Film Review: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1
Frank Miller’s medium-defining, 1986 mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, is set in a dystopian future and features an ageing, borderline alcoholic Bruce Wayne being launched out of a decade long period of inactivity to combat a rising tide of criminality. Upon its release the series set off shock waves in its industry that are still being felt over two decades later. Often imitated yet rarely equaled, possible adaptations of DKR have been discussed for years now, with studios and filmmakers never really taking any serious steps to bring a movie to fruition. However, that wait is finally over, and 2012 will be remembered as not only the year when the Dark Knight “rose” but when he returned as well.
However, a project like this, where someone adapts a beloved piece of work, has the tendency to produce anxiety, and certain questions must be asked. Does this adaptation live up to fans’ relationship and respect for the novel? Does it contain the harshness and brutality which defined Miller’s original text? Also, does the film strike a balance between reverence for its source material yet still distinguish itself enough to justify its existence on-screen (something that Snyder‘s Watchmen adaptation had failed to do)? Finally, and most importantly, would this film make fans put their feet through their television sets?
Thankfully, the film is indeed reverent, enjoyable to watch, and the nation’s television sets should survive the experience. The film’s animation powerfully captures dozens of the novel’s classic panels, even throwaway images such as a random bystander narrowly missing the gargantuan wheels of Batman’s unstoppable Batmobile. The style of the animation isn’t really very close to Miller’s inimitable mixture of minimalism and exaggeration, but it still seems to channel its essence, such as the great contrast between Batman’s hulking frame and Cary Kelly’s small bundle of acrobatic energy.
The film pretty much transfers a majority of Miller’s pulpy dialogue from page to screen, which produces mixed results. As we have seen in the past with films such as Sin City and 300, Miller’s dialogue arguably works better on the page than when it is actually being articulated. Still, this is often dependent on which actor is speaking the words. The dialogue can ring with a mournful sense of world-weary poignancy (such as Bruce Willis‘s work as Hartigan in the Sin City storyline: That Yellow Bastard, or Mickey Rourke‘s powerful performance in The Hard Goodbye) or can come off as glaringly forced and over the top, such as pretty much all of the other actors in the film (and don’t get me started about 300 or else you can DINE IN HELL).
Unfortunately, Peter Weller (of Robocop and Naked Lunch fame) falls more into the second camp. While his dry, laconic speech patterns served him well while encased in a robotic shell, or expressing the perverse fusing of Cronenberg and Burroughs’ imaginations, it fails to capture the intensity or savagery of the Caped Crusader, who has been pushed to the limits of his sanity. Iconic moments from the original text, such as where Batman muses about the fate of his fallen former sidekick, Jason Todd, and remarks that the war against crime, “…goes on”, fall completely flat here with Weller’s delivery.
The efficacy of the other voice-actors of the film is wildly inconsistent. Ariel Winter is fine as the new Robin, Carry Kelly, but other primary cast members such as David Selby as the now ancient Comissioner Gordon are less than convincing.
The film almost completely omits the inner-monologue which runs throughout the entirety of the Miller’s comic. This is a choice by scripter, Bob Goodman and director Jay Oliva which both adds and detracts from the film. On one hand it would be wildly impractical for the film to include Batman’s inner-monologue regarding, for instance, his descriptions of his tactics in each fight (which is a part of the novel). However, there are other more contemplative moments in DKR which could have retained their power in the adaptation through the inclusion of the inner-dialogue. One of these issues is Batman’s recurring reference to finding a death that’s “good enough.” Also, in the novel, Comissioner Gordon’s character resonates in a much stronger and more beautiful way through his own inner-dialogue, which constantly references how it is his wife, Sarah, who gives him strength to do what needs to be done. In these scenes the absence of the voice-over narration makes the action feel less involving and sadly, more hollow.
In the sound department the film is very effective, offering a layered design scheme which really amplifies the impact of many sequences. This is especially apparent during the two different fight scenes between Batman and the leader of the mutant gang, where the punches seem to have the force of thunder-claps. The score is also fitting and enhances the drama of the story. However, for some, the score may seem a bit too reminiscent of Hans Zimmer‘s pulsating work with Chris Nolan.
Final Verdict: Adapting such a prolific piece of pop culture would be a daunting endeavor for just about anyone. Luckily, DC Animation has managed to produce a pretty good film that occasionally reaches greatness. The film offers excellent animation with a sound design and score which really amps up the intensity of its kinetic action. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t entirely figure out how to transfer all the facets of Miller’s story to a different medium successfully, nor is the voice talent truly up to the task of giving life to Miller’s dialogue. Still, despite these complaints DKR deserves to be seen by any fan of the novel. And next year, when Part 2 is released and the Dark Knight returns again, he should be welcomed.