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 …)
Bruce Wayne has grown old. Batman has retired. It’s been ten years since the Bat has been on the streets, dispensing whatever form of justice he deemed necessary, and Gotham City has suffered because of it. On the verge of his retirement, Commissioner Gordon faces a new threat – a crazy army of street toughs calling themselves ‘The Mutants’ want the policeman’s head on a silver platter – and only the return of the cape and the cowl can bring about an end to the madness. But … what will Batman’s return mean for the city-at-large?
For the record, I’ve been reading Batman comics since the early 70’s – yes, kiddies, I’m that old – but I was never that huge a fan of Miller’s tale. I thought it was inspired. I thought it was ground-breaking. I even thought it was a tale worth telling. But Miller had incorporated some artistic and political messaging throughout much of TDKR’s that just didn’t tickle my fancy. I much preferred the first half of his epic – the one detailing Wayne’s more personal discover that he couldn’t sit by and watch himself and Gotham decay any longer – as opposed to the second half, which dipped into heavy political allegory.
Thus, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (Part 1) is just what the doctor ordered. It explores exactly those elements that rung my bell back in the 80’s when I first read the story. It’s an excessively faithful adaptation, even incorporating Miller’s ongoing ‘talking heads’ storytelling of having news anchors, pundits, and pop culture psychologists sounding off on the state of affairs – the story within the story. These are high personal stakes – ones that pit Wayne against himself as much as they do any physical adversary – and that’s why the reward is so great. Plus, there’s an underlying element – a wonderful hint at things-to-come – because everyone knows that the Batman’s return will prompt a parade of the lunatic criminal element to follow suit.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how stunning the voice work was in Part 1. Peter Weller (of ROBOCOP fame) does a masterful job balancing out Bruce Wayne and Batman; he sounds perfect in the part, bringing with it the stellar mix of wisdom and enthusiasm one can imagine the playboy millionaire might possess at this ripe age. And I was surprised how much I quickly took to ABC TV’s MODERN FAMILY star, Ariel Winter, as Carrie Kelley, the next incarnation to don the suit of Robin, the Boy (now ‘girl’) Wonder. There’s a delightful blend of youthful ignorance back up by just the right smidgen of contemporary snarkyness to pull it off, and Ms. Winter deserves accolades.
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (Part 1) 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.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. It’s a direct-to-DVD-DC-movie, and, so far as this reviewer is concerned, their track record is solid enough to make this worth a single view. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (Part 1) is the best part of Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. It’s a smart adaptation – faithful as it could be – and it shows how one could easily imagine an aging Bruce Wayne refusing to accept anything less from himself, the Batman, and Gotham City. Plus, the vocal talents are some great, inspired choices, giving these characters the needed dimension to bring animation to life. Beware the Bat, indeed … especially when he gets older.
When Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed “Batman Year One” saw a direct to video movie adaptation, fans knew that a movie adaptation of Miller‘s much hailed “The Dark Knight Returns” graphic novel was indeed coming. After all, “Year One” was Batman’s Alpha, and so a story can never be complete without an Omega. Warner Bros. animation is the one studio with the right stuff to bring the celebrated graphic novel come alive into the screen, and I … more