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Non-Review Review: The Dark Knight Returns, Part II

To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

The Dark Knight Returns is pretty much the classic Batman story, even more than Year One from the same author. It’s the story which – for better or worse – defined a lot of what we take for granted about Batman as a character today. So it makes sense that there would be an animated adaptation. And I respect the decision to split the story across two seventy-odd minute instalments, creating a two-part movie which still runs significantly shorter than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

Adapting Miller’s story from print was always going to be a tough proposition. After all, Miller’s comic isn’t just one of the defining Batman stories, it’s a turning point in mainstream comics. Transferring it from its home medium was always going to be tough. Still, the production team working on The Dark Knight Returns, Part II acquit themselves well in offering a satisfying take on a classic tale.

It's the Batman!

It’s the Batman!

Some of the problems from the first part of the animated adaptation carry over. For one thing, there’s still a bit of a question over what to do with Miller’s prose. Miller’s hard-boiled dialogue doesn’t always translate successfully to film, as we saw in Batman: Year One. However, as we discovered in The Dark Knight Returns, Part I, leaving it out tends to leave chunks of Miller’s vision off the table. It’s not an easy choice to make.

The Dark Knight Returns, Part II manages a little better than either of the two previous Frank Miller adaptations. It realises the voice-overs narrating Miller’s inner monologue seem a little forced, but also that Miller’s tone is a vital part of what makes the story such a classic. So we get the occasional attempt to incorporate Miller’s trademark prose into the dialogue.

The last laugh?

The last laugh?

So, for example, while we don’t hear Jim Gordon’s tortured inner contemplations as Gotham goes to hell, the script makes sure to suggest them ahead of time. Speaking at a police dinner, he observes, “Any time I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, I think of Sarah… and the rest is easy.” It’s not the most elegant way of incorporating the quote, and it loses some of it poignancy when divorced from the original context, but it also underscores the character’s basic humanity. It still serves its purpose.

Admittedly, this is less of a problem here than in the first part. The split between the two animated adaptations is reflected in the comic. The first two chapters of Miller’s four-part epic are mostly introverted and exist to probe Batman as a character. When Two-Face appears, he is used more as a mirror than a character in his own right. (He doesn’t even retain his iconic appearance.) So it’s these two chapters which suffer most from the trims to Miller’s prose.

And there... is the Batman...

And there… is the Batman…

In contrast, the third and fourth chapters of Miller’s comic are much more action- and spectacle-orientated. They reintroduce both the Joker and Superman, who are really the two most iconic characters in the story outside of Batman himself. There’s a lot of political commentary and character work, but the story is much more driven by the events unfolding. As The Dark Knight Returns, Part II covers these two chapters, it suffers a lot less from the occasional absence of Miller’s prose.

In fact, director Jay Oliva and writer Bob Goodman take advantage of the extra space afforded by the two-movie structure. We get a more thorough exploration of what life in Gotham means, and the workings of various characters. For example, we get a bit more of Batman’s latest sidekick, Carrie Kelley. We get to spend a bit more time with Michael Emerson’s Joker, which is definitely a good thing. We also get some lingering moments with Alfred at the climax of the story, which underscores just how deeply he has failed Thomas and Martha.

Miller's story still packs a punch...

Miller’s story still packs a punch…

However, there are some questionable choices made. For one thing, the film does give us a bit more of Commissioner Yindel, but it chooses to simplify her character somewhat. Instead of presenting Yindel as a by-the-book cop with her own misgivings about what Batman represents in Gotham (citizens at the climax refer to his “Sons of Batman” as a personal “gestapo”), the film suggests that Yindel herself is reckless and dangerous.

She goes from being a neutral observer with legitimate concerns about Bruce’s questionable methods to an out-and-out psychopath. When Bruce pauses, surrounded by armed police officers, Yindel unholsters her own gun and starts shooting. This sparks a crossfire which wounds several officers. Her fixation on capturing Batman explicitly suggests that she is wilfully blind to the Joker’s carnage in the television studio below. Stalking a crowded fairground for the fugitive, she orders her officers, “If it isn’t a cop, shoot it.”

Arrow: Season 43...

Arrow: Season 43…

Miller eventually had the character concede that Batman had a role to play in Gotham, but this only occurred when she completely lost her objectivity. While Miller’s Yindel was arrogant and obsessive, she never seemed borderline psychotic. Her refusal to listen to Jim Gordon hardly made her an appealing character, but her observations were legitimate. It feels like The Dark Knight Returns, Part II over-simplifies her character in order to make Bruce seem more heroic and sympathetic.

That said, I do like the decision to stage Batman’s improvised use of a firearm in his escape from the fairground. Miller never really called Batman out on his use of a machine gun in The Dark Knight Returns, but the film positions Batman’s use of pistol here close to his lecture about how guns are “the weapon of the enemy.” It seems like a nice shout-out to the opening scene of Rebirth, where Bruce Timm speculated that any time Batman was desperate enough to use a gun would be a time where Bruce was very compromised.

Suit up...

Suit up…

Peter Weller is quite comfortable in the role of this older and more dangerous version of Bruce Wayne. He lends the character a grizzly quality, a sense that he’s enjoying all this far too much. The supporting cast for the film is as solid as usual. Andrea Romano does her usual wonderful job recruiting fantastic ensembles for these animated adventures. Casting Conan O’Brien as Frank Miller’s jab at David Letterman is a particular inspired touch.

