If you’re a casual fan of comic books or even just a Batman lover, chances are at some point you stumbled onto Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 tale The Dark Knight Returns.
The importance of the book cannot be overstated. Along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it led to superhero tales being covered by publications like The New York Times and helped create the term “graphic novel.” It also changed Batman forever, dialing up the darkness and psychosis in the caped crusader that writers like Dennis O’Neil had explored before and pushing it farther than anyone has before or since. It launched a series of one-off Batman graphic novels that would quickly lead to classics like Arkham Asylum and The Killing Joke. Along with Miller’s follow up origin tale Year One, it led to the creation of the new Legends Of The Dark Knight monthly series for the character (which would be the eventual home of The Long Halloween). It sparked interest in Batman returning to the big screen and led to Tim Burton’s box office busting version. It helped make comic books a viable art form for adult readers. It’s the big tamale, the definitive and greatest Batman story in the eyes of generations of fans. For years we dreamed of getting to see it translated into animation or on film, with Miller’s creative paneling already influenced by cinematic editing techniques. Well…it finally happened and thankfully the good folks in DC’s animation department treated the material with the reverence it deserves. Year One was a nice piece of fan service from the company, but their version The Dark Knight Returns is something that fanboys could only dare to dream of before now.
This Batman is brutal and vicious, crippling a criminal and remarking to a cop, “He’s young. He’ll walk again, but he’ll stay scared.”If you’re unfamiliar with Miller’s book, you really should stop reading this article right now, go buy it and thank me later. If you’re too stubborn for that, here’s the skinny. Batman has been retired for ten years (sound familiar?). Crime has risen substantially in Gotham during his absence. An army of teenage mutants are threatening terrorist action. Batman must return. He does (see the title), yet something is different. This Batman is brutal and vicious, crippling a criminal and remarking to a cop, “He’s young. He’ll walk again, but he’ll stay scared.” The psychosis always suggested in the character seems to consume him. When he confronts a recently released Two-Face, he sees more of himself in the criminal more than ever before. As usual, it’s Robin who helps humanize him. This time she’s a teenage girl named Carrie who Batman saves and inspires to buy a cheap costume and dress up like everyone’s favorite sidekick. She saves Batman from certain death and he invites her to join the cause. Together they destroy the mutant leader and inspire the young followers to become crime fighters in the name of Batman. However, it’s not over yet. Just by returning, Batman has started something he can’t control. A former favourite foe hears about Batman’s fresh shenanigans and awakens from his self-imposed decade-long paralysis with a nice, big smile.
There’s more to the story of course, but that’s where this animated feature ends for now. When first announced, it seemed like splitting up The Dark Knight Returns into a two parts was a blatantly commercial decision designed to pull as much money away from Bat-fans as possible. Seeing the finished product, it’s clear there was no other choice. Condensing this story further would dilute its impact. Writer Bob Goodman and director Jay Oliva have clearly crafted the truest possible rendition of the book they could and the first half plays like the blast of hard boiled Batman entertainment we always dreamed of. While Year One felt a bit sluggish on the screen since it’s mostly a character piece and a Gordon story, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is a rip-roaring Batman epic. The 76 minutes fly buy with Miller’s set pieces faithfully stretched out into epic fights. The gorgeous animation (a perfect cross between Miller’s iconic designs and Bruce Timm’s DC animation house style) fluidly renders Batman as an attacker in the shadows and more blood is shed on screen than even in the original comics. Oliva is obviously a fan of the book and replicates many iconic frames (even the infamous lightening book cover from the first issue), while also transforming the story into the cinematic rhythms necessary for animation. The important action beats are hit, but transformed into something new and director paces the story like a bullet. This isn’t just a faithful adaptation, it’s a thrilling Batman mini-movie in its own right.
While Year One slavishly attempted to follow the book beat-by-beat, The Dark Knight Returns replicates about 90% of the material while changing it ever so slightly to work as a movie. Hinging the structure on the mutants was important to give this first chapter a solid throughline and it plays smoothly. All the important scenes are there, just not necessarily in the same order as the two adapted issues for the sake of flow. Not all of the changes are beneficial though. Batman’s voiceover has sadly been dropped entirely and while that undeniably allows the story to move at a faster clip, it also sacrifices much of the character’s inner psychosis that made the books so fascinating and dials back some of thematic resonance. It’s worth the sacrifice for the sake of entertainment, but does prevent the movie from being a perfect adaptation. At the same time all books have to be adapted when turned into movies because the mediums are different, so that was the right direction to go. It’s not as if Frank Miller’s writing was perfect to begin with and some of the problems from the book plague the movie as well. The mutants are a bit silly and dated to the 80s, as is their jive-talking futuristic dialogue. Likewise, while the new Robin was important to Miller’s ultimate goals for the book, she’s always been an annoying character and that doesn’t change here. These are ultimately quibbles, but do harm the movie ever so slightly.
Warner’s Blu-ray disc is quite nice, offering a clean image that allows the animation to shine and a booming soundmix that makes the experience truly cinematic. The special features are a bit of a letdown though. Other than a disposable new doc on the lady Robin and a preview for Part 2, there’s essentially nothing here about the making of the movie or the impact of Miller’s book. That’s a massive missed opportunity, but I’d imagine all that material is simply being saved for Part 2 (or more likely a box set). Still despite that disappointment, there are some nice goodies. There’s an interesting 40 minute documentary on Bob Kane (an odd inclusion since he had nothing to do with The Dark Knight Returns and it changes/comments on his character in ways he never intended) and the two-part Two Face origin story from the 90s Batman Animated Series that was one of the highlights of that run. So, while the special features selection might be far from perfect, at least there is some material there to keep fans happy.
The best thing that can be said about The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is that the second it’s over, you’ll be desperate to watch the concluding chapter. It might not be perfect, but it’s hard to imagine DC animation doing a much better adaptation. The tone and style are dead on. Peter Robocop Weller could not have been better as the aging Dark Knight. Director Jay Oliva and his animation team took what was on the page and recreated it faithfully, while also tweaking the material just enough to play as a full on animated movie rather than a glorified motion comic. This is without a doubt the best direct-to-DVD comic book adaptation that DC has been responsible for thus far and that’s exactly how it should be. Taking on a book as beloved as The Dark Knight Returns is no easy task for anyone (Miller himself dropped the ball in spectacular fashion in his sequel), but somehow they did it. If the second feature can live up to what’s accomplished here (and with one of the most psychotic renditions of the Joker and the ultimate Superman/Batman showdown still to come, it’s hard to imagine that won’t happen), the two-part super-movie is going to be cherished by Batman fans for years to come. This film could have so easily been a failed experiment. Instead, it’s something truly special. Bring on Part 2 DC, and please bring it to us as soon as humanly possible.