Blu-ray Review: BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS PT. 1 Avoids Some of the Traps of Adaptation
Among the comic-reading faithful who come to director Jay Oliva's animated adaptation of Frank Miller's character-defining miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, there will, I suspect, be two camps. There will be those who dig it as a more or less faithful retelling of Batman getting back in the saddle in his later years, and those who can't get past the fact that the narration is out. The latter, I suspect, are fans who are still cheesed off that we didn't get the squid in Watchmen, but what can you do?
Working from the 1986 four issue comic from DC, TDKR is ultimately the last Batman story, the one that at the time synthesized the bright, blue and grey vision of the character with the increasingly dark Dark Knight (it's of a piece with Miller's Batman: Year One, both titles providing points of inspiration for Nolan's takes on the character). This is Batman at his most troubled, his most dangerous, and planted firmly in the tough-talking, two-fisted pulp vernacular, while shifting the emphasis from Batman as detective to the Dark Knight as force of nature antihero/soldier in the war against crime.
Miller's collaboration with inker Klaus Janson (which gave the series its potent, jagged look) is adapted here in the DC Animated house style, even working in the palette of Lynne Varley's muted color scheme to give the retro-future vision of the 90s its ghoulish, depressed look.
And depressed it is: it's 10 years after Batman has hung up his cape, settling into middle age with booze and dangerous pursuits like auto racing just to keep his blood pumping. In Miller's version of future Gotham, crime has all but taken over as most of the costumed set on both sides have retired with even more vicious street gangs like the Mutants leaving the citizens feeling terrorized. In Miller's vision (well-handled, if softened a little here), the failing systems of government and law can't protect you: only a man with the will and purpose can do that. Not every citizen, not most, just the dedicated and dangerous few who represent some kind of natural law. Miller's politics would get even more stark and libertarian over the years, but TDKR is the most coherent and crystallized version of it.
Our Batman/Bruce is a chilly Peter Weller, playing the character as a broken down, taciturn soldier. While I would have loved to hear Weller work his way through Miller's gritty narration, what we get is a version of the character who's barely in control of his rage at a city that seems to be crumbling before his eyes. He only comes to life, only warms a little when able to dispense his own brand of vicious, bone-crunching violence on the young scum that have taken over. Weller is joined by Ariel Winter as Carrie Kelly/Robin, the Batman's new young ally in the war against crime. Her being inspired by Batman to don his former sidekick's costume is, in turn, what inspires Wayne to soldier on. Character actor David Selby fills out the primary cast as a worn-down Commissioner Gordon, close to retirement and for all that an even bigger target for the gangs that rule the streets.
So much of what makes TDKR work is that it gets the essence of the material without slavishness to it. Sure, we get the talking heads newscaster scenes (Miller was concerned with the entertainment brand of news) serving as a Greek chorus to the action, while the script allows us to get inside Batman's head and see the old warrior coming back to life. Some of the action worked a little better on the page, particularly some of the sequences where Batman stalks his criminal prey were made more tense and intimate within the tight confines of the panel.
It all builds to Batman's brutal confrontation with the pierced, buff leader of the Mutant gang and the promise of escalation. You'll note that this is the first part (it's right there in the title), with the second half of the story expected next year.
A lot of the features on the disc are historical in nature, breaking down the legacy of the source material in the broadest terms. Among those is "Her Name Is Carrie... Her Role Is Robin" (12:23) which is a discussion among the film's creators about the legacy of the Robin character and where Miller's take fits in. The mini-doc Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story (38.26) features a series of interviews with the creator of the Bat, along with archival footage and discussions with the people who knew how the character affected his life; a sneak peak at the second half of The Dark Knight Rises features rough footage from the back half, along with the creators discussing their vision for Superman and the knock-down, drag-out fight between the two superheroes. And as is becoming a regular thing with the DC Animated releases, the disc also includes two episodes of previous DC Animated titles, in this case the two-part "Two-Face" arc from Batman: The Animated Series. Finally, there's a digital comic excerpt from TDKR from the bank robbers' escape sequence. These never look good on a TV screen, but maybe they'll get some viewers hyped about buying digital comics, so there's that, at least.
The Dark Knight Returns Pt. 1 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD from Warner Brothers Home Video.