Frank Miller’s classic tale of The Dark Knight comes to life in this wonderfully faithful rendering. This ain’t your daddy’s Batman.
For some, Batman will always be the camp 1960s version portrayed by Adam West, and this was something DC Comics was highly aware of coming out of the decade. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there was a conscious effort on the part of the publisher to move away from this image, aided partly by Neal Adams and his realist approach to the artwork. Returning characters like the Joker to their homicidal roots, this culminated in two seminal events in 1988. The first of these was Alan’s Moore’s The Killing Joker, in which the Joker shoots and paralyses Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (aka Batman). Only months later, DC did the unthinkable and killed off Robin in A Death in the Family. Both of these stories were foreshadowed by Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, completely reinventing the Bat for a more cynical generation.
It has been 10 years since Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) hung up his cape and cowl as Batman, and Gotham City is a hotbed of lawless 1980s decadence. A gang known as the mutants rules over the city, with the police and their Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) unable to do anything about it. His body weathered by the passing years, Batman comes back to the city when it needs him the most, and to face the Mutant Leader that terrorises the city. He’s not alone, with the young Carrie Kelly (Ariel Winter) aiming to be the next Robin.
Effectively adapting the first two chapters of Miller’s original work, this is an incredibly faithful and unbelievably satisfying translation to the screen. This may be somewhat jarring to viewers unfamiliar with the original text, as like Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-1987), it is very much a product of the decade that birthed it. Modern viewers will also immediately see the influence that the book had on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), borrowing much of the set-up, a number of pieces of dialogue and ultimately the explosive finale. Yet writer Bob Goodman and Jay Olivia don’t attempt to update this one iota, retaining the hairstyles, Mutant language and cultural references of the book that inspired it. It’s a little surreal watching it all come to life, but also a giddy geek thrill as the Dark Knight returns against a lightning illuminated sky.
Another aspect that takes some getting used to is Peter Weller as Wayne/Batman, as DC have conditioned us to Kevin Conroy’s voice for the last few decades. However, the older actor adds a weary weight to the much older Batman, gravelling his way through some iconic lines. Visually, the film captures the right mixture of shadowy and sinister Gothicism alongside the more outlandish aspects of 1980s pop culture. The talking heads on television add splashes of garish colour that echo Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s original artistic vision. Similarly, they sound exactly as fans would expect them too. Indeed, it is only David Selby as Gordon that seems to be going through the motions, a minor weak link in an otherwise top-notch voice cast.
With Batman: The Dark Knight Rises Part 1, DC continue to prove that they have mastered the art of animated adaptations. Standing as a bookend to the recent animated film of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, DC have achieved in direct-to-DVD animation what their cinematic universe seems unable to pull together. The only real disappointment is that this is only half of the story, leaving us hanging just as an essential character comes back to Gotham. Yet that film will also require a great tonal shift, as Miller begins to delve into his musings on the nature of modern fascism with Superman and other DC characters going head-to-head with the Batman. We can’t wait for the second half to emerge in 2013.
The Disc (★★★½)
The wonders of modern HD ensure this to be a high quality product, albeit not quite the mind-blowing transfer we’ve come to expect from modern animation. Yet it is still top-notch, and a quality example of non-theatrical animation. The sound design is quite immersive, using the DTS-HD Master Audio well, almost going pound for pound with its big-budget brethren. Christopher Drake’s score, which does borrow somewhat from Hans Zimmer’s scores for Nolan, is bombastic and keeps the tone at the right level throughout.
Where the disc is disappointing is in the bonus features department. Of the original material, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Digital Comic is very brief, showcasing a single chapter from the book, and not the easiest to read on the screen. Her Name Is Carrie…Her Role Is Robin (12 minutes) looks at the first female Robin in context, and the importance of female superheroes more broadly. It’s a superficial piece, but it does contain interviews with Grant Morrison, Michael Uslan, Bruce Timm, but crucially missing out on any input from Frank Miller himself. Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story (38 minutes) is documentary on the creator of the character, repurposed from a 2008 DVD release, but it does include a chat with Mark Hamill and Stan Lee for some reason. There are two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (the “Two-Face” double), along with some trailers for other DC and Warner animated titles. The Sneak Peak at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 (8 minutes) doesn’t include any footage, just animatics and storyboards, but there are a number of interviews with creators that are more interesting in many ways.