Few comic book stories are as revered as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The 1986 story of a middle-aged Batman coming out of retirement to wage war on a violent gang is both overwhelmingly acclaimed and a clear influence on many versions of the character, including this summer's The Dark Knight Rises — making adapting it as a two-part animated feature a unique challenge for those involved.
"It was really tough," executive producer Bruce Timm said, at a premiere event Monday at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, of translating Miller's art style into animation. "It's always hard. This one was probably the hardest."Timm described the visuals of the source material as "brilliant," but not necessarily consistent, making settling on a model for the older, bulkier Batman a process of "trial and error."
"We found ourselves saying, 'I thought that shot look different,'" Timm said. "It's weird, the comic book doesn't look the way you remembered it from the way you looked at it in 1986."Bob Goodman, who also wrote for The New Batman Adventures, the '90s Superman animated series, Batman Beyond and more, wrote the screenplay for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and said that he didn't have any restrictions in terms of bringing the edgier content of the comic onto the screen. "Nothing was censored," Goodman said. "There was no point at any time in the process where I was told, 'You're not allowed to do that.'"
There are some inevitable alterations in moving from one medium to another — Goodman called it "restructuring" — and those involved indicated that the finished product benefitted from it.
"Some of Batman's best lines in the book, in his inner monologues, are in the middle of the fight scenes," Timm said. "It's really hard to do that."
Instead, some of the narration became dialogue, and some of it was cut entirely."The ideas are there without the words," Goodman added. Batman and Bruce Wayne's words are voiced by Peter Weller (of Robocop and Buckaroo Banzai fame), who expressed his excitement for being involved.
"There's a morality in this," Weller said. "The movie could be really entertaining and corny. It's really entertaining and provocative."
Weller, who is finishing a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art history at UCLA, called Miller — who wrote the scripts for RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 — "part of a remarkable legacy of American art."
"If you consider pulps and comics art," Weller added. "Which I do."Ariel Winter of the Emmy-winning ABC comedy Modern Family voices Carrie Kelly in the feature, and called being the first female animated Robin a "huge honor." "Ever since I was little, I always wanted to play a badass character," Winter said. "I really like that about Robin, she doesn't shy away from anything."
Veteran voice director Andrea Romano took time to point out the sheer number of actors in The Dark Knight Returns, which along with stars from live-action TV and movies, include veteran voice actors like Maurice LaMarche, Rob Paulsen, Frank Welker, Carlos Alazraqui, Townsend Coleman and Tara Strong.Romano also discussed her satisfaction with the flow of dialogue between characters, even though all actors recorded their lines separately.
"The opening scene with Gordon and Bruce Wayne was probably recorded a month apart," Romano said. "I thought it worked brilliantly, but it's a testament to what good actors these two are."
"It was imperative for me as Gordon to rely on Andrea, [director Jay Oliva] and Bruce," said David Selby, the film's Commissioner Gordon. "They have been down this road."Comic book fans will find an added treat in The Dark Knight Returns animated feature, as a liquor store magazine rack is shown carrying issues of Swamp Thing, Sandman, V for Vendetta and Crisis on Infinite Earths. "When we were designing the backgrounds, they had a rack for magazines," Oliva said. "I asked everyone for their favorite comic from the '80s." The director explained, to laughs, that he made it clear that Marvel comics were exempt. The story's '80s origins are reflected throughout the film, with iconic-to-the-era character designs like the mutant gangs appearing intact. The period is perhaps reflected in the score, which heavily utilizes analog synthesizers.
"You really just embrace it," composer Christopher Drake said, from the crowd, revealing that a similar approach was originally considered for the adaptation of Batman: Year One, also a Frank Miller story from the '80s. "There were times when normally I would have used an orchestra, but I committed to that '80s thing."
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 — which adapts the first two installments of the four-issue story — is out now on multiple formats, and the 2013 DC Animated slate (including the second half of Dark Knight Returns) is scheduled to be announced next month at New York Comic Con.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!