Hard to believe it’s been twenty-six years since Frank Miller’s groundbreaking BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS first hit comic-shop shelves. And ever since then, almost immediately upon its publication, fans have been clamoring for a film adaptation. And while elements and influences of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS can be seen in everything from Tim Burton’s BATMAN to the Dini/Timm animated series to Nolan’s Bat-films, a true, faithful adaptation of the work has never seen the light of day.
That is, until now.
Warner Animation’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, PART I is a breathtakingly loyal recreation of the first half of Miller’s Batman masterpiece, replicating it in look, tone, design and story nearly without fail. For any of you who’ve been living under a rock and haven’t read probably the single most influential Batman story after DETECTIVE COMICS 38, let’s get you up to speed on THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS’ premise:
Ten years after the retirement/disappearance of The Batman, a fifty-five-year-old Bruce Wayne finds himself drawn back into action as the Caped Crusader, in response to a Gotham City descending into anarchy, not to mention his own demons. With Batman’s return comes new allies, old enemies, broken friendships, and a final battle for the soul of the city.
Wisely, Warner Animation elected to split the story into two films, with PART I focusing on Bruce Wayne’s return to the cape and cowl, his struggle with the not-so-rehabilitated Two-Face, his battle with Gotham street gang The Mutants, and the arrival of Carrie Kelley, the new (and female) Robin.
Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Bob Goodman stick as close to the source material as they possibly can, with the character designs looking as close to Miller’s style as possible while still allowing for fluid animation. As for the story, there’s not much missing, and certainly nothing important. The one absence I did feel was the absence of the first-person narration for Bruce/Batman. While I can understand the decision to eschew most of it, as an overdone voiceover can really bog down a film, the Batman narration in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS makes up some of Miller’s best writing ever, and in certain places it was sorely missed.
The vocal cast delivered strongly as well. Peter Weller’s deadpan baritone worked perfectly for Batman here, lending an almost defeated sound to Batman’s dialogue that worked perfectly. It will be interesting to see if he’s able to adjust to the more manic, more self-assured Batman of the latter half of the book. Ariel Winter also shines as Carrie Kelley, doing a great job of capturing Miller’s invented futuristic teen slang and making it sound natural. David Selby’s Commissioner Gordon is right on target as well, and although we only hear two words from him at the very end of the film, LOST’s Michael Emerson looks to provide a very new and exciting take on the Joker.
What’s interesting to someone coming to this film for the first time is that anyone unfamiliar with the book might think some of the material here is derivative of other Batman films, such as the sequence of the pearls following to the ground, used to great effect by Tim Burton, or the notion of a young Bruce falling into the Batcave, a trademark of the Nolan films. Yet both of these sequences were originated by Miller in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and seeing them in the proper context is a long-awaited joy.
Honestly, the only thing I can really say in criticism of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, PART I is that PART II isn’t arriving fast enough. Highly recommended.
Scott Tipton can’t wait for the Superman/Batman fight. If you’ve got questions about THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or comics in general, send them here.