Guest Blogger Jason Lapidus on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2

‘Batman fanatic’?  That would suggest that if a product contains Batman, I’m a fan.  Far from it, in fact.  I’m more like… um… a ‘Batmanologist’.

Too long had he tried to restrain himself within the shackles of apathy and alcohol.  Too long had the people been without their hero.  After a ten-year exile, Batman finally burst through the smog and filth, defeating the gang that ruled Gotham, and humiliating their leader.  Now that the city is reclaimed, all that stands in his way are his deadliest enemy and his most powerful ally.

Today, the culmination of the dreams of countless Batman fans comes to fruition with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 on DVD, BluRay and digital download.  The first of two instalments impressed fans last fall (see review here), leaving most excited about the emotional and action-packed conclusion.  This direct to video animated feature is based on the highly acclaimed and much beloved limited series turned graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), by writer/penciler Frank Miller (Sin City, 300, Batman: Year One), inker Klaus Janson, and painter Lynn Varley.

Ten years after the last sighting of the famous crime-fighter/vigilante known as The Batman, the rise of a violent gang forces his return to Gotham City.  TDKR Part 2 follows the media’s heated debate, the return of a rejuvenated Joker, and the inevitable confrontation with Superman, who now quietly acts on behalf of the United States government.  The story is filled with Batman staples, like Robin, Alfred, Gordon, colourful villains, the cave, the car, cool equipment, cool fights, and a cool climax.

imageEvery interpretation since Miller’s Bat-opus owes its dark tone to ‘Dark Knight’, including Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).  In an interview with comedian/podcast host Marc Maron, Batman actor Michael Keaton recounts how the eccentric director handed him a copy of the graphic novel and explained how that was the was Batman he wanted to do (**Please note that Burton’s Batman only bares a superficial resemblance to Miller’s Dark Knight, including the dark non-camp tone and the final confrontation with the Joker, and is by no account an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns**).  The Miller-influenced modern Batman character continued to increase exposure to an entire generation through the various animated series that followed, as well the massively successful Dark Knight Trilogy from Christopher Nolan, which also took meaningful cues from Miller’s Batman: Year One story.  Without Miller’s contributions, the way that Batman is currently understood would be very different, and likely, not as relevant.

As director, Jay Oliva (TDKR Pt. 1, Young Justice) deserves a somewhat different assignment of credit: he is provided with a rich storyboard from the original comic book and is basically tasked with not messing it up.  He is able to add depth and fluidity where needed, but the bulk of the essential creative work was handed to him through the source material.  That being said, Oliva does not mess it up.  In fact, because of the viewing experience the punches hit harder, the bullets shoot faster, and the pain caused by Batman… hurts.

Like the first installment, Peter Weller’s performance as Batman/Bruce Wayne is on target, but misses the depth during his louder and more emotional moments (see previous review). Although Ariel Winter (Modern Family) works well as Robin/Carrie Kelley, other supporting characters, like Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) and Superman (Mark Valley) seem like victims of circumstance because DC’s animated world has been lovingly filled with iconic voice performances in the past.  No performance takes away from the viewing experience in the slightest, but they often don’t add much either.

All that being said, the casting of Michael Emerson (Person of Interest) as the Joker sparked a great deal of enthusiasm from fans, as Emerson was previously able to deliver a highly intelligent and creepy villain on ABC’s Lost as the ever-scheming Ben Linus.  Even though it would have been preferable to hear a voice performance laced with a lifetime of abusive cigarette smoking, thus matching the character’s image, the Joker was delivered as a threatening bringer of death and chaos and a worthy adversary for the authoritarian Batman.

I dropped by Toronto’s Silver Snail, the unofficial centre of the local fanboy universe and struck up a casual conversation with owner George Zotti.  Upon reflection of Part 1, he pointed out that the movie lacked the level of grittiness and overall use of black found in the pages of the graphic novel.  Both parts showcase animation that looks smooth on the screen, and we can appreciate the clarity and definition, yet much of the grittiness found in the book was emphasized by Klaus Janson, who added his characteristically sketchy and organic inks to Frank Miller’s original pencils. The somewhat unpolished look suits the narrative so well and is missing in the animated adaptation, but its absence does not detract from the overall experience.

The power of Miller’s characterization comes through as clearly as ever and I am consistently reminded as to why The Dark Knight Returns is the most compelling Batman narrative of all time.  Miller’s visual instincts translate to screen just the way every gushing reader imagined.  Scenes that burst off the page and came to life are now validated with each passing scene in the movie.  The cast and crew should be proud of their contribution to the Batman mythos, bringing to life the crown jewel of modern super-anti-hero stories.

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