Can This Animated Film Stay Faithful To Frank Miller’s Legendary Work?
To say that adapting The Dark Knight Returns is a daunting task may be an understatement. Frank Miller’s 1986 classic is considered by most to be one of the greatest Batman graphic novels (along with Miller’s own Batman: Year One and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke) ever published. DC Animated has already adapted Year One and did a good job of it but The Dark Knight Returns is a different beast. The “futuristic” dystopian feel of a Gotham fallen back into a state of hopelessness ten years removed from the last sighting of Batman has such an identity in the comic as well as involving a group of Batman’s and DC’s most iconic figures you begin to think that this could become a lost endeavor before you begin to watch.
The movie opens just as the comic does with Bruce Wayne involved in a horrific wreck while racing F-1 cars in Gotham and right off the bat I am thrown off by the lack of internal monologue. It plays such a huge role in Miller’s work that it will take a few minutes to get past the exclusion of it especially if you know a lot of the source material by heart. But after a few minutes you become involved with the story that you know so well that it becomes an afterthought.
As Commissioner Gordon prepares for his retirement, Gotham is being overrun with a string of murders, rapes, kidnappings and robberies by a gang known as the Mutants. Their leader broadcasts their hatred for the law and that the will kill Gordon and take the city. Thankfully for the purists the Mutant gang’s weird speech type has been left in tact as well as their distinct look.
The smartest thing that DC did was to split this feature into two parts. The story is such a large event that it would have felt bastardized trying to fit it into 75 minutes. Even with two parts there is still so much story to digest in part one. Harvey Dent’s release from Arkham with a new face and new lease on life that doesn’t last that long, Carrie Kelly taking it upon herself to pick up the mantle of Robin and prove herself to the returning Batman, all of the interspersed news coverage showing the political and cultural overtones of Batman and what he represents to society and the caped crusader’s pair of fights with the hulking Mutant leader. It is all handled well in the movie with a few slight changes to the story that are subtle and only will be noticed by avid fans but none of them really had me cursing at the screen yelling ” YOU RUINED IT!”
The animation is on par with every other DC release over the past few years. It’s mostly clean looking but sometimes feels like a little more care could have been given to it. I was excited to see what they could do with the look of Gotham considering the source material but was left feeling disappointed when it looked like a mostly bland city instead of the dirty, neon filled streets from Klaus Janson’s art style. The look of the characters is mostly intact with the only noticable difference being how young The Joker looks when you finally see him full frame at the end of the movie.
The voice cast is good, not great. Gordon’s light undertone voice takes a few minutes to get used to but Carrie and the Mutant leader are pretty close to how I imagined when reading the graphic novel. Robocop himself Peter Weller has the opportunity to voice Batman and it is a mixed bag. During some scenes he seems to just be reading lines as Peter Weller, with no inflection or emotion at all but then will deliver one of the classic lines from the story and have you thinking “so that’s why they hired him”. Don’t worry Kevin Conroy, you still have nothing to worry about.
A few minutes into the movie I was beginning to wonder if this movie could attain the lofty goals it set for itself by taking on such a beloved and legendary work. But the more I watched, the more I became engrossed in the story that I have read time and time again and by the time Batman gives his “This isn’t a mud pit. It’s a operating table” line near the end of the movie I was sold that despite a few missteps the animated department at DC took a chance and it paid off with a good feature that does have me looking forward to the second part.
Well that and wanting to see an old Batman completely kick the s*** out of Superman.
Nerd Rating: 8/10
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