Michael Emerson’s Joker is the real highlight here. The Joker can be a tough character to voice, as he has been so skilfully defined by Mark Hamill for so very long. Emerson wisely avoids attempting to emulate any of the notable actors who have put their stamp on the Joker over the past few decades. Instead, he plays to the material. Miller’s Joker tends to render the homoerotic subtext of the Batman-Joker dynamic overt, and Emerson clearly relishes playing the Joker as something of a jilted lover.

Subtle.

Subtle.

Again, the script has room to flesh out Miller’s interpretation of the character, but it’s Emerson who defines this version of Batman’s most iconic adversary. “It’s finally here isn’t it?” he asks, excitedly. “The moment we’ve both dreamed about?” Emerson hams it up beautifully, offering a version of the Joker who is very clearly planning one last bravo performance, taking his last shot at the limelight before it all fades. There’s an incredibly creepy amount of pride in the way that Emerson intones, “I made you lose control…” It’s a fantastic interpretation of a classic character, and Emerson manages to offer us a Joker unlike any we’ve seen on-screen before.

Oliva and Goodman continue to do a nice job balancing the commentary of Miller’s original story. The Dark Knight Returns is undeniably a story for the eighties, anchored in that particular time. In a way, it creates the same challenge that Zack Snyder faced in directing Watchmen, in that you are adapting a story which is part of a moment which passed long ago. Oliva and Goodman make the safest (and probably best) choice here. They don’t update the material. Reagan is still President. The Soviet Union still exists. The fear of nuclear winter still looms over Gotham.

Let's put a smile... on that face...

Let’s put a smile… on that face…

I respect that here, much as I respected the decision to keep the original setting of Watchmen. I acknowledge that it’s probably going to make the film slightly less accessible to casual viewers, but it’s very hard to imagine updating the story in a way that wouldn’t feel cheesy and exploitative. Besides, despite these trappings, the themes of Miller’s story resonate as well as they ever did. American foreign policy is still a heated political issue, and the argument over where the responsibility to protect a given community lies (and who holds the authority to enforce their ideals) remains potent.

Interestingly, there’s still something quite modern about The Dark Knight Returns, Part II, despite the presence of Ronald Reagan. In terms of style and atmosphere, the film takes quite a lot from Christopher Nolan’s work. That seems quite reasonable, seen as The Dark Knight Returns informs quite a lot of Nolan’s Batman work. It feels like things have come a full circle, where an adaptation of the most iconic Batman story ever told borrows heavily from one of the most popular interpretations of the character ever, which had itself been greatly informed by that comic.

I knew they'd grow old together...

I knew they’d grow old together…

Oliva and Goodman do a nice job blending Miller’s pitch black humour with Nolan’s wry approach to levity. When Robin instructs the Bat-copter’s voice-activated computer to set itself to “auto-pilot: property damage”, it’s hard not to remember the way that Nolan’s Batmobile switched from “loiter” to “intimidate” at the start of The Dark Knight. Christopher Drake’s score for the film seems heavily influenced by Hans Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan – although as much by Inception as any of the Batman films.

The most striking similarities, however, are structural. Oliva and Goodman adapt the ending of Frank Miller’s iconic tale in such a way that it can’t help but evoke the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Miller’s story also ended with Bruce faking his death and a new version of Batman coming to life. However, there’s something about the way that Oliva and Goodman frame the sequence at Bruce’s grave and the trip underground which compares more to John Blake’s first journey into the Batcave. It’s probably the way that the film uses the Batcave coming to live as a visual metaphor for Batman’s ability to endure.

All the old familiar places...

All the old familiar places…

The Dark Knight Returns, Part II is actually strikingly violent. There’s a surprising amount of blood on display – something I found quite interesting for a PG-13 film. If this is possible on a direct-to-video film, I find it fascinating that Warner Brothers baulked at Bruce Timm’s proposed adaptation of The Killing Joke. I find it hard to believe that any rendering of Alan Moore’s definitive Joker story could seem as unnerving as the Joker’s mass-murder of a television studio audience here, right down to his brutal dispatching of his own doctor and the audience clawing at the door so frantically that they leave bloodstains.

I’m not really criticising the violence on display here. I’ve never had a problem with films portraying blood or brutality – indeed, I’ve always found it strange that it’s somehow more acceptable to show gratuitous violence without any consequences than it is to show the effect of such brutality. I just find it interesting that the studio or the ratings board would find anything more objectionable in The Killing Joke than they did here. Then again, the only real difference would be that the imagery might be slightly sexual in The Killing Joke, which raises all manner of interesting double-standards.

Shocking behaviour...

Shocking behaviour…

Still, this probably isn’t the place for such discussions. The animation here is top-notch. The DC animated movies continue to improve from each release to the next, and Oliva knows how to direct a cartoon action sequence. While I’m sure that many fans are still eagerly anticipating a live-action adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns some day, this two-part animated take on the tale is more than satisfying enough.

The Dark Knight Returns, Parts I & II feels like an epic Batman story. Even if it can’t quite measure up to Miller’s original story, it still stands as a worthy and compelling Batman adaptation. It’s a wonderful demonstration of just how fascinating Miller’s exploration of the Caped Crusader was, and just how much of it still resonates with the character today.

5 Responses

  1. I loved this two-parter. And the voice work, especially by Peter Weller, superb.

  2. Great films 😀

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