Yes, I could have easily split this into two separate reviews and got me a few more ad hits, but that just ain’t how I roll. These two films come together as one complete whole and tell a story that is fully contained within these two parts and the comic it is based on. No, there isn’t a comic called The Dark knight Strikes Again. That never happened. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is a comic that fans have wanted to see adapted for years. Apparently Warner entertained the idea in the process of reinventing Batman for cinema audiences after the travesty that was Batman & Robin. It would have been a tough one to pull off seeing as it is among the most brutal Batman stories worthy of adapting. What you’d need is a medium that can get away with a little more and a fan base willing to buy. And that’s where Bruce Timm and his pals at Warner Animation come in. Click the link for my review.
Over the last few years Bruce Timm has kept all his Warner Animation pals employed, after the cancellation of Justice League Unlimited and with it the DC Animated Universe, by producing animated films based off a number of famous DC comics. I’ve previously reviewed the excellent Under The Red Hood and the nearly as good Year One, both based on excellent Batman comics. I intend to review Justice League New Frontier at some point too. They’ve made a large number of these animated adaptations and have built up a solid little fan base with them. And quiet rightly too. When they announced they were making The Dark Knight Returns I got more than a little excited. It was one of the first Batman collected editions I read as a child. Yes, I was allowed comics like this. I wondered how they would fit it into their usual 75-80 minute run time so when they announced it would, in fact, be two films I could start to see where this was going. They were going to treat this with the utmost respect and keep as much of the comic in as possible. I had intended to review these as part of the Batman season I did last year but was unable to acquire both parts in time. Recently Zack Snyder placed this comic as an influence on the upcoming Batman Vs Superman film. Before going into depth with this review I should say, there’s no way he’s adapting much of this.
The Dark Knight Returns is set late on in Bruce Wayne’s life. It’s been 10 years since he was last fighting crime as Batman (RoboCop) after some deal was struck that effectively prevented all the heroes from continuing their careers, with the exception of Superman (Mark Valley) who became the President’s personal WMD for the ongoing war with the Soviets. Crime is running rampant throughout Gotham thanks to the lack of a Batman and the rise of a gang of mutants. The first half of this two part film concentrates on the mutant gang, Batman’s return to duty, the fate of Harvey Dent (Wade Williams) and the eventual hiring of a new Robin in Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter). The second half is focused on the return of The Joker (Michael Emmerson) and the President ordering Superman to take care of that pesky Batman, with lethal force if needed. This being a Frank Miller story the tome is moody, dark and a little extra moody with toppings of violence and death. Perfect for little kids then.
The animation in these films is of an extremely high standard. Warner Animation have been known to use the occasional odd art style or to reduce the fluidity of their animation. Neither of those issues are present here. The art style is a rough approximation of the designs from Frank Miller’s comic, although tweaked to suit the needs of the medium. The actual fluidity is near exceptional levels. At times it reminds me of some of the best that comes out of Japan’s top animation studios. The way they’ve brought life to the still panels of the source material is especially effective. A sequence where Batman uses the smoke pellets he’s dropped to hide his movements is a stand out sequence as it highlights these brief moments as the bat takes down his targets one at a time. Each time a moment from the comic is recreated it isn’t done in a way as to replicate the actual image, but more so, create a new image that represents the original.
In a similar regard the story isn’t told in exactly the same order or with the same hopping back and forth between current events and television stations such as the comic version did. All of these moments are here but they’re kept as separate scenes in order to minimise confusion. The way you read and take in a comic is very different from the way in which you view and digest a film. In a sense this telling of The Dark Knight Returns is more direct and is structured a lot more like a pair of stories. The mid point of the film is essentially the start of book three of the comic, but a handful of events that take place during book three happen in the first part of this film. This lends the film a logical end point for the first half and a nice clean kicking off point for the second.
Much like the last film I reviewed (Watchmen) The Dark knight Returns is an exploration of the inner workings of the mind of a superhero. Early in the film we see that Bruce is looking for a thrill in his life to replace what he got from fighting crime. He takes part in racing events, ignoring his own safety, and even challenges a pair of mutant thugs to try to mug him. We see the way the characters of the DC Universe have changed since the last 10 years which adds further levels to this exploration. Harvey has been given a new face, which he plays along with and acts cured, only to reveal that the scars are too deep. Essentially this shows Harvey Dent as a true reflection of who Bruce Wayne/Batman is, more so than the usual Batman/Joker dynamic most people lean on. The Joker is catatonic in Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled, a result of having no reason to go on without his one true love. Superman has become the representation of the American way of life, he even stands with a foot perched on a rock with an eagle on his arm at one point. In his role as the official hero of The White House he has been fighting wars for the U.S. and probably kills more people that even The Joker does. Many people hate this depiction of Superman, I can see why, but at the time he was portrayed as this holier than thou presence who’d take on the role of this invincible force enemies of the U.S. should be scared of. He is being used in the same way as Dr. Manhattan was in Vietnam in Watchmen.
It has to be said that taking such a complexly written comic as The Dark Knight Returns and translating it to 2 75-80 minute films can’t have been an easy task. It’s hard to describe the way the comic reads in comparison to watching the film play out. Not many comics have the same vibe as a Frank Miller work. Some directors will go down a heavily stylised route, such as Snyder with 300 and Rodriguez with Sin City. This animated adaptation essentially presents a cleaner, yet by no means less brutal, depiction of Miller’s future Gotham. It can’t go into the extra detail that the comic did but that’s not to say they haven’t done an exceptional job with the time limit they had. It’s a situation similar to Watchmen’s where the time and pace required to do a 100% faithful adaptation is just not practical in a film. As it stands, both parts of The Dark Knight Returns are amongst the top tier of the DC animated films. Having read the original comics will not have been necessary to still get everything you could out of this. But I’d suggest reading it anyway. Because if you haven’t you’re really missing out. Now, remember, there is no Dark Knight Strikes Again.