In the early 1980’s, comics veteran Frank Miller penned what many critics claim is one of the greatest graphic stories ever. It was called THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and it told the story of an old and gray Bruce Wayne. He’d long ago given up being the Batman – not because of any one reason in particular, though there was an obvious combination of events that culminated in Wayne hanging up the cape – and the streets of Gotham City quickly regressed into lawlessness. Alleys once safe were now havens for murder, theft, and rape. Based on the title alone, the reader knew that it was only a matter of time before Wayne threw off whatever reservations he had about serving his cause. It was only a matter of circumstance before the Batmobile’s engines were fueled once more, and, then, the dark night would belong once more to the Dark Knight.
Warner Bros. recognized a good thing, and, based on the reaction to Miller’s work, studio executives immediately authorized creative folks to begin thinking about a Batman movie franchise – something that had long been in limbo – and … well, the rest really is history. 1989 saw Timothy Burton’s BATMAN movie, loosely playing in the same dark, gothic style introduced in Miller’s earlier work.
(NOTE: The following review may contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last paragraph for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few, modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
After vanquishing the Mutant Army (or did he?), Batman now only seeks to settle back into his role of dispensing justice to the streets of Gotham City, but a chance development on the global stage – a nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union – brings out the worst in an aging United States President. President Reagan orders Superman to take down the Dark Knight at whatever cost! Who will be the last man standing, and what will that mean to those left behind?
Frank Miller’s source material – the graphic THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – is a revered work, but, on some points, I diverge from considering it the ‘gospel’ most Bat fans do. It’s entirely a personal issue, but, when it impacts my enjoyment of either piece (the book or this animated adaptation), I think it worth mentioning. Politically, Miller chooses to display both America’s democracy and the Soviet’s communism as two different sides of the same coin: fascism. (Yes, this is my opinion, and I stand by it.) The island paradise of Corto Maltese is set as the fictional battleground for the two superpowers, and, despite what some would argue, I don’t think there’s a clear enough explanation. Granted, it’s heavily suggested to be some parallels between what happens there and what happened (in reality) with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but too much of this fictional history remains nebulous; the end result is that both countries appear to be engaged in military posturing, and neither side seems concerned about the greater world outside.
Miller – in the source material that influenced this adaptation’s script – plays fast and loose with even these nebulous facts, and even Superman appears reduced to little more than a President’s errand boy for the sake of the reader’s amusement. There are even suggestions that – to enforce his personal campaign of ridding the world of superheroes – Superman engaged in what could no less be considered torture. Given the fact that Miller chose (as did the animators) to represent the U.S. President as Ronald Reagan – and even a farcical Ronald Reagan, reduced to gaunt features so prominent that he appears skeletal in much the same way HBO’s ‘The Cryptkeeper’ did – it’s clear that these United States is no friend to the world. I think that’s a huge disservice to history.
Also, there’s a bit where Batman and Robin go riding out into the night to restore ‘law and order’ to the streets of Gotham City after the resulting electromagnetic pulse has disabled the electric grid. Chaos reigns as the ‘Sons of the Batman’ – the remnants of the Mutant Gang have now taken up policing the streets out of deference to the Bats – instills their own form of anarchy against the pillaging citizens. Once the Dark Knight gives the word, however, everything falls back to normalcy … and, sorry, Frank, but that’s not quite how Batman works. See, Batman was never truly about law and order. He was a character about justice. He came into being by virtue of wanting to right the wrongs he perceived, and the only way he found this possible was by operating outside the law. As much as it might rings true to one Bat-fan, these moments – both in the graphic novel and in the adaptation – ring false.
I realize that, against the scope of things, maybe I’m nitpicking, but it is my nit to pick, after all, and I stand by it. These complaints serve to cheapen the character and what he’s stood for historically. No, they don’t destroy the entirety of the work, but I don’t see them as serving any purpose so noble as Bruce Wayne or Batman did in their day. Take that for what it’s worth.
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (Part 2) is produced by Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment, and Warner Bros. Animation. DVD distribution is being handled through Warner Home Video. As for the technical specifications, it all looks and sounds exceptional.
RECOMMENDED. As I’ve tried to be clear, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (Part 2) is where I diverge with the more traditional Bat-fans, and I find much of Miller’s prose – and its obvious influence here – to be more than a bit stilted away from graphic storytelling into the arena of politicized speech. I have no problem with this adaptation, per se; I just wish certain elements could’ve been lessened, allowing the Bats to take center stage in this grand epic the way he should’ve. It’s a small gripe, but a real one, nonetheless. No doubt, most folks will enjoy this just fine. Me? I’m cut from a different cloth. I like to see all my heroes treated respectfully, and, yes, that means real-life heroes, too.
Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed mini-series/graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns” had arguably re-defined the Batman mythos. It was such a monumental undertaking that for its storyline to be adapted successfully, one would need to consider a number of certain variables. Producer Bruce Timm and Jay Oliva whetted my appetite with the first chapter (see my review of the first film by clicking here) of their adaptation a few months ago, that I could safely say that it may be … more