Over the past 5 years, Warner Brothers has been making animated features based on characters in the DC universe. The original intent was to adapt famous stories from this universe. Due to budget restraints, many of these adaptations had to be shortened in order to fit the hour and fifteen-minute time frame. With this time restraint, they have had to condense many popular stories such as The Death of Superman into something that barely resembles the original piece. However, when tackling The Dark Knight Returns, Warner Brothers did the smart thing by splitting it up into two films. The Dark Knight Returns is such a complex graphic novel that by cutting it down to an hour and fifteen minutes would be disrespectful, both to Frank Miller and fans of the original piece.
The original graphic novel of The Dark Knight Returns was written and drawn by Frank Miller, known for such works as Sin City and 300. The book was published in a time where creators were showing the world that comic books can be for adults. Frank Miller recreated Batman, making him the dark, brooding, intimidating guy we know and love. His work was has been used as inspiration for both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s takes on the Caped Crusader. In the book, Batman has been retired for ten years after Jason Todd (the 1980s Robin) was killed during a mission. However, when Bruce begins to notice that Gotham is becoming more and more of a hellhole each day, he dons the cape and cowl again to bring justice to those who would wish to destroy his beloved city.
The film borrows, art wise, only slightly from the book. This is a positive as Frank Millers artwork can come off as ugly or unorganized to non-comic book fans. The film cleans up the artwork, but sticks with the original designs that we all remember. The fight scenes in the film are magnificent, especially the two fights between Bats and the mutant leader. They are fluid, exciting, and heart racing. One issue I did have with the animation was the animation on all of the vehicles. Any time we see a car or a truck in the film in a chase sequence, they are always done via CG animation. This is actually very jarring and distracts from the film any time they are on. The computer-generated racecars in the beginning feel very static and are not as fluid as the beautiful animation in the rest of the movie. Half of the time it felt like they were toy cars being played with by a couple of 7 year olds. Other than that, the animation shines through as some of the best out of this line. 8/10
Music can tip the scale for a movie; it can either be underused and ineffective or overbearing and intrusive. Here, the music flows well with the rest of the film. Knowing when to pull up when it may get annoying. It has a very nostalgic 80s action movie feel to it. Not only that, but at times it takes cues from Hans Zimmer, the composer of the Nolan Batman films. This gives the film a more adult feel to it. The music is chilling and is by far the best in Warner Brother’s series of animated films. 10/10
Adapting a beloved story like this can be tricky but the director Jay Oliva pulls it off well. He was able to stay true to the original story but was still able to bring his own vision to the piece. There are some of the obligatory “exact panel” shots here and there, but there are still some changes, some scenes were moved around in order make the narrative a lot smoother. For example, there is a scene where Bruce is standing on his balcony in the rain, hearing Batman in his head after watching the horrible news reports. He begins flashing back to the night his parents were murdered, which (obviously) also occurred in the rain. That night, in the rain, Batman was born. That parallels what occurs on Bruce’s balcony several years later, when Batman is reborn, once again in the rain. Oliva was also able to give us a scary Batman again, something we have not seen since Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Upon the Dark Knight’s return, we only see glimpses of Batman; we follow the criminals as they interact with Batman. Following the criminals allows us to experience how dark and scary Batman truly is to the ones he fights. The flashbacks to the death of Bruce’s parents feel natural in this context; it gives an emotional depth to the Caped Crusader rather than feeling like the obligatory origin we get in most Batman films. Oliva also made another interesting choice: completely discarding Batman’s narration of the story. In the original book, this was done to give the reader an idea of what was going on in Batman’s head. Unfortunately the narration in the book took up nearly two-thirds of the story and sometimes it felt like you were drowning in it. However, in the film the narration is cut, allowing us to decide how Batman is feeling. Jay Oliva has been able to bring more of an emotional depth and clarity to the story that I did not feel while reading Millers graphic novel. 10/10
The casting in this film was superb; all of the actors fit the characters they were portraying. Robocop actor Peter Weller, while a strange choice, I must admit gave a very convincing performance as an emotionally broken, elder Batman. Though his performance is solid, it may take repeat viewings to get over the “Why the hell isn’t this Kevin Conroy” stage, but the voice begins to grow on you. Peter Weller brings a layered performance to Bruce Wayne and Batman. The voice feels monotone until you realize how worn out Batman has become over the past ten years and how much the death of Jason Todd has really affected him. The rest of the cast does well, with one complaint: David Selby as Commissioner Gordon. His performance is okay. There are times where he does feel like a police veteran on the verge of retirement, other times he just feels like an actor doing a voice, not really acting. Some his lines fall flat and can be distracting during an intense sequence. 9/10
One of the main features of Frank Miller’s graphic novel was his usage of social and political satire. The film cuts it significantly, and while it is still there, it does not generate the same effect. Both the film and the graphic novel intercut the narrative with news stories that either give us exposition or show us how the people of Gotham are reacting to Batman’s return. The film integrated the news show clips from the graphic novel very effectively and managed to make them more coherent. This makes them feel more a part of the story than just random blurbs that pop up every few pages. Though a lot of the satire is cut, it is done with good intentions. Keeping too much of it would make everyone in Gotham look like an idiot. Doctor Wolper in this, rather than being some psychologist nutjob, sounds like a concerned therapist who dislikes Batman because his “research” shows him that Batman is a danger. This gives the character more depth rather than making him a two dimensional caricature. It also allows us to see Batman as not only a force for good, but as a complete psychopath whose return could possibly hurt Gotham even more. The film allows us to decide who is wrong and who is right, rather than shoving it in our faces. 9/10
Overall, we get the most satisfying Batman film since “The Dark Knight” and in this reviewer’s honest opinion the best Batman film we have seen this year. This film will sway anyone who thinks animated films are solely for children. If you love Batman, you will love “The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1.” Part 2 hits the shelves early 2013.
We give “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1” 9/10 Pocket Protectors.