Superhero Sundays: Batman – The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 and 2 (2012)
Bruce vs Clark9
Matthew Turner | On 26, Apr 2020
Director: Jay Oliva
Cast: Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, David Selby, Wade Williams, Michael Emerson, Mark Valley, Paget Brewster, Dee Bradley Baker
On Sundays, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through animated superhero cartoons. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Directed by DC animation veteran Jay Oliva, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is based on Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, which began life as a four-issue comic book miniseries in 1986. Split into two parts of equal length, it’s the 15th film in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series. As such, it’s an extremely faithful adaptation of Miller’s original story that should please die-hard Bat-fans and Bat-newcomers alike.
The plot begins 10 years into Batman’s (Peter Weller) retirement, following the death of Jason Todd. With Gotham City overrun by a vicious gang called the Mutants, an ageing Bruce Wayne decides to don the cape and cowl once more, with the tacit approval of Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) who now knows his secret identity. In Part 1, Batman takes on his old adversary Two-Face (Wade Williams) and eventually faces off against the Mutant Leader (Gary Anthony Williams). He also gains a new sidekick in the form of teenager Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter), who makes her own Robin costume and saves Batman’s life.
In Part 2, some of the Mutants have restyled themselves as the Sons of Batman, following his defeat of their leader. However, Batman has several other problems on his hands: new Commissioner Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals Barrera) issues a warrant for his arrest, the Joker (Lost’s Michael Emerson) is up to his old tricks, and President Reagan (Jim Meskimen) enlists Superman (Mark Valley) to take down the Caped Crusader.
When it comes to Batman properties, the influence of Miller’s work cannot be overstated. It profoundly affected the comics and elements of it are apparent in every live-action movie version, from Burton to Nolan and beyond. With that in mind, it’s somewhat surprising that it took 26 years for The Dark Knight Returns to receive its own screen adaptation, but Sava and the DC animation team (including executive producer Bruce Timm) undoubtedly do the story justice.
The animation style doesn’t quite mimic Klaus Janson’s original artwork, but it comes close enough, mainly by keeping all the original character designs – the Mutants and Carrie Kelley’s Robin are particularly distinctive in that regard. Above all, the fight scenes are exceptional, expanding significantly on the sequences in the comics and giving each punch-up a real sense of weight and physicality. It’s fair to say they’re among the best fight scenes in any Batman movie, live-action or animated.
The Batman vs Superman fight, then, is both extremely satisfying and an undoubted highlight. That said, the film is packed with terrific sequences, including the showdown between Batman and the Mutant leader and the genuinely creepy scene where the Joker uses his deadly Smile gas on the host and audience of a TV talk show. In addition, there are a number of fun nods to the comics, some taken directly from Miller’s graphic novel (e.g. Batman’s Sherlock-esque penchant for elaborate disguises) and some that are original to the film (the covers of specific DC comics glimpsed in throwaway shots, including multiple shout-outs to Alan Moore).
The voice cast are excellent. Weller mostly gets the tone right for Bruce Wayne / Batman and it only really slips in one scene (when he’s addressing a crowd), where his voice goes slightly higher and it’s a bit distracting. Similarly, Emerson makes a good Joker (wisely underplaying it rather than attempting to imitate Mark Hamill’s version) and Ariel Winter is note-perfect as Robin, even if she doesn’t get as many lines as she maybe deserves (a fault shared by the source material).
There are, in fairness, a couple of small differences from the graphic novel. The main thing is that script is slightly less talky – a lot of the narration (from Batman, Superman and Robin, as well as frequent commentary from newsreaders) has been trimmed down, though the dialogue is largely identical and it’s fair to say that if you have a favourite line in the graphic novel, it’s faithfully reproduced. More intriguingly, there are a pair of slight alterations to the talk show scene – one is entirely understandable (a well known cultural figure gets brutally killed in the book), but the other is bloodier and nastier and ends up making the Joker even more violent here than he is in the comic.
The only other thing to note is that the character of Bruno (apparently based on Brigitte Nielsen) is decidedly not appropriate for children, since her appearance – topless, other than a pair of swastikas – is even more risque in the film than it was in the comics. In fairness, the film does carry a 15 certificate (most likely for that reason), but even so… forewarned is forearmed.
The Dark Knight Returns Part 1