Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Society is in decay. All of the public institutions have failed, crime runs rampant, and everything has gone to hell. There’s only one man who can save us! And his name is (fill in the blank). That’s the basic plot of The Dark Knight Returns. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds as this is a review, not a term paper, and I know I’m going to get hate for this, but the story of The Dark Knight Returns just isn’t that compelling. Maybe it’s the 30 years of mostly grim, dark, ultra-violent Batmen that we’ve seen since the original story was published, but The Dark Knight Returns feels less like a major milestone in comic history and more like more of the same. I suppose that’s a fault in ourselves for demanding more of what we like rather than more of what might challenge us, but that still leaves us with assessing the most recent DTV animated version of the story.
Before any further dissection of the story, it has to be said that the package rates this movie as PG-13. It is not. It is in no way, shape, or form a PG-13 movie. This is an R-rated film, and a pretty hard one at that. The violence is brutal and extremely bloody. At one point the Joker has a batarang jammed into his eye, and we see all of it. How in the world could that be considered PG-13?
The Dark Knight Returns finds a retired, much older Bruce Wayne spending his days mostly in a Scotch bottle, watching his city/country slowly rot. He gave up being Batman as part of some kind of wholly unexplained amnesty program that he apparently entered into along with all of the other superheroes about 10 years past. Eventually, enough penetrates Bruce’s depression to bring Batman back to cleanse his city of everything he hates and clean up all the messes he left behind when he first retired. This includes his old nemeses Two-Face and the Joker. Because you just can’t have a Batman story without the Joker, right?
And that’s just part of Batman’s fight. There’s also the ineffectual power system of Gotham, represented mostly by the new police commissioner, Ellen Yindel. Commissioner Gordon, you ask? He retires/gets put out to pasture at the opening of the story. Yindel, and by extension the rest of the city government, seems more interested in eliminating Batman than in dealing with the city problems. And then there’s Superman. Where there’s Batman, there will be Superman. Must be some kind of cosmic law. There’s a new Robin, too: in fact, the first female Robin: a teenage girl named Carrie Kelley. There’s a lot of characters stuffed into the story, and that doesn’t even include the leader of the Mutant gang, a weird cameo appearance by Oliver Queen (the former Green Arrow), and…and..and…
For all of the bloat in characters and body count, the story just doesn’t have the weight it should. The relative flatness of the vocal performances certainly plays a role (with the notable exception of the Joker). I’m not sure what it is about the recent run of Warner Brothers’ DTV productions, but they seem to favor a very flat vocal style. Visually, the production varies from passable to really good. Granted, there was no way to translate Frank Miller’s particular visual style directly to animation, but what they came up with just isn’t very interesting. This also isn’t really full theatrical-grade animation, and outside of the fight scenes it’s rather stiff. When it does crank up for the fight scenes, it is really good: very fluid and very well story boarded. Non-fight scenes tend to be very static, and the art itself isn’t visually interesting enough to stand on it’s own. There are also a lot of interesting things going on here. Batman’s relationship with Jim Gordon gets some good exploration, as does what little is left of Bruce Wayne himself when he’s talking to Clark Kent. There’s also some really interesting/possibly icky exploration of the “relationship” between the Joker and Batman that is underdeveloped. However, the biggest weakness of The Dark Knight Returns is the story itself. It’s just not as good as it thinks it is.
*ducks from the verbal knives and rotten tomatoes*
Obviously, individual mileage and taste will vary, but the story contained here just isn’t that good. It’s certainly not bad, and it doesn’t help matters that every Batman production since The Dark Knight Returns has been picking off pieces of it. However, it’s really not as good as the hagiographers make it out to be. There’s really no life to this Batman, or any hope. This is a Batman that’s completely given up on ever being Bruce Wayne. It’s a Batman that has committed the cardinal sin that Paul Dini always warned against: a Batman who has given himself fully to the darkness and abandoned all pretenses of trying to be a person. The story also has several metric tons of hero worship of Batman and the Great Man principle in general. Only this one great man, greater than all of us, can possibly save us from ourselves. Even when he does wrong, he’s right. Even when he violates his own principles, he’s right. It’s an extremely uncritical look at the character even when the production is gussied up with a lot of “social commentary” that sounds more like the kind of stuff you’d see on a bumper sticker at a John Birch Society gathering. There’s also a particularly distasteful use of the mental health system. Obviously no one involved with the story has ever actually come into contact with the mental health system anywhere.
Aside from Batman himself, none of the other characters get much development at all. While having a female Robin is groundbreaking in theory, Carrie Kelley is an utter waste of a character. She quite literally does not exist outside of Batman. She’s a plot point, not a character. You could replace her with a fairly autonomous robot and it wouldn’t change one darn thing about the basic story or its emotional beats. And, once again, no one knows how to write a good Superman story. First we see him slice an aircraft carrier in half…with his EYES…and survive a fusion bomb blast, yet he can be easily get beat up by an old man in some nice-but-not-really-that-nice power armor? It’s a total misuse of the character, or a total cop-out by the producers, to have Clark purposely de-power himself because…reasons. Batman still has an aversion to guns, but there’s no way he didn’t slaughter dozens of not hundreds of people in this story, so the story’s possible point about sanctioned versus unsanctioned violence falls woefully short.
This movie was released before in two separate Blu-rays, but this release puts them together on one along with new bonuses that are worth the price of the disc. There’s a full length commentary featuring Voice Director Andrea Romano, Writer/Producer Bob Goodman and Director Jay Oliva. They get extremely deep into every angle of the production process, so if you’ve ever wanted to know how something like this comes together, it’s very much worth a listen. Another bonus takes a fascinating look at the life of Bob Kane, as well as several smaller features focused on the Joker, Superman, and Carrie Kelly. There’s also an extremely reverential documentary about Frank Miller and the production of the original comic which really should be better.
Before this review is done I also need to give a very hard rap on the knuckles to whoever designed the packaging. The Blu-Ray discs sit one on top of the other in the case rather than having the more normal swing holder, inviting you to break them while taking them out. The artwork on the case is also not very good since it looks nothing like what you see in the movie.
Obviously if you’re a fan of the original comic, or Frank Miller’s particularly jaundiced world view in general, you’ll like The Dark Knight Returns. Otherwise, this is about as satisfying as the last live-action Batman film.