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 one of the most successful animated adaptations of an actual comic book storyline. Everyone should take note here on out, (and Bruce Timm should keep it up), that an adaptation of a major comic book/graphic novel need not be changed for anything, and that such adaptations should not be limited to a mere 70-90 minutes.
Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” had been adapted into two chapters totaling over two and half hours. Where part one ended with the end of the mutant criminal gang, part two begins with the Batman (Peter Weller) with a new Robin by his side in the person of Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter) as he had finally reclaimed Gotham. Having even also inspired a new “sons of Batman” group, much to the dismay of new police commissioner Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals Barrera) that she had issued an arrest warrant for him. Batman’s re-emergence has also led to the return of his long-time nemesis, the Joker (Michael Emerson). The clown prince of crime intends to take down the Batman with a diabolical scheme that would end their war. To make matters worst, the media and public opinion are at odds more than ever with the need for a masked vigilante, that the government itself, also under fire due to the cold war, is about to send its greatest weapon, Superman (Mark Valley) to neutralize this problem. Bruce Wayne must call on some old allies in order to fight off this new enemy…or is it an old, dearest friend?
Director Jay Oliva had already set the groundwork, the tempo and the mood with the first chapter, all that is left is to wrap things up and make sure part two concludes with an epic resolution to Frank Miller’s comic book saga. He makes no attempts in making major changes, and with this, the end product is just exceptional. True, Oliva and screen writer Bob Goodman made some minor deviations to the source material for pacing and editing purposes, but never have a seen an animated film truly capture the essence of the source material. Yes, I missed the inner monologue that gave Miller’s storyline a noirish, moody and dark atmosphere that made it come alive, but I have to admit, this was as good as adaptations can go. The narrative was kept fully intact that I was certainly very pleased to see just how faithful this animated film was.
The moral stances of vigilantism, does a masked vigilante do more harm than good? If so, has the world stooped to being such a hellhole that only someone who does not answer to anyone could stand up for what is right? This is all about the Batman and what he stands for, and they all lead up to several climactic encounters. All the major themes of Miller’s creation are intact; public opinion of such actions, a possible nuclear annihilation, the how and why people become so divided that they become blinded when the truth is in front of them, and of course, the end game between two men of different principles, the Dark Knight clashes with the Man of Steel. Goodman preserves the original flow of its source material, and he hits the film's messages home without being preachy.
Of course, any comic book adaptations should have several shots that emulate the comic book panel to animated screen shot and this second part has plenty to spare; Superman‘s iconic pose, the nuclear winter and the final scene with Batman and Joker--they just looked as if ‘ripped from the comic book‘. I did miss the news reels of “faster than a speeding bullet”, “more powerful than a locomotive” while Big Blue went to do his ‘thing’. I guess if the film had made a minor mistake, is that it did not strongly resonate several things such as how “Superman is top secret” and how things have indeed changed in this world during the Reagan administration and the cold war. Miller had some very powerful yet subtle touches that Goodman just couldn't properly express through his script, but they were minor details that I chose to ignore, as long as the main core of its premise was intact. Oliver Queen (Robin Atkin Downes) and Selina Kyle (Tress MacNeille) made very significant appearances to add dramatic impact while Jim Meskimen plays the president who has the best ‘interests’ of a country in mind. It is all about ‘public opinion’ and how such things can often contradict what is right, as with Miller’s writing, Goodman and Oliva does manage to give us a peek as to how super-heroes could be seen in the real world.
“The Dark Knight Returns” (both chapters) may arguably have the best animation work that the Warner bros. animation studios had ever done. The Character designs mimicked the look and feel of Miller’s work, as it took the viewer in a wild ride of this Gotham city. It was fast, fierce and intense as you could certainly feel each explosion, fights and fall have emotional content to make an exclamation point in its narrative. I loved the way that the movie showed Batman’s physical ‘aged’ condition, as he sometimes looked sluggish and slow, and yet he always maintained that spirit which made him become Gotham’s savior. The characters also breathe and this gives them a feeling of solidity. The animation may be simple, but its rendition was complex as it manages each frame, motion and even color to convey the mood and emotions of each scene.
This film also takes the ‘PG-13’ rating to its limits as it gave all the violence and brutality it could muster. The suspense and intensity never lost a step and the fights were bloody and brutal as Batman took on the Joker. I have to say, it never relented on delivering the insanity and the homicidal tendencies of the Joker, it bordered on disturbing, as he ran around an amusement with a sharp batarang on one eye while he shoots down whomever he saw. The battle with the Big Red ‘S’ and Bats felt a little longer than what was in the comic series, but it just made it even more significant to the drama which was unraveling before my eyes. I may even say that “The Dark Knight Returns” would not be a film meant to be seen by kids as the themes, and the violence may never truly be understood by an innocent mind.
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”, parts one and two are animated masterpieces that I could name them as two (one as a whole) of the essential films about the Dark Knight. It even challenges “Mask of the Phantasm’s” claim to the throne as the best Batman movie but since that was an original creation, while this was a direct adaptation, it may win by a quarter of a point. As a two-part animated movie-experiment, I would say Bruce Timm and company had succeeded in bringing Miller’s acclaimed series to life. And I am not a fan of Bruce Timm, that is until now. I hope Timm continues such adaptations and I would be eager to collect such superb animated movies.
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. … more