Film Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

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Had I been asked, I would’ve put Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns at the very top of a list of comics that could never be effectively adapted into another medium.

Yes, even above Watchmen or Sandman.

The biggest reason had nothing to do with the story, per se, but Miller’s literal artistic vision.  One of the most exciting things about comic books is seeing the entire world reimagined through the lens of a particular artist’s sensibilities.  Some artists play it safe and ground themselves in a sense of photorealism.

Others allow for high degrees of expressionism, bending reality itself with a pencil point and ink brush.  Which Miller, along with Klaus Janson’s idiosyncratic embellishments and finishes, did so expertly in The Dark Knight Returns.  This wasn’t just Batman and his associated elements interpreted in a slightly different way: Miller created and then populated a self-contained near-future Gotham City that was unlike any version we’d seen in the past.

The unique atmosphere of his story was given physical form.  What would have been long descriptive passages in a prose tale were transmuted into lines, shapes, and symbols, engaging both halves of your brain simultaneously.

dark knight returns dc animation review public domain blog comics superheroes

And you can’t just take this particular story — no matter how faithful you are to the original graphic novel in following the narrative — and plop in flesh-and-blood actors.  No living, breathing actor can really embody Miller’s hulking, exaggerated Bruce Wayne, or the future punk Mutant gang and their grotesque, unnamed leader, just to name a few.

You might as well take Watchmen or Sandman and have them performed by a cast of costume-wearing waterfowl.

Animation, really, was the only way to go in adapting The Dark Knight Returns, and Warner Bros., thankfully, was wise enough to realize it.  You can argue just how successful Zack Synder was with his Watchmen film, but no one was ever going to get Dark Knight to work in live-action, no matter how much CGI magic you threw at it.

That realization, however, is only half the battle.

 TDKR isn’t just a Batman story set in the day after tomorrow.  It’s one that, like Watchmen, is linked inextricably to cues and themes of an earlier, bygone era.  The world of The Dark Knight Returns is the future as seen from a distinctive mid-1980s context.  You can’t update or alter the distinctive the Cold War plot elements without causing the climax to unravel, or without missing on Miller’s colorful commentary of the times, right down to caricatures of real-life personalities such as Ronald Reagan and David Letterman.

Looking at it from that standpoint, of all the things a film adaptation of TDKR would have to be, regardless of what marketing might like to tweak to make it more accessible to wider audience, it’s even more impressive that we got a near-unabridged, combined two-and-a-half-hour epic that does the revered source material plenty of justice.

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Most of my complaints are minor and, I admit, very much fannish nit-picky in nature.  While Peter Weller ( the actor behind two other nerd icons, Buckaroo freakin’ Banzai and Robocop) gave a good vocalization of Wayne / Batman, I think someone with a little more gravel in his throat would’ve been more appropriate for the role.

To make up for that, though, Lost‘s Michael Emerson brought in a brilliant turn on the Joker.

Let’s face it, after Mark Hamill’s long and amazing run with voicing the Clown Prince of Crime, anyone who has to come in and try to fill those shoes is going to come up a little short.  But TDKR‘s Joker is a very different character and requires a bit less over-the-top and a lot more subtlety, which Emerson captures perfectly in an eerily understated, make-your-skin-crawl performance.  Weller didn’t quite match the voice I ‘heard’ in my head for Wayne / Batman during my countless re-readings of TDKR over the years, but Emerson nailed Joker perfectly.

The real star here, however, was the art design and direction, which lifted Miller’s character design and imagery directly off the page and puts it in motion on the screen.  This approach, of taking an artist’s specific style and animating it, is something that seems like a no-brainer, but rarely seems to be done.  You’ve already got the perfect model sheets in form of piles of polybagged comics, why settle for a generic ‘house style’?

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My only disappointment in this area was that the color palette of the film wasn’t a little more subdued at times to match colorist Lynn Varley’s amazing print work, which perfectly complemented Miller and Janson.  But, as I said, minor points.

Nearly every scene from the graphic novel is present, including a few that I was almost certain wouldn’t make the cut, or at least not without some heavy editing: for those familiar with the GN, let’s just say that yes, Bruno is here in all his / her swastika-ed glory.  I was also surprised the see the Reagan caricature President of the United States present and accounted for, and in an inspired bit of ironic casting, Letterman stand-in David Endocrine is voiced by rival late nighter Conan O’Brien.

