. There are some weak links, however, in David Selby and Gary Anthony Williams as Jim Gordon and the Mutant Leader respectively. Selby is far too understated and almost squirrely as Gordon, and Williams chews the scenery, hamming it up at every turn. 

Part 2:

The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 is a far more cohesive product than its predecessor. The story picks up months after the conclusion of Part 1 and a few things are immediately apparent, namely that Batman and Robin have a much closer working relationship. The Joker awakens from his comatose state with the return of his one true love: Batman. Meanwhile, the new police commissioner Ellen Yindel has taken charge of the Gotham City Police Department to lead a manhunt for the Dark Knight. Outside of Gotham, the President of the USA deals with the Cold War crisis and sends Superman on a mission to stop his old pal Batman from making any more trouble.

There are fewer disparate elements floundering around (like the Harvey Dent story in Part 1 did), though some of that comes from the fact that so much of the groundwork was laid out in the previous movie. Part 2 keeps a similar structure to Part 1 with two separate conflicts – this time with Joker and Superman/the government but is more successful in depicting how conflict A ties into conflict B, as a result keeping the narrative constrained and on point.

More improvements in storytelling come from the omission of the corny voice-over narration that plagued the first chapter. Some of Frank Miller’s original monologue from the graphic novel does make its way into dialogue, however, so fret not if you fear some of your favourite lines will be missing due to the change. Another boon to the movie is a significant cut back in the talking head newscasters, something Part 1 struggled to make work in the adaptation process.

The narrative also excels in its construction of the relationships between Batman and the other major characters. The banter between Batman and Robin is entertaining, but seeing Batman’s seething disdain for both his greatest enemy and greatest ally is the real payoff. Equally effective is Batman’s iconic showdown with Superman. Superman’s portrayal as a government stooge has never sat right with me, but it’s an accurate portrayal of the novel. More so than the Joker sequence, the Superman/Batman confrontation relies on existing knowledge of the basic relationship between the two characters. It’s unlikely that anyone watching this movie in the first place would be unaware of this, but it’s worth mentioning that the fundamentals of Clark and Bruce’s relationship are missing from the movie. It’s during their showdown that the animation on this installment really impresses, offering a hard-hitting action sequence set amidst the snowfall of Gotham City.

The narrative does have some shortcomings, however. The subplot of the Sons of Batman trying to restore order in Gotham City is completely flat, and the other subplot of Gordon’s retirement/Yindel taking up the post of commissioner dissipates into thin air without any real resolution. There’s an intended sense of “the people taking back Gotham,” that is meant to tie these two threads together, but that climax never occurs and makes an impact as it was surely intended.

My highlight of the movie is Michael Emerson’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Emerson’s Joker takes the character’s genuine affection for Batman to heart, playing up the erotic 80’s rock aspects of Miller’s novel as well as the psychotic mass-murdering clown that we all love. Emerson does it with a subtlety that is a far cry from Mark Hamill’s iconic animated Joker, and the film is all the better for it. This is a tale set in the pseudo-future 1980’s, and Emerson’s Joker reflects the dystonian aspects of that era’s Gotham City. In many ways, his understatement of the role is what makes it so special.

In the end, the adaptation of the Frank Miller classic sticks the landing as one of the best from DC / WB Animation, if you’re a Batman fan, there’s no reason this should be missing from your collection.

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