I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns established a new, definitive depiction of Batman and irrevocably changed the face of the American comics industry. Fans have been clamoring for an animated adaptation of the graphic novel ever since Batman the Animated Series’ groundbreaking run, and those wishes have finally been answered, with the first half of the book adapted into a movie available now and the second half on the way in early 2013. The good news is that the adaptation is exceptionally successful, making multiple smart choices and edits to hammer out its own identity separate from the book. I may have issues with some of the creative decisions, but I can definitely see the rationale behind them and would say that they streamline Miller’s complex and textured work into something filmable. If there are moments where the movie is less successful, I would assert that they are not artistic failures as much as they subtly underscore how much The Dark Knight Returns has been absorbed and codified into the modern depictions of Batman in live-action, animation, and comics.
In The Dark Knight Returns, Gotham City has turned into an even darker urban hell, ruled by street crime and an increasingly violent gang called the Mutants. Bruce Wayne retired as Batman a decade ago after an unspecified incident involving a former Robin, and at the start of the movie his old ally Commissioner James Gordon is about to join him. Wayne’s resolve to stay in retirement is broken when the classic Batman villain Harvey Dent/Two-Face is finally released from the Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled, seemingly cured of his dementia, while the Mutants escalate their war on the city. However, he soon discovers that the rules have changed since he last played this game, first as he learns how his older, out-of-practice body doesn’t react the way it used to, and then as he comes face-to-face with the pure, merciless savagery of the leader of the Mutants. By the time the end credits roll, Batman has become embroiled in public controversy as the latest media darling, while even more threatening clouds begin to appear on the horizon.
While The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 takes the most liberties with its source material, I think it’s by far the most successful Frank Miller adaptation to date because it is true to Miller’s sensibilities instead of being beholden to his specific words and images. Every other screen adaptation of Miller’s work has, to some degree, treated the comic as a storyboard and attempted to get as much of his text on screen as possible, but this fealty to the original work often means the films are doing an imitation of the strengths of a comic book instead of working as a film. Frank Miller is a master of the comic book medium, but if his comics feel “cinematic” it is only a testament to his skill at making a two-dimensional print medium feel as visceral and as active as film. However, many of his best tricks are not available to film, and attempting to use his comics as storyboards is a fundamentally misguided exercise. Comics are not film, and trying a direct translation of the former to the latter often leads to stilted pacing and clumsy, ineffective cinema. For example, Miller and Alan Moore were the writers in the 1980’s who fully euthanized the thought balloon as a narrative device in comic books. While Moore eschewed them in favor of staging and comic book acting, Miller wrote caption boxes for running internal monologues instead of the clumsy exposition that thought balloons had often been used for. It was always disappointing to see adaptations of Miller’s work (including Batman Year One) using those caption boxes as voiceover narration, which is a cinematic counterpart to comics’ thought balloon. There are ways to use both thought balloons and voiceover narration effectively, but over-dependence on them seems to belie a lack of confidence in your tools to communicate the same information more effectively and less heavy-handedly. The Dark Knight Returns is the first Miller adaptation to eschew voiceover almost entirely in favor of restaging scenes, as well as rewriting dialogue or adding new material. This allows the film to communicate the same plot points and themes using the language of cinema rather than having a disembodied voice reading things to us.
In addition to exploiting the language of film over the language of comics, Bob Goodman’s screenplay and Jay Oliva’s direction edit and streamline the story for the screen. Unlike the adaptation of Batman Year One, a lot of material has been removed in the film version of The Dark Knight Returns. Unfortunately, this removes much of the texture and depth of the original book, but attempting to include it would have made the film entirely too unwieldy. A reader can take the time to peruse a page, and while Miller’s pages of tiny panels of talking heads is effective in a print medium, it would be death to a moving medium like film. This is something common to many page-to-screen adaptations, but that loss of texture in The Dark Knight Returns seems more keenly felt. I’m also not crazy about some of their choices in the Harvey Dent chapter, which seems to have cut and oversimplified a bit too much. A bank robbery becomes an exciting set piece but also unnecessary to the larger plot, and one line from the original that did much to humanize Batman has gone missing here. Even so, I can understand that the choices were made to keep the film from bogging down, and can’t think of many ways to do it otherwise without pushing the running time. In the case of the movie’s unforgettable closing image, I’d say the choice even does the comic one better, making the moment a subtle comment on media oversaturation.
