Exclusive Review – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1

BBP contributor and Batman fanatic Jason Lapidus (aka ohthree) was kind enough to drop by with an exclusive early review of The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1. Take it away, Jason!

 “This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle — broken, spent, unable to move. And were I an older man, I surely would… But I’m a man of thirty — of twenty again. The rain on my chest is a baptism — I’m born again… I smell their fear — and it is sweet.” 

Twenty again?  More like fourteen, actually.  I first read those words the night my parents took me to see Batman in 1989.  I stopped by the merchandise stand before the movie started and bought my first copy of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  I was introduced to the most influential interpretation of the character since his inception in 1939, and I was so lost in those words and images that I didn’t want to put the book down once the lights dimmed.  Since then, I have wanted to see an animated adaptation of the story more than any other before it or since.

For sale on Tuesday September 25th, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 tells of an aged Bruce Wayne and his inability to resist the pull to resume his war on crime after ten years of retirement in a Gotham City overrun by a hyper-violent street gang.  Directed by Jay Oliva, the direct to home video release stars Peter Weller (Robocop) in the title role, David Selby (Falcon Crest) as the seventy-five year-old Commissioner Gordon, and Ariel Winter (‘Alex’ on Modern Family) as Carrie Kelly/Robin.

This particular movie is difficult to view without considering its powerful connections to other Batman texts, such as the source material from 1986, or the recently completed Dark Knight Trilogy from writer/director Christopher Nolan.  I would like to simply review this seventy-six-minute animated feature as if it existed in a Bat-bubble, but how can we not compare it with its source material or with ‘Rises’?  ‘Part 1’ is a very faithful adaptation of the source and, in contrast to ‘Rises’, it is not devalued after multiple viewings because of plot holes or other short-comings.  Miller worked out a more direct narrative that would have been adjusted by screenwriters if need be.  It’s been just over twenty-five years since the graphic novel was published and creative minds have had decades to contemplate the strengths and weaknesses before rushing out a movie.

Most of what Miller drew in the graphic novel makes its way on to the screen in the movie.  Those pages were clearly and lovingly used as storyboard inspiration to a greater degree than what has been produced so far by DC Entertainment’s previous adaptations, like Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) or All-Star Superman (2011).  The character models are close to Miller’s work, but with the consistency of a major animation studio and production company.  The action scenes are strong, with the highlight being Batman’s showdown with the gang leader at the dump.  Where Miller provided an explosive fight, the animated adaptation is longer, more detailed, adrenaline-filled, and more satisfying on a primal level.

Gravitas and roughness are in abundance from voice actor Peter Weller.  Although he plays the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman straightforward, it feels as if more depth could have brought to the delivery of some of the dialogue.  Weller suits the tone of the movie perfectly, but comes across as a little wooden and demonstrates a singular direction, where an experienced Bruce/Batman would express layers and layers of thoughts and emotions through tone, pace, timbre, and breath.

The pace is built beautifully, with additional dialogue where it is needed for a good translation from the book.  The impact of the more powerful scenes is effectively adapted to the small screen, almost as if the animated medium is the original and natural method to deliver a Batman story.  Although I did miss the internal monologue famously featured in the graphic novel, I was able to supplement my viewing experience by memory.  A secondary audio track featuring additional narration would be a very cool bonus for fans.  Even though Part 1 is clearly an incomplete tale, the original narrative lends itself beautifully to being cut neatly in half.  Batman’s initial conflict is resolved yet the seeds of tension are well in place for the larger second movie.

This movie is pretty much what I wanted to see since 23 years ago.  The action, the seriousness, the intensity – it’s all there.  Looking at Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm, Batman: Under the Red Hood, Batman: Year One, and now ‘Returns’, one could make a strong case that the medium best suited to tell powerful Bat-narratives is actually animation; it features the strength of comic book creativity mixed with the viewing experience of a live-action movie.

While Part 2 comes out early next year, I am confident that the viewing experience will bring me right back to my youth and remind me what made me love that version of the character.  That young man in me, like Batman, feels somewhat reborn.

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