Frank Miller’s original series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was plenty violent, but it was also strangely bloodless. There was a bit of bloodshed, but mostly the wounds and gashes were sanitized, as they probably had to be back in 1986 in a medium still widely considered kiddie stuff. The second part of DC’s animated adaptation of the series, however, is decidedly not for kids. It’s rated PG-13, as was its predecessor, but it’s full of gore and pain and trauma. (It also has a streak of hope, and faith in the social contract reasserting itself in times of crisis, that the young and cynical Miller possibly couldn’t quite bring himself to emphasize too much.) The final showdown between the aged Batman and the knife-wielding Joker (who doesn’t seem to have lost a step despite having been locked away for a decade) is thick with splatter and agony in a way Miller’s linework wasn’t.
I razzed Part 1 a bit for feeling rushed and anticlimactic, but Part 2 delivers the goods. It picks up directly where Part 1 left off, so you need to have seen the previous 77 minutes before sitting down for this one (or have the Miller comics committed to memory, as I do); there’s no “Previously, in…” stuff. Batman is still a fugitive, chased by new Gotham police commissioner Ellen Yindel and shadowed by Superman, who’s been reduced to being government muscle — we see ol’ Supes fighting in a skirmish the U.S. is involved in, casually killing hundreds of Russian soldiers. This annoys the USSR, which fires a nuke and causes a nationwide blackout. Miller anticipated not only the chaos of Katrina but the community spirit in the wake of Sandy, and the adaptation leans a little more towards the latter (though I’m sure Part 2 was in the can before Sandy struck).
It all leads to the big face-off between Batman and Superman, and the adaptation expands on the battle considerably, as though the animators couldn’t resist pulling out all the stops (Batman using barrels on the ends of his arms to batter Superman, for instance). What this approach gains in kick-ass energy, it loses a little in the sad gravitas Miller brought to the fight; the original half-a-page image of Batman punching Superman (seen below) is rightly iconic, and on the page you can linger over it and feel its power, but as animation it flashes by in a second. In terms of plot, the adaptation is mostly faithful, right down to the guest appearance by a one-armed Oliver Queen (aka Green Arrow), who helps Batman at a crucial moment with kryptonite-tipped arrows. Oliver is an old-school government-hating lefty who throws in with libertarian Batman against thoughtlessly fascist Superman.
The politics are a little weird (that was a feature of a lot of ’80s escapism, as in Rambo and Red Dawn); the story yearns for manly, incorruptible authority to challenge weak, corrupt authority. On the other hand, Miller welcomed the shift of power from male to female, as witness the newly female Robin and the noble if misguided Yindel. The Joker seems to have a gay thing for Batman, though, like Javier Bardem stroking 007 in Skyfall, Joker might only be playing that up in order to bug his adversary. Then there’s Bruno, a pre-op, post-op, or possibly non-op transgendered thief working for the Joker; she packs a big gun and has swastikas tattooed on her large silicon breasts where her nipples should be. I should remind you, this is rated PG-13.
A sequence in which the Joker massacres a theater full of people (at The David Endochrine Show, with the Letterman stand-in voiced, in a witty bit of casting, by Conan O’Brien) may pull some viewers up short post-Aurora. Later, when the Joker is loose at a carnival, he doesn’t get to kill a bunch of kids in the adaptation as he did in the comics, a mercy for which post-Newtown viewers may be grateful. Miller anticipated a lot of national traumas (a plane hitting a building in the wake of the nuclear blackout chillingly prefigures 9/11), and in the DVD’s extra feature some of the adaptation’s makers correctly describe the epic story as “heavy.” This second part does pack on the darkness and grotesqueries in a way that feels more, well, Milleresque than the first part did.
In the end, taken together, you have a 153-minute version of what many consider the ultimate Batman tale. It neither improves on nor disgraces what Miller achieved; it is, I suppose, a workable supplement, and by the very nature of its source it’s probably the wildest, messiest Batman story yet to be told in the animated medium — at least until someone gets around to Miller’s All-Star Batman & Robin, which is a whole other kettle of crazy fish.