It’s been many long and painful months since DC Animation unleashed the first chapter in their epic adaptation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.
It was an undeniably impressive accomplishment that stuck unfathomably close to the original text with only minor changes to suit the animated feature format (primarily dropping Miller’s acidic voiceover, which worked surprisingly well). The adaptation played like a giddy fever dream for anyone who viewed Miller’s 1986 graphic novel as a sacred text. We’d always fantasized of seeing it as a film and while studio politics, PG-13 ratings, and bad taste prevented a live action adaptation from being a possibility, DC’s direct-to-DVD animation studio proved to be an ideal home. For about a decade now the company has been adapting famous DC runs into animated features with a team led by Brue Timm (who has headed up all of DC’s animated work since Batman: The Animated Series). Still, it’s one thing to unleash Doomsday onto an unsuspecting animated marketplace, but Frank Miller’s bloody, nihilistic, and distinctly adult Dark Knight Returns is a whole other story. Thankfully, the folks behind the production clearly have as much reverence for the source material as the fans and now in all of its glory comes The Dark Knight Returns Part 2. Though they play reasonably well as two episodes, the only way to really judge them is as a collective whole and now that both the pieces are in place, the good news is that this is probably the finest adaptation we could ever hope for.
If you’ve never read the book before you should really go and do that immediately because you’re missing out on a masterpiece. However, for the sake of review convention let’s get into summary territory. In the last chapter an elderly (but still hard-as-nails) Batman came out of retirement once Gotham was overrun by a gang of murderous mutants. He fought Two-Face and found a new teen girl Robin, but the harder Gotham bred a harder Batman. He seemed more vicious than before, breaking backs and drawing blood in his crime-fighting. The mutants were stopped, but a new gang of supporters for the new violent Batman popped up without his instigation and soon the new police commissioner decided it was time to target Batman to the full extent of the law. That’s where Part 2 picks up and it does so with the introduction of The Joker. Without a Batman to fight, Joker was essentially comatose over the last few years, speaking for the first time only when he sees his old buddy on TV. The Joker talks his celebrity psychiatrist into going on a late night talk show and then uses the opportunity to kill the entire crowd. From there, he goes on a psychotic killing spree in a fairground, blindly shooting anyone in his path. Batman then battles his way through the cops to fight Joker, and breaks his neck. The Joker laughs (obviously) and before finishing the job himself, tells Batman that his plan was to force the Dark Knight into killing him to make ol’ Bats enemy no. 1 for Gotham’s finest. It works and Superman must be called in to stop him. You see, the government made a deal with all the superheroes to stop their vigilante ways, keeping only Superman to use as a war deterrent. Superman takes a break from fighting off the Russian army and is asked by Ronald Reagan (yep, the book was written in the 80s, folks) to stop Batman himself. That’s right. Superman Vs. Batman. That’s where this was all going.
The first thing that has to be acknowledged about director Jay Oliva’s animated adaptation is that it friggin’ moves. Frank Miller’s writing style is always action first and by this point in the graphic novel, the story essentially rockets from one climax to the next. While Oliva follows the plot beats of the books to the letter, where he gets to let loose is in the action scenes. On the page, the fight between Superman and Batman is only a few pages long and feels dramatic primarily because of the players involved. In the movie, it’s an epic fight that flings the icons through buildings and around the city in a way that will have fans cheering. Likewise the Joker’s fairground killing spree has been expanded, with the finale taking place in the tunnel of love to further emphasize the creepy love story between the two characters from Miller’s book. The additions never distract or detract, instead helping to bring the material to life in animated form like all good adaptations. The art style is again an oddly perfect mix between the 90s animated series, Miller’s art in the book, and anime. The quality of the animation itself has got to be the finest of any DC-direct-to-DVD feature. It might not quite have the polish of a big screen feature, but comes damn close in a handful of stunning set pieces. The cast are again excellent. Peter Robocop Weller was an ideal choice for the grizzled old Batman and all the actors from part one return just as strong this time. The big new addition is Michael Emerson ( Lost) as the Joker and while anyone other than Mark Hamill tends to feel underwhelming in comparison, he was a good choice. This Joker is more subdued and effeminate than the one we’re used to and his love of the Bats is made explicit. Emerson slowly winds up his Joker and when he finally unleashes the insanity, he nails the clown prince of crime in a perfectly twisted representation of the character.
