Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1

Ever since it debuted in 1986, some of us have been eagerly awaiting a film version of Frank Miller’s seminal comics series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Set in a hellish near-future where a 55-year-old Batman has been retired for ten years, the series redefined the character not only for its generation but for every generation thereafter. Taking Batman back to his grim, dark roots, Miller wiped away any traces of the campy ’60s TV show. Almost every Batman movie, from Tim Burton’s 1989 effort right up to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises last summer, found inspiration in Miller’s interpretation. It’s almost as if we’ve gotten a Dark Knight Returns adaptation piecemeal over the years; to cite just one example, an older and weaker Batman’s emerging from an eight-year retirement to blunder over-confidently into a fight with a physically more powerful foe in Dark Knight Rises comes right from the Miller playbook. So at this point, an actual adaptation seems redundant, and yet here we are with the first of a two-part animated take on Miller’s material (the DVD and Blu-ray hit stores next week; part 2 is promised next spring).

Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Bob Goodman stick very close to Miller’s narrative, in which Batman comes out of retirement first to deal with a resurgent Two-Face (plastic surgery to fix his acid-scarred face hasn’t helped his psyche), then to fight the gigantic, razor-toothed leader of the large and remorseless “Mutant Gang.” Miller’s series ran for four 48-page issues — the third and fourth issues pit Batman against the Joker and Superman, respectively — so this first half is essentially throat-clearing before the operatic finale. The pacing seems abrupt and rapid (the film crosses the finish line at just 77 minutes, including end credits), so that Batman’s conflict with Two-Face — which is supposed to emphasize that Batman can no more escape the demons that drive him than Two-Face can escape his own — seems like almost a prologue.

Whenever possible, the animators have stayed true to Miller’s sometimes idiosyncratic character design, though the figures in motion have an unavoidable rushed, Saturday-morning-cartoon cheesiness at times. The opening scene, which introduces Batman’s daytime persona Bruce Wayne in the middle of a stock-car race, doesn’t inspire confidence: the animators clearly saved money on the stiff movement of the cars. Elsewhere, more money and time obviously go into Batman’s various fight scenes, particularly his final showdown with the Mutant Leader. In general, though, Miller’s linework and compositions were so cinematic that they unfolded before our eyes as a breathless yet epic action movie, something the animation here can’t hope to duplicate.

The voicework is uneven; Peter Weller makes an imposing if monotonous Batman, while Ariel Winter adds some much-needed snark as Carrie Kelley, a bored teenage girl who becomes Batman’s new Robin. The filmmakers give Robin a much more active presence in this first half than she had in the corresponding Miller issues, and there’s even an added scene in which she saves a couple from a mugger. The other major female character is Ellen Yindel, who’s taking over the job of police commissioner from the retiring James Gordon. Carrie gets the importance of Batman, Yindel doesn’t, but she’ll learn.

Since the filmmakers also include all of the debate that raged around Batman in Miller’s story, it lays bare Miller’s mildly fascist leaning (for which some members of the comics press took him to task). Everyone pro-Batman is smart and brave, everyone anti-Batman weak and hypocritical; the film even includes the guy in the man-on-the-street interview who says we must be patient with criminals, then adds that of course he would never live in the city. For Miller, city life — constant co-existing with the violent underclass — equals a sort of bitter conservative pragmatism. In the comic, this could be enjoyed on the level of satiric caricature, and the different viewpoints could be argued, but in the movie a pro-Batman commentator’s views are toned down to be less offensive (“Hope he goes after the homos next” becomes “Hope he goes after my landlord next”). Miller at least acknowledged that some people could support Batman for the wrong reasons.

The comic could be admired as one medium striving to be another — a summer-blockbuster thriller (something like Nolan’s films). The film reduces the comic to, well, a cartoon. Yet I’m interested in what they do with the second half, which is even darker and more ambiguous in its politics. Maybe they’ll stick the landing, but they’re off to a bumpy start.

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