I will admit pleasant surprise that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 managed to meet and even exceed 25 years worth of built-up expectations, successfully adapting the first two issues of the powerfully influential graphic novel in arguably the most successful comic-to-movie translation from DC Animation to date. If anything, I think the second half of the tale is even more successful, bringing the story to its epic conclusion and, more interestingly, yielding new insights into events and story elements to the original work.
Despite his victories over Two-Face and the leader of the Mutant gang, Batman’s work in the Gotham City of the future has only begun as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 begins. His reappearance in Gotham and the resulting media saturation has caught the attention of powerful enemies. The Joker, Batman’s old nemesis, has awakened from a catatonic state at the Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled, and his smile hasn’t gotten any more comforting with time. Gotham’s new Police Commissioner, Ellen Yindel, replacing the retiring Jim Gordon, has none of her predecessor’s tolerance for costumed vigilantes, immediately issuing a warrant for Batman’s arrest as her first act as Commissioner. Finally, Batman’s actions have attracted the attention of no less than the President of the United States, who views the costumed crimefighter and his influence on the public with enough wary alarm to send in his most powerful asset: Superman himself, acting as a super-powered enforcer for the government against all threats foreign and domestic. Batman soon finds himself at the center of this three-pronged attack while the threat of war with the Soviet Union looms in the background, threatening everyone with total annihilation.
Like the first movie, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 makes a series of very smart choices to streamline and adapt Frank Miller’s complex, textured work to produce something filmable. I think the second half of the graphic novel lends itself to this streamlining a little more readily than the first half, since the themes and story elements are bigger and broader to begin with and because they can build on the texture and depth established in the first half. As a result, the omissions, changes, and additions to the story aren’t as noticeable as they were in the first movie, other than confounding the weight of expectations. It’s true that there are several favorite scenes and lines that don’t make it to the movie (“20 million die by fire … if I am weak” being an example that’s a personal favorite), but the choices in the adaptation ensure that the messages still come across even if the specific words and scenes don’t. Part 2 adapts a few internal monologues to dialogue, but is otherwise even more thorough in doing away with the caption boxes detailing the thoughts of characters. In some cases, the changes better the source material, such as in Batman’s climactic fight with Superman. While the pair seemed more evenly matched in the book, the fight is much more believably lop-sided in Superman’s favor in the movie, making the battle’s conclusion and aftermath even more credible.
I am also a little surprised at how the movie manages to make me look at specific scenes differently in the original graphic novel. The “butch” lesbian overtones to Ellen Yindel seem much more prominent in the movie than they ever did in the graphic novel (in part because the staging of the retirement dinner scene makes it clear that she’s wearing a tuxedo rather than more conventional female formal wear), but the movie finally got me to catch how her ambiguous sexuality is a sort of mirror to the charged homosexual overtones of the Joker. However, the movie also changed my sensibilities about the nature of the Joker in this piece and some of his more sexually charged comments. For years, I just accepted the common interpretation of implied homosexuality, but seeing it play out in motion and the vocal performance of Michael Emerson makes me re-think that view, turning the Joker into someone who is omnisexual, akin to David Bowie’s hermaphroditic rock star persona in the 80’s, and/or possibly even proto-sexual, like a child saying shocking things he doesn’t fully comprehend simply because he knows they’re shocking and will draw an outsized reaction.
There are other, smaller touches, too, like the way the Carrie Kelley Robin character clings to Batman in a pivotal scene the way a very young child clings to a parent, highlighting both the deeply traumatic experience she just went through and eliminating the usual accusations of improper relations between Batman and his Robins. The movie also spins Jim Gordon’s actions in a different way, making the influence Batman has on Gotham City in general and Gordon in particular more explicit. Finally, the movie version lends a different interpretation to a key scene where Superman seems to draw on the solar energy stored up in the plants of a forest; by removing the internal monologue of the book, I can finally read the scene as Superman’s natural recuperative powers kicking in as the forest around him is withering away from the sudden change in environmental conditions. The monologue is less a description of what’s happening as much as it’s how Superman is rationalizing what he sees to himself. I’d call Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 a success simply because all these things and more can make me see at the original work differently after a quarter-century of thinking I had it all figured out. On the flip side, it’s not all good, since some incidents (like the end of the encounter with Bruno at the start of the movie) suddenly don’t seem to make much sense any more, seeming more like beautifully staged distractions than key parts of the story.
The adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is probably the most cinematic of DC’s animated direct-to-video movies, simply because it seems to be taking a lot more of its stylistic and visual cues from live-action cinema rather than comic books and other animation. Director Jay Oliva and his team are also rather broad in their influences, with visible influences ranging from Stanley Kubrick to John Carpenter to Bruce Lee. As with the first movie, I don’t find that I totally agree with some of the voice acting choices but will also freely admit that my own expectations have as much to do with that as anything else. As much as I appreciate Conan O’Brien’s performance as talk show host Dave Endochrine and the in-joke of his casting, I’ve always heard the character as David Letterman so his scene still feels off to me even though there’s nothing overtly wrong with it. Peter Weller mostly does a fine job as the aging Batman, but there are a few moments where he doesn’t quite have the gravity as the voice I’ve been hearing in my head all these years while reading the graphic novel. On the other hand, Ariel Winter as Carrie Kelley/Robin, David Selby as Jim Gordon, Maria Canals-Barrera as Ellen Yindel, and especially Michael Emerson as the Joker are absolutely perfect, beautifully embodying their characters. Emerson’s performance especially is revelatory, bringing exactly the right depth and snark to this rendition of the Joker. The only disappointment is probably Mark Valley’s Superman, who turns in a decent performance but doesn’t manage to bring across the conflicted nature and nobility that I’d always envisioned. Again, this is less about Valley’s performance and more about my expectations for it, and I’m honestly not sure how well any of the other Superman voice actors I’ve liked would be able to do it either.
As with the first movie, the Blu-ray of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 does justice to the gripping and exciting animation, especially in the truly brutal action scenes sprinkled throughout. The DTS-HD soundtrack is excellent in moments loud and soft, adding some real rumble and shock to the moments that need it. This Blu-ray also has one of the best bonus features I’ve ever seen on any of these DC animated features in the half-hour “From Sketch to Screen” featurette, with director Jay Oliva talking through creative choices and behind-the-curtain anecdotes for several key scenes of the movie. For this movie especially, the absence of a commentary track is keenly felt, but this substantial featurette is a more than serviceable substitute. Two more featurettes focus on the Joker and then the Superman/Batman dichotomy, and like many of these featurettes I find they’re a little hit-or-miss. The stab that one contributor makes at comparing the Batman/Superman rivalry akin to Prometheus/Zeus struck me as completely preposterous even before that same contributor links the Joker to Prometheus in the other featurette. The usual three bonus TV episodes on this disc are “The Last Laugh” and “The Man Who Killed Batman” from Batman: The Animated Series and “Battle of the Superheroes!” from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. As on earlier Blu-rays, the more recent cartoons look much better than the older ones in high-definition, and I’m as surprised as any at the absence of “Legends of the Dark Knight” (with its earlier adaptation of a scene from The Dark Knight Returns). A preview for the next movie, Superman: Unbound is tucked in among the trailers, and I remain unimpressed at the Ultraviolet digital copy and the digital comic excerpt included in the package. Finally, the Blu-ray also includes a DVD copy of the movie, which contains no bonus features at all.
I will admit that I went into the first installment of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns with fairly low expectations, but that movie’s successes meant I went into the second installment with much more anticipation. It was quite heartening to see even those higher expectations largely met and exceeded in the second movie. It is now doubly true that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is the most successful Frank Miller adaptation to date because it captures his spirit rather than slavishly following his words and images. The movie is still definitely one that improves with repeated viewings (as with the first half, my initial viewing left me with a vague sense of disappointment that dissipated on the second one), and I still find that I connect more with the movie on an intellectual level than an emotional one. Even so, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns remains an impressive achievement for adapting such a challenging work to a new medium so successfully.