Warner Premiere presents the first half of animated adaptation of Frank Miller/Klaus Janson’s groundbreaking masterpiece, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Highly influential in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and BATMAN BEYOND animated series, this is a promising and faithful visual translation of Batman’s most defining story arc. What the animated film does perfectly is capture the comic’s ultraviolent mood and gritty atmosphere.
“When do you hang it all up?” asks the retired caped crusader, Bruce Wayne. Before Dc Comic’s The New 52, you have to remember that this mythology revolved around the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin). Bruce blames himself for the death of Jason Todd at the hands of The Joker. He actually thinks Gotham City has no more use of the Batman but he is definitely wrong. The city needs him more than ever, with the rise of The Mutants, an urban street gang. When his only friend, Commissioner Jim Gordon, is threatened, Bruce must decide if he should put back on the cape and cowl. But with the days of his youth gone, is Batman too old and out of time to take on crime-fighting?
Frank Miller’s version of Batman is different because he is angry, bitter, and sarcastic. This Batman wasn’t aimed for little children, like Adam West’s portrayal was. This was a return of the original dark and gritty crime tales that creator Bob Kane originally envisioned. In the opening pages, Bruce commits suicide as he steers his race car into a fiery crash. Bruce isn’t at his prime anymore and his hair has gone completely white. As the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Peter Weller (ROBOCOP) recites Miller’s pulpy dialogue with cynicism and conviction. Weller emphasizes how exhausted Batman is during battle, but still shows strength when he says to the Mutant Leader, “This is an operating table. And I’m the surgeon.”
What really set this story apart is the introduction the new Female Robin, Carrie Kelly. What Batman lost from his prime days, Carrie still has grace and agility in her youth. Breaking away from the traditional back-stories, Carrie isn’t from a broken down home and her folks haven’t been murdered. Voiced by Ariel Winter (MODERN FAMILY), Carrie has a feisty and spunky attitude as she races across rooftops, wearing her homemade Robin costume. Because there are many layers to her relationship with Bruce, viewers can interpret a father/daughter or mentor/student intimacy between them.
The animators did a fantastic job replicating Klaus Janson’s artistic style – from Gotham’s gang -ridden underworld to the shadowy tunnels of the Batcave. You can automatically tell the Bat Tank from the BATMAN BEGINS movie was inspired by Janson’s artwork. To see Batman jumping in mid-air, with the lightning in the background, fans will be pleased with how those shots are captured and flow so well in animation. Characters designs translate well, even though they are slightly changed. For an animated movie, director Jay Olivia does a terrific job with the action sequences. When Batman gets into a brawl with The Mutant Leader, the hand-held camera effect looks like something out of TAKEN or a BOURNE movie. What is also quite memorable is the music score by Christopher Drake (BATMAN: YEAR ONE). The booming orchestral soundtrack feels like something Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard would compose.
I personally do not understand why THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was split into two parts. This isn’t KILL BILL and viewers can handle a 90-100 minute animated movie. Because of the split, Kill BILL VOLUME 2 lost momentum and built to an anti-climatic confrontation between Bill and The Bride. Right after The Bride and Ellie Driver have their all-out battle, that is when I zone out and stop watching. That’s what I’m hoping doesn’t happen with the second half of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Thankfully in its 76 minute running time, Part 1 feels a whole movie, like a stand-alone installment, and closes with an satisfying open-ending.
Part of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was previously adapted in THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES episode, “Legends of The Dark Knight.” Michael Ironside (STARSHIP TROOPERS) is the voice of the mean and grumpy old-man Batman. I highly recommend seeing the episode, which is included in BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHT special features, because the animators do a better job imitating the look of Janson’s illustrations.
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (PART 1) delivers a top-notch cast, terrific action sequences, and well-done animation. The animated film is quite faithful to the comic, that fans will also feel like they are reading it too. After watching this, you will be excited to see THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (PART 2), where LOST’s Michael Emerson voices The Joker.
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