What’s most exciting about DC Animation’s The Dark Knight Returns is that the virtues of the movie and the virtues of the original comic book. This is where Batman’s psychosis was finally taken seriously and few have done it as well since. This Batman is unhinged and vengeful, but with a peculiar sense of justice all his own. This Joker is a psychotic madman who can only exist in a world with his arch-nemesis and no other opponent will do (there’s a reason why the characters’ two climatic battles take place in a hall of mirrors and a tunnel of love). The twist of using Superman’s good all-American boy image as a symbol for American imperialism is brilliant and actually adds some complexity to the fairly white bread character. Few stories have said so much about these characters and yet done it with so much action. None of Miller’s hyper violence is toned down and while it’s not exactly a hard-R action flick, this is easily the bloodiest and most mature product DC animation has ever put out and you have to applaud them for going that far. Everyone involved clearly understood and loved what made the book a classic and they’ve done everything they can translate the experience into motion as closely as possible. Would it have been nice for there to be voice over? Sure, since that material digs deeper into Batman’s psyche, but at the same time it’s worth the loss for the thundering narrative momentum this 2-part movie achieves (complete with non-stop pulsing score a la Christopher Nolan/Hans Zimmer). Put both parts together and you’ve got a far more entertaining 3-hour Batman tale than The Dark Knight Rises, and I’m even a fan of that film.
The movie arrives on Blu-ray with an impressively cinematic transfer/sound mix that will give your system a far better workout than most direct-to-DVD products. The special features are also far more plentiful than Part 1. You’ll get a fascinating 45 minute chat with director Jay Oliva about the challenges of adapting and expanding the book to animation (he points out a few nice additions he tossed in that I never noticed, like staging Batman’s “death” on the same street where his parents were shot). Next up are short featurettes on The Joker and Batman Vs. Superman that delve into their histories in the comics with a focus on Miller’s seminal work. Sadly Miller isn’t involved again (even though Grant Morrison is…wtf?!), I’ve got the feeing that he either wasn’t getting a percentage of the profits or they’re saving his contributions for a special edition re-release. Either way, it’s a bit of a bummer as it would have been great to hear his thoughts on the book, its legacy, and this adaptation. Finally you get three classic episode of Batman animation from the DC vaults to fill out the set. There’s the Joker’s first appearance The Last Laugh from the 90s Animated Series that’s actually more of an average ep, then there’s The Man Who Killed Batman which is easily one of Paul Dini’s finest scripts and a must watch, and finally they’ve tossed in a Batman Brave And The Bold episode where Sups and Bats fight that’s good stuff if you like the campy tone of that show. All three were obviously chosen because they relate in some way to the plot of DKR P2 and are all fun additions.
“On the page the fight between Superman and Batman is only a few pages long and dramatic mostly because of the players involved. In the movie, it’s an epic fight that flings the icons through buildings and around the city in a way that will have fans cheering.” Even though this is a stacked set, I’ve got a feeling there will be another special edition box set with both parts released later on and as much as I hate double-dipping, they earned it with this remarkable adaptation. DC Animation just hit a new high and while they’re understandably sliding away from the Dark Knight for their next production, I hope this trend continues. DC had to start with Miller’s books for these animated films because they are the best ever written, but now that we have stellar animated films of Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, I want more. There are so many great books to choose from like The Long Halloween, Arkham Asylum,Hush, A Death In The Family, and of course, The Killing Joke (which Mark Hamill has promised to come out of retirement to record…hope you’re listening DC!). If they can do Miller this well, then the door is open for so many other stories. Make it happen DC. You just raised the bar for your animated features. Don’t let it drop now.