One thing where I did feel the film fell short was omitting the first-person narration.  Some of the elements of the print narration were worked into the film’s dialogue, but having access to Bruce’s running inner monologue adds a strong flavor to the story, and a few scenes suffer for the lack of it.  Particularly when you-know-who takes on the Coldbringer in the latter half of the story: I’m not sure that without Bruce explaining what was going on that scene made sense to an audience unfamiliar with the source material, as it may have came off a little too vague.

Still, Warners and everyone involved with this production should get a standing ovation for really going the extra mile and making this film a real labor of love.

It doesn’t excuse you from actually reading the graphic novel, if you haven’t done so already (hence trying to stay as clear of spoilers as I could) but if you’re a fan, it is nice to unclench that sphincter a little and be able to enjoy something for what it is: a fantastic attempt at adapting a seminal comics work to another medium with a scant few could’ve-been-betters instead of a whole litany of missed opportunities and disappointments.

— mal

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Indestructible Hulk #1    Avengers Arena #1 & 2  Punisher War Zone #1

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16 Comments

  1. thanx for sharing the review. 🙂

  2. nice review! makes me wanna read the graphic novel versions 😀

    • Thanks! Absolutely, grab the graphic novel if you haven’t done so. The film is good and a faithful adaptation, but the original still has plenty of subtle nuances that didn’t find their way into the film. I make it a ritual of sorts to re-read both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen every year, and I always seem to catch something in both that I didn’t notice before.

  3. Great breakdown, I have not seen this yet but it is on my short list.

    • Thanks. I waited until the second half was released, and I’m glad Warners saw fit to do it that way . . . I guess the reasoning was that each of the direct-to-video original animation projects only have a certain budget, so they chose to split it into two volumes in order to have enough running time to do the project right.

  4. The graphic novel was an innovation in the comics form not unlike Watchmen. It used a lot of artistic pastiche and went beyond the genre box of the time. It is more than I can say for its sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, however. As for the animated film, I have not seen it yet, but it does look interesting. I think the key thing to consider is how innovations in the comics medium are difficult to translate into other media. And I don’t mind seeing an adaptation just as long as there is something new to look at: a whole other perspective that matches its new strain as part of this other medium: like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust illustrated novel and film for instance.

  5. Good review. And excellent observation in regards to the Mark Hamill Joker. I love Hamill’s interpretation of Joker. It seems to me that Emerson’s Joker reads a bit gay. That said, I think he presented a Joker that fit the feel of the graphic novel/film.

    On a different note, it seems to me that too many Joker storylines–in the comics, cartoons, films, etc–revolve too heavily around Joker and his use of the television. Joker is always on the tv. Think of the second episode (I think) of Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) where he highjacks a television station and broadcasts his misdeeds; I think there is another BTAS with the smiling fish that involves using the tv; the Heath Ledger Joker uses the television to spread his message; in TDKR he obviously makes his move during a television broadcast. There are countless other examples, but I won’t litter the comment section with them.

    Nevertheless, good review of TDKR. Keep up the great work.

    • Sorry about the delay in response, and thank you for the compliments!

      You’re right about the Joker in TDKR, Miller did go for a more androgynous vibe. Emerson did a great job keeping him more droll and understated than Hamill’s more crazed, over-the-top take — which fits most incarnations of the character.

      I think the TV element is pretty prevalent with Joker for a reason: he’s a showman. He’s not just trying to kill Batman, but make a grand event of crossing swords with him. In a sense, the Joker ‘wins’ every battle between them because he does these things, causes chaos and leaves a trail of innocent bodies behind, and he know that when Batman catches up with him, all Bats is going to do is drag him back to the asylum until he can escape and do it again.

      Repeatedly going against Batman is really the only reason for his existence, so he wants spectators and an audience. He’s a psychopath who engages in criminal activity to further his mania; keeping on the downlow and just getting away with something and not having people know he was the culprit isn’t his deal.

      • I agree with everything you’ve stated about the Joker as a character. You did a sound job of capturing the Joker’s overall essence. Is that the right word? That said, it just gets redundant to rely on the ol’ let’s-have-Joker-hijack-a-television-studio plot line. It comes across as redundant to this reader. I mean, he’s a cool character that is ripe for countless stories and (mis)adventures. This television/Joker connection seems to be more prevalent in the 90s-to the present Batman comics/cartoons/movies.

