More than likely everyone reading knows this, but just in case: The Dark Knight Returns was a 1986 comic book written and drawn by Frank Miller. It’s a five-minutes-in-the-future tale where Batman returns from retirement. Hijinks ensue. Despite accusations of giving birth to the increasingly grim-and-grity comics it is generally agreed to be one of the greatest Batman stories ever told. It was split into two parts and released as an animated movie in 2012 and early 2013. I just watched it. here’s what I thought.
Batman: Dark Knight Returns
Director: Jay Oliva
Batman Voice actor: Peter Weller
The best part of is probably the smoothness of the animation. That said, there is something about the figure design that doesn’t quite work. It seems like they tried to strike a balance between the source material and ease of animation and the result just doesn’t jive. I can’t help but think it would have worked better if they had either stayed closer to the source or drifted farther away from it. Figures look too clean and flat. Also, the layering of backgrounds tends to give a feeling that characters are swimming in front of those backgrounds, somewhat like early blue screen work. This only shows when characters are in open spaces like the Batmobile speeding along. Characters enclosed in rooms or narrow city streets look much better, and since this is the world of Batman, that is a majority of the locales. (I’m ignorant on the animation process. This probably shows.)
I wan’t very impressed with the voice work either. Most of it feels phoned in, like there is no real emotional core to it or that it doesn’t reflect what is on the screen. A good example would be the final, climactic fight. At the end of which, neither participant sounds tired in the least. The supporting cast sounds overly stereotypical. There is very little entertaining about the choices being made. Michael Emmerson’s Joker sounds like am imitation of Ledger’s Joker and he brings little to the table and turns him into a one note character. This is very odd since Emmerson is probably known for his skill of portraying multi-layered, dangerous men. Maybe this is what the voice director was going for? Weller’s Batman suffers from the same fault. Tonally he makes a resonating Batman. Emotionally he was rather bland.
The score by Christopher Drake is quite good. It takes the idea that since the source material was from the 18980’s it should have a synth sound and just runs with it. Does a great job of enhancing the flick.
I don’t really want to get into the story but rather comment on this as an adaptation. As far as plot goes, practically every beat is there. If you’ve read your Miller, as you should, you know what is going to happen. Sadly, I think what made the comics so great was cut from the movie. In the comics part of what makes the Joker’s final scene so powerful, and build to a fever pitch, was the overlapping debate on the morality of Batman. None of that is present in the here and the world of the movie feels empty because of it. Gotham isn’t a character the way it is in the comics.
Last point: Voice Overs. I don’t know since when, but voice overs seem to have been a taboo in movies for a while now. This movie follows that tradition and removes the running narration that exists in the comics. I have to say, I think that was a poor decision. Not only is the narration an essentially part of the comic, but it also provide helpful exposition. The movie, lacking that easy exposition, repeatedly had to throw in extra seems to give those little facts. Most of those scenes just drag down the pacing and I can’t think of any that actually add anything. Maybe this is something that someone unfamiliar with the source wouldn’t mind, but as a fan I was very aware of what should accompany the images on screen. Dark Knight Returns without narration just doesn’t work as well. I think if the makers had committed to the narration to the same degree they committed to the retro synth score it could have worked.
In the end, it was pretty and had great music, but the acting was stock, and lacked the richness of the original. The chocolatey goodness of the source material was remade into a low-calorie treat. Passable but nowhere near as satisfying. I’d say rather than watching this re-read the comic and then watch the “Legends of the Dark Knight” episode of Batman: The Animated Series. It’s Billy Berserk.