The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1
While this summer produced two of the biggest superhero flicks in the history of film—“The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises”—Warner Brothers Animation continued work on the DC Universe Original Movies by producing its fifteenth direct-to-DVD film: “The Dark Knight Returns Part 1.”
That’s right, “Part 1.”
Some of you might be thinking that Warner Brothers is just trying to garner some additional profits by splitting the story into two halves, and for those of you who have never actually read the Frank Miller 1986 comic book series which the film is based on, drop this article right now and go pick up a copy. I have one on campus if you really can’t find it anywhere else. It’s a masterpiece, and there’s absolutely no way you could cram the entire story into a single animated film.
“The Dark Knight Returns Part 1” joins the canon of four other Batman-related films produced within the DC Universe Original Movies: “Under the Red Hood,” “Gotham Knight,” and “Year One.” Aside from other Batman animated films like “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” the best Batman movie outside of Nolan’s trilogy, or the fantastic “Return of the Joker” based within the “Batman Beyond” universe, “The Dark Knight Returns Part 1” is probably ranked right after “Under the Red Hood” as the best animated film in this collection. However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best possible adaptation of the four-issue series.
Noted as part of the source material for Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” much of the story will sound familiar to fans of the live-action films. Batman hasn’t been sighted in 10 years, and crime in Gotham is now worse than ever. People have lost faith in the city, and an aging Bruce Wayne can’t hold back the urge to don the cape and cowl any more once Harvey Dent, seemingly cured after his face is surgically repaired, runs amok. The casting of Peter Weller (known for the RoboCop films) as Bruce Wayne is not as strong as Kevin Conroy was in “Batman: The Animated Series,” but he still does a damn fine job as a weary Wayne returning to the only thing that ever gave him purpose in life.
On the other hand, James Gordon, as voiced by David Selby, was just a poor casting decision. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but Selby just doesn’t work as the tough-as-nails Gordon that Miller wrote in the original comic. His voice seems like a detachment from his persona, and it becomes distracting throughout. Ariel Winter as Carrie Kelley/Robin is a difficult subject to discuss. When giving Carrie a voice and persona on screen, it becomes more difficult to connect with her as much as I did when reading the comic series. She just might not be as translatable, but perhaps that will all change in “Part 2.”
Another point of criticism regards the Mutants. The gang that has overrun the streets of Gotham carries with them a very unique vocabulary that the filmmakers chose to make more stylized and trite than it feels in Miller’s comic. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this decision, but during a scene when a couple of these Mutants kidnap a child, their diction becomes clean and their language ordinary. I suppose not all Mutants are the same per se, but the film does lack consistency in certain places, and this is something which merits pointing out, especially in the film adaptation of one of the most important Batman storylines of all time.
There are also many redeeming qualities to the film. The score by Christopher Drake knocks every other animated Batman score out of the water and actually gives Hans Zimmer a run for his money. Drake uses analog synthesizers that give the film a nice 80s vibe much appreciated by this writer and only begins to add brass orchestral instruments after Batman returns to the city in a more traditional heroic score. The main theme of the film is iconic and dynamic, exactly what is needed for the final chapter of Batman’s story. The two fights between Batman and the Mutant Leader deserve praise as well. These scenes are extremely significant moments in the film, and it’s apparent that the filmmakers took great care to craft each one with the proper tone and pacing.
“The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1” is a genuinely good adaptation that will surely have you drooling during a few key moments. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go beyond the source material to create new life and take risks, which does make it falter at times. Still, when “Part 2” is released this winter, it should hopefully prove to be a strong finale to the first half of an amazing Batman story. At the end of “Part 1,” Joker (Michael Emerson of “Lost” fame) is teased in a great cliffhanger that will pit two aging arch-nemeses against one another for a final fight. What could possibly be more tantalizing than that?