        I think it was Mike Gold, former(?) editor of DC comics, that said it best, and I’m paraphrasing, The Joker obviously hates Batman, but Batman is not the Joker’s only reason for living, killing, and creating havoc. It’s the simple fact that the Joker enjoys evil because evil is just as messed up as he is. Again, this is a rough paraphrase. In other words, the Joker doesn’t need a television audience to be fulfilled.

        The Joker is most effective and interesting when he is doing really evil shit. I’m sure you’ll agree that “The Killing Joker” is one of the greatest Joker-centered story. We love that book because he is absolutely mad and evil, even if there isn’t a camera around.

        There’s so much to do with the Joker. Again, I haven’t read every appearance of the Joker, so forgive me for my ignorance, but what if a writer focused on a more psychological view of the Clown Prince? How about a story line where we get to see Joker eating, interacting with other A. Asylum patients, talking to a psychiatrist, etc. I think this would be really interesting. I mean, have you ever thought about the Joker eating? How does he eat? What does he eat? Does he shake salt and/or pepper on his meals? I know that sounds horribly goofy, but these types of mundane activities can give us a deeper look at his character.

        It’s kinda like the Paul Dini redo of Mr. Freeze he did for B:TAS and that Mr. Freeze comic book mini-series Dini used to further develop Mr. Freeze’s origin. We got to see Mr. Freeze in a very humanistic light. We actually felt sorry for him. Can a writer make us feel sorry for the Joker? I don’t know.

        Putting the Joker on television all the time is similar to keeping Spawn in the alley. I stopped reading Spawn decades ago, so maybe the writers finally sent him to Mars, or somewhere more interesting than an alley.

        Anyway, cheers to you. Thanks for the thoughtful response to my previous comments. Hope you don’t mind me filling up your comment section with my Joker observations. I’d like to think my comments are relevant to your film review. Keeping reading your comics!

  6. I don’t know anything about the comic book world, so I’m going to sound dumb when I ask this. 😉 So, this was a comic that was made into a movie? And what kind of movie was it (because I saw the word ” voice” under each actor’s name on IMDB)?

    • You never sound dumb when you’re asking a question, not in my book, anyway.

      Yes, it was a *very* famous comic that was released in 1986, and pretty widely regarded as one of the best comics ever made, period, and probably the most famous individual Batman story.

      It was created with the premise of what if there was a final Batman story that didn’t have to be continued, where characters could die, and it was set in a near future, a decade after Batman retired, so this Batman is much older and has to struggle with the physical aspects of being perhaps ‘too old’ to do the things he normally does. (Writer and artist Frank Miller has said he came up the idea partly when he turned 30 and he realized he was ‘older’ than Batman is usually portrayed, as perpetually in his late 20s.)

      It caught on, even with the general public, who really weren’t aware that Batman comics weren’t as corny as the old 1960s TV show. (This was before the modern live-action films kind of broke that stereotype.) Watchmen was also released that year and like Dark Knight, had much more violence and adult subject matter than most superhero comics — and both stories had a definitive ending, so they were literally graphic novels.

      This film is a very faithful animated adaptation, down to using the same distinctive art and visual style as the artist of the comic, of the four-part comic story.

      • Very cool. I might have to watch that someday.

  7. This that good, huh?

    Might just have to check it out, then. Between the Arkham games and Nolan movies, I’m getting a little dark Batman’d out, but if it’s really this high quality I might make an exception.

    Oh, and also your link on the front page to the “Avengers Arena #1” review just goes to the image. Might wanna fix that.

    • I was shocked that they kept certain sequences in — namely the Bruno one where Bats is dressed as a bag lady in the liquor store. That would’ve been one of the first things I assumed would be verboten (pun intended).

      I liked it because I’ve been trying to get my girlfriend to read DKR for a while and she didn’t really get into Miller’s art, but she really liked the story of the film once she got past that.

      To me, that’s where both Marvel and DC need to go with their straight-to-video animation — just flat out adapt particular stories right down to mimicking the style of the original comics artist that worked on them. I watched Superman Vs. The Elite the other day, and while the story was interesting, the animation / art style was too middle of the road and bleh.

      Thanks for the heads-up on the link problem.

      • Wow, I’m genuinely surprised they left that in, especially given the PG-13 rating (more the fact that parents are gonna be way more lenient with that than the fact that they managed to get it in there).

        And I’d debate the “flat out adapt” thing as an absolute. It seems to have worked pretty well here, but then I’d miss out on the joy of explaining the absurdity that is Jason’s comic book resurrection to my friend who saw “Under the Red Hood.”


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