Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
Frank Miller’s 1986 comic book masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns has been a lot of things to comic book fans: a work of art, an era-defining benchmark, the first time they may have been exposed to the power of the medium to deliver a serious, mature story and a cudgel to use against anyone who dismisses comic books as ‘kid stuff.’ What it has never been is a disappointing embarrassment, at least until now with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1, the latest and least entry into the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series.The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 picks up Bruce Wayne’s story ten years after his retirement as Batman. Gotham unfortunately remains a crime-ridden slum now terrorized by a gang called The Mutants. After a supposedly psychologically rehabilitated and facially repaired Two-Face disappears, Bruce succumbs to his inner demons and dons the cape and cowl of Batman once again. His renewed exploits earn him a lot of attention from the media and powers-that-be as well as the fandom of young Carrie Kelly who takes it upon herself to become the next Robin, a reckless decision that ultimately pays off for her and for Batman’s plans to take down the Mutant gang before ending the film in an ominous cliffhanger for the events of next year’s Part 2.
Just like countless thugs tricked into thinking they can handle one man dressed up in a bat costume, the filmmakers commit a critical error that robs their product of the source material’s potency. They mistakenly believe that if they just made the movie look like the comic, it’s gravitas would come along for the ride, and save for the customary ‘smoothing’ of the look to facilitate the animation, the art is a good recreation of Miller’s pencils. Unfortunately this only allows the film to fall harder with the decision to excise nearly all of Batman’s internal monologues. Gone are all of Bruce Wayne’s personal struggles early in the book with his place in “today’s” world, his obsession with death and dying and when he becomes Batman again, the challenges of middle-aged nocturnal vigilantism. The absolute barest amount of this information, which captivated the comic’s readers with its look into the psychology of obsession, is instead transmitted to viewers though clumsy dialog.
The twin missteps of visual faithfulness and context exclusion combine to make The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1 almost entirely opaque to the uninitiated. The film’s commitment to how the not-too-distant future would be from the perspective of the year 1986 is jarring, and that is only if the viewer knows they should be shifting their frame of reference to fit that time scale, otherwise the film’s obsession with late 80s pop-psychology and punk fashions borders on parody. References to riots in Chicago in the 60s and a 70-year-old Jim Gordon recalling the Pearl Harbor attack are completely bewildering in a film that otherwise refuses to fix itself in time. On the other hand, the original comic’s and the film’s obsession with the concept of TV shouters/pundits seem prescient, but just as annoying and distracting in the film as they are in reality.
The vagrancies of animated movie production, the long lead times needed to create an animated movie frame by frame, most likely precluded the makers of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 from absorbing and applying the lessons learned from the critical and storytelling success of a previous DC Universe Animated Original Movie and Frank Miller adaptation, Batman: Year One. Everything Year One did right in respect to faithfulness to not only the visual look of the comic but how it handled the challenge of conveying character intent or thought without text boxes is missing from The Dark Knight Returns Part 1, creating a bizzaro-world experience that lacks the heart and timeless nature of its predecessor.
Peter Weller (RoboCop) as Bruce Wayne/Batman leads a cast of unremarkable TV stars and the usual assortment of professional voice actors well, though he lacks amount of ‘gravel’ one would imagine that a 50-plus year old Batman would have. Ariel Winter’s (Modern Family) Carrie Kelly really doesn’t have a lot to do in Part 1, but one could imagine that now that Batman has someone to talk to out in the field, the chance for some much-needed exposition will expose her talent.
What Frank Miller in his prime could do in a single page, or what (also The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1) producer Bruce Timm was able to do with just a few minutes in a classic 1998 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, is far beyond what was displayed here at near-feature length. When the Dark Knight returns again next year for the conclusion one hopes that the appearance of an old foe will give the source material the credit it deserves.