Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Cinema File #88: "The Dark Knight Returns" Double Review

I think at this point its impossible to view the latest animated Batman double feature based on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns without comparing it to the most recent Christopher Nolan film that wrapped up his take on the same character. Without the miniseries that this two part release was based on, it can be argued that the character of Batman would not have had the resurgence in popularity that eventually led to a successful career in movies, nor would any subsequent movies have been quite so committed to the darker, serious tone the latest Batman trilogy is so well known for. At the same time, the themes of The Dark Knight Returns, for the most part expertly realized in these two new films, demonstrate in no uncertain terms everything that is wrong with the Nolan interpretation and practically provides a blueprint for how that series should have played out.

The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of an elderly Bruce Wayne coming out of a mostly forced retirement to once again become the savior of his city in a time when the people have all but forgotten how to stand up for themselves since he's been gone, only to find that this new world may no longer have room for his particular brand of vigilante justice. Frank Miller has had a somewhat storied history with Batman of late, and one need look no further than the frankly terrible sequel to The Dark Knight Returns to see just how far he's come from the days when no one seemed to know the character better, but while he is now mocked for his take on "the goddamned Batman," there is no denying the pitch perfect presentation on display in this original story, which Bruce Timm and co have adapted with more reverence and fealty to the source material than I thought possible at the outset. Call it sacrilage if you like, but as far as futuristic depictions of Gotham go, I'm more partial to Batman Beyond myself, but in light of that series its fitting that the architects of the DC Animated Universe were the ones to bring this story to the screen, even if, like all these straight to DVD releases from this company, it serves as a reminder that we're probably not going to get a continuation of that canon anytime soon.

Speaking of Batman Beyond, one of my favorite moments in that series is actually representative of what I think The Dark Knight Returns articulates so well, and where The Dark Knight Rises failed in understanding its main character. It was an episode where the elderly Bruce Wayne was made to think he was going insane, hearing his own voice in his head, only by the end, this voice was revealed to be a sound controlling supervillain. We find out in the last few minutes that the way he knew the voice was a fake is that it called him Bruce, and he never calls himself that in his head. The essential point of this character is that Batman is not a mask that Bruce Wayne wears to fight crime; Bruce Wayne is a mask that Batman wears when he's not fighting crime. The idea that Bruce Wayne could give up the cowl and live happily ever after is antithetical to everything that makes Batman who he is. Anyone who read The Dark Knight Returns before seeing Nolan's last Batman film knew this, and this new adaptation cements this complicated psychological dichotomy more completely than any other depiction of the character outside of the comics seen up to this point.

It seems like I'm talking a lot about the comic these films were based on and not so much about the two part movie itself, and the reason is that there's not that much I can really say about it beyond noting it as perhaps the best possible take on this story that I can conceive of being produced. I was surprised by how far it went both in terms of preserving the story beats of the original source material and in maintaining the level of violence and mature subject matter. It's not the first time this series of straight to DVD DC movies has pushed the limit on content for what many would still consider family entertainment; I'm reminded of the vicious beating scene in Under The Red Hood or the chaotic climax of Superman Vs. The Elite, but it certainly goes farther than any of them have gone previously in order to stay true to the book. Not only that, but many elements now clearly anachronistic are kept largely intact, including Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union, and a distinctly 80's feel to much of the design and fashion. I gather this might take some who never read the original story out of the movie a bit, but for a fan like me, I appreciated the effort.

Its not completely flawless of course, not that I would expect it to be. The melding of Frank Miller's unique artistic style with the simple and streamlined DCAU look doesn't always mesh well, and removes alot of the grittiness present in the book, and the focus on media that was so crucial to the original narrative is downplayed and does not always translate in the movie version. Also, I was surprised by how ultimately underwhelmed I was by the voice acting. Its not that any of them were bad by any means, but when I heard that Peter Weller and Michael Emmerson were brought on board to play Batman and the Joker respectively, I was excited, and I don't quite know if either of them really fit as well as others might have. The only one that I felt really fit perfectly was Mark Valley as Superman, who I hadn't really given much thought to going in. Then again, this is most likely my own personal bias taking over, as to me, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill own these roles more throughly than anyone else, so I was bound to be disappointed with anyone taking them up.

Yes, they even do the freaking pose.

The Dark Knight Returns Parts One and Two are a must see for any fan of Batman, comicbook movies in general, or just any lover of epic high concept drama. If you liked any of the Batman movies, either Burton's, Nolan's, or even Schumacher's, this is the Batman movie that shows you how its done. Given how the last series ended so poorly, I can't help but envision an expanded live action version of this story as the next logical step to redeem this classic character's cinematic presence. All you'd have to do is expand the Joker and Superman segments of Part Two into two movies and I can easily see this as a major trilogy. I may never get that, and I may never get another entry in the DC Animated Universe to follow up Justice League Unlimited, but if this production house keeps turning out movies as good as these two, I won't be able to complain.


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