As I’ve mentioned in other reviews of comic book adaptations, another cinematic tool that isn’t available to comics is voice and sound, and The Dark Knight Returns excels at utilizing these tools as well. As always, Andrea Romano has assembled a top-notch cast that brings the material to life wonderfully. Peter Weller settles into the role of Batman marvelously in an understated performance that lends the character the sense of weight and gravity required, amplifying up to underscore the moments when Batman’s temper rears. However, the movie is very nearly stolen by Ariel Winter’s performance as Carrie Kelley/Robin, despite her relative lack of screen time. Her bright reds and yellows stand in powerful contrast to the much more dour color palette surrounding her, and Winter’s lively, energetic reads are absolutely delightful. I also loved the parkour-inspired moves she flashes as she learns to navigate the urban landscape. There’s such a powerful, vibrant energy to the character that it suddenly makes sense why Batman would want a kid for a sidekick. I also got a kick out of the 80’s-inspired score that echoed the industrial soundtracks to movies like RoboCop and The Terminator.
Any remaining issues I may have with The Dark Knight Returns are fundamentally out of the filmmakers’ control. The influence of the original is so great that it has become a cliché by now, and the movie doesn’t quite achieve escape velocity from that. It’s almost impossible to overstate the concussive force that The Dark Knight Returns had on the public perception of Batman and of comic books in general, but its runaway success meant that the rebel became the establishment. By now, even the book has been drained of a non-trivial amount of its concussive force. As a derivative product by definition, the movie loses a bit more, and then more still because of the changes that remove so much of the texture that makes the book such a rewarding experience. The graphic novel was groundbreaking and mind-blowing; the movie is a very well-done but somewhat run-of-the-mill superhero story. In some ways, the loss of impact also reflects how the world seems to be turning itself into Frank Miller’s dystopia, such as with the entirely too vapid talking heads narrating the news, media over-obsessiveness, and “debates” where neither side bothers to acknowledge the other.
By now, it’s not a surprise that the Blu-ray of a DC direct-to-video animated movie is quite impressive. Even more dazzling than the a crystal clear video is the movie’s powerful 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack that seems to have a perpetual low-end rumble throughout, adding to the palpable sense of anxiety that pervades the movie until it explodes into action as Bruce Wayne dons cape and cowl again. It’s disappointing that there’s no commentary track, but there are a decent slate of bonus features included as well. In addition to the obligatory look ahead at Part 2, a second featurette focuses on Carrie Kelly/Robin. While I loved the character in the film more than in the comic, I’m not positive I’d fully get on board with the unanimous praise for how groundbreaking the character was considering that DC has failed utterly to capitalize on her trailblazing when it comes to female superheroes in general and female Robins in particular. The Bob Kane featurette from the Batman: Gotham Knight Blu-ray is recycled, though I admit I don’t mind that as much since I didn’t get it the first time it was released. The two-parts of Batman the Animated Series‘s “Two-Face” are the bonus episodes, and as before they don’t look terribly good in high-definition, nor does the digital comic excerpt from the original graphic novel. The combo pack also includes a DVD copy (which only includes the advance look at part 2) along with an UltraViolet digital copy.
I have to admit that it took multiple viewings before I really warmed to The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, and I still feel like I’m connecting with it in a more intellectual manner than an emotional one. Frank Miller excels at smacking emotional hot buttons in his work, with his absolute mastery of the medium being able to elicit specific and deliberate responses in the reader. Again, though, if the movie doesn’t quite reach those heights, it is working against a quarter-century of cumulative emotional build-up so perhaps the problem is less in the film and more in this viewer. Given the graphic novel’s reputation, the weight of expectations that the movie has to shoulder is overwhelming, so the fact that it can succeed at all is remarkable in itself. As I said before, I think this is the most successful Frank Miller adaptation to date, and while it isn’t as groundbreaking as the comic, it is an undeniably excellent film that leaves me eager to see how part 2 will play out.