Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (which comes in two halves, part one released last year and part two out now) is the adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel from 1986, back before he went insane. It’s one of the best Batman stories ever written, certainly one of the most well known and it’s my personal favourite (even ahead of the Morrison stuff). When I was very little I ventured into the comic book section of WHSmith, flicked through it, saw what happened with Superman and ran away crying, a traumatic childhood experience and almost enough to put me off Batman for life – luckily I got over it. Elements of the comic have been used in other Batman stories since, the central concept of an aged Batman coming out of retirement (complete with robot leg/arm brace) was used in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (with a scene or two lifted verbatim). Miller reinvented Batman with this comic, moving him firmly away from the camp Adam West Batman and into the same style of Batman that would eventually be used by Nolan. Without Miller, Christian Bale would probably be Bat Dancing, and probably doing his stupid Bat Voice while he did it.
So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch this film, and immediately I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed. As a fan of the classic DC animated universe (Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor is the best villain that’s ever been in anything ever) and a lot of the newer animated films (the one area where DC still consistently beats Marvel for quality) I admit I am probably going to be more open to the idea of watching an animation than most people. Chances are that all the Batman fans that are OK with animation will not need any recommendations to go and watch this film, and all the other fans of the Nolan Batman movies are not going to be swayed into watching an animation no matter what a review says. It’s the same with comics – someone can say they love Batman after watching the Nolan films but still find the idea of reading comics or watching animation unappealing. Makes no sense to me, but whatever. If you don’t watch animation you are missing out on the best Batman film around, simple as that. Not to mention the fact that Returns almost works as a 20-years-later sequel to Rises and is a great way to continue your Batman fix if Rises left you wanting more.
It’s hard not to keep drawing comparisons with the Nolan film, as I said, both start with a retired Batman and both are about the return (or the rise if you want to phrase it a bit differently but slightly less accurately). The mutant leader is analogous to Bane – a threat both stronger and faster than Batman leading a well-armed force attacking Gotham. Batman is not his usual invincible self and of course, Alfred is worried. However there are also a lot of differences. For me the main difference is what retirement has done to Bruce Wayne. In Rises it has left him as a hermit, with a crutch that is both physical and mental: Bale’s Bruce Wayne is defeated in spirit, he’s bored and even a bit whiny – he’s human. The Bruce Wayne in Returns is different, he’s empty and seems almost suicidal (unfortunately some of the best lines of the comic are inexplicably cut, such as ‘This would be a good death… But not good enough’ – almost a mantra he repeats to himself as if all he needs is one final act before he can call it quits). He is Bruce Wayne without Batman, and Batman was the only thing that gave his life purpose. Here is a man that has given his entire life to an ideal and made himself into a weapon only to find that when old age forces him to retire he has nothing else left. It’s a superior portrayal of Batman, and it’s made even better by the inclusion of Robin.
OK I concede that the world might not be ready for Robin in full IMAX vision, but I would argue with anyone that says that Robin is not an important part of the Batman mythos. Whereas the Nolan films try to show Batman’s humanity with his love interests, the comics show it better with Robin. To Robin he is like a mentor and a father and the fact that he even takes in a child to train them as a crime fighter goes to show how detached from a normal sense of reality Batman is, and how not having a father himself has affected him – this is normal for him, why not turn a kid into a weapon? There is a scene in The Dark Knight Returns where Batman meets a new girl dressed as Robin while barely conscious and immediately tells her everything. In this one scene you see all of Batman’s repressed humanity come to the surface. It’s very poignant.
The Dark Knight Returns includes all the important aspects of the quintessential Batman story. It includes Robin, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and The Joker – the main supporting characters. Catwoman was not a major character in Batman’s life until much later. It has a great story about Two-Face (although again the dialogue is needlessly changed in their final scene). It also includes the other most important element of Batman – his friendship with Superman. It even has the best Batmobile ever.
The plot is not going to surprise anyone. The mutant leader gets his chance and blows it, like Bane he learns the hard way that just being bigger and stronger is not enough, you’ve got to want it. The second half is set up brilliantly, because no-one deserves the second half of the ultimate Batman story more than the Joker.
Whereas part one is relatively understated, part two is on a much larger scale. This alludes to the other side of the Batman story – his interaction with other superheroes (in the comics he is often a member of the superhero group the Justice League). The main other superhero in the DC universe is of course, Superman. Batman’s relationship with Superman is fascinating and it is great to see it explored in film. Admittedly it is very obvious that Frank Miller is not a Superman fan and he is not shown in a particularly good light. Batman’s interactions with the superheroes and supervillains of DC really highlight the fact that he is, after all, just a man. He has no super powers (well unless you count being very rich), no magically enhanced intellect or senses and very human vulnerabilities (such as old age). The fascinating thing about Batman is he can exist equally in a dark alley in Gotham brawling with muggers or in outer space shoulder to shoulder with gods. Part 2 is not flawless by any means, but it is nice to see Batman in his other element, something that we presumably will see in the Justice League film eventually.
So there are problems. I am not sold by the portrayal of the Joker (for the record I thought Heath Ledger’s Joker was overrated as well, for me Mark Hamill is the one true Joker). I love the character and the way he acts – there is a scene where he is shooting people indiscriminately which is actually quite out of character for the Joker and really demonstrated how his mentality had changed in the years spent in Arkham – but his voice and mannerisms don’t quite live up to the version of Joker I imagined when reading the comics. His final scene also misses a lot of the gravitas from the comics.
The other main problem is one I mentioned before – the inner monologue boxes from the comic have been completely cut. Batman’s inner monologue about it being a ‘good death’ is one of the best parts of the comic. Internal monologues are used extensively in comics and can be carried over to film adaptations as voice overs. There was no reason to cut them that I can see, except maybe that they would confuse the listener as to what is inner monologue and what is speech.
The art style is great, capturing the essence of Frank Miller’s dirty, chunky style and updating it nicely. The voice acting is great as well, for the most part – Peter Weller (Robocop) is a very good Batman, and he doesn’t do a stupid Bat Voice which is a bonus.
Also it has a better ending than the Dark Knight Rises