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.
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.
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’?
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.