Like the Batman film franchise, this series refuses to die. Time to kick off round two of my trek through the Batman film franchise. If you can’t make out the posters in the banner they are from right to left :Batman: The Dark Knight Part 1, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Batman: Year One, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, and The Dark Knight Rises. These are the subjects of round two.
No doubt, DC and Warner Bros. are streets behind in the live action theatrical arena. in the realm of Warner Bros. direct to video features, the DC comics license has been the most consistent in terms of quality. Lesser known characters like Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern Corps. have gotten their chance to shine on the small screen with these features. They have also used the medium to adapt multiple well known comic storylines such as Under the Red Hood, All Star Superman, and JLA: Tower of Babel released as Justice League: Doom.
Continuing in this tradition DC and Warner Bros. have put out Part 1 of 2, adaptation of Frank Millers four issue Batman story, The Dark Knight Returns. The 1986 4 issue run is just behind Watchmen in terms of stories that defined the 80s comics. Frank Miller gave readers a old, retired, whiskey drinking, mustachioed, self loathing Bruce Wayne. Set against a stagnant Gotham City stuck in its own self loathing and inaction. The Dark Knight Returns was a novelty when it came out. Even if it was used as one of the main inspirations for The Dark Knight Rises the (relative) masses get to see what the original is all about.
Gotham City has long been the backdrop of all of Batman families adventures. The city has taken on multiple styles: gothic, a neon drenched metropolis, Chicago. Over the years in film,TV, and comics. All of them having a varying degrees of actual purpose. The Gotham City of The Dark Knight Returns is best described as dirty 80’s New York. You can get a real feel for this in the comics. As Wayne walks the streets early on we get a nice long tracking shot of this Gotham. The translation to film keeps the architecture but not the “dirtiness”. There are some hints of grime, hookers, Mutants, crazy homeless people, some trash, but you don’t get the slightly dystopic feel for it until the news broadcasts.
It has been 10 years since the Batman was seen fighting crime in Gotham City. Now Bruce Wayne fills his nights with whiskey and nightmares. In his absence crime and inaction have taken over Gotham City and America. The Mutant gang kills without thought or purpose. Unemployment is on the rise. Worst of all the sweltering heat. Than one night as Wayne works over another glass of whiskey it becomes to much and “the war” continues again.
If there is one thing I’ve noticed in reading Frank Miller’s work it is his use of a self loathing protagonist. And in The Dark Knight Returns Wayne absolutely hates himself. Blaming himself for the death of Robin #2 Jason Todd has gone into retirement/exile. In the comic this was easily translated by the near constant use of inner monologue. At times Wayne seems delusional talking to “Batman” or former Robin Dick Grayson.
Inner monologues are largely gone in Part 1 across the board. This was the right call. You can’t have Peter Weller, no matter how cool (at first) his robotic monotone voice sounds, talking for nearly 10 of the first 15 minutes of the film. The animation style doesn't get across just how self loathing Wayne is in issue 1 The Dark Knight Returns. Never the less this is a visual medium and showing the psychotic break and rebirth of “Batman” is handled appropriately.
So how did director Jay Oliva get it right? Montage. Starting with news footage of Harvey Dents release we are given a montage of increasingly dark and violent news reports as Wayne flips through the channels. Eventually coming across an airing of The Mark of Zorro(1941), the film seen by the Wayne family just before their trip down crime alley in most origin stories. The memory of his parents murders is then cut, as yet another turn of the channel, between yet more grizzly news. Growing in darkness and speed with every turn of the channel. All of this supported by the score, written by Christopher Drake, who does his best work, adding a typical dirty 80’s mood with his synth. After the glass and pearls fall to the floor a distraught Bruce is greeted by the voice of Batman “You try to hold me back, but you're weak. You know it in your soul. You're nothing but a hollow shell. A rusty trap. The time has come.” Having had enough of the lack of action from Gotham, the wrath of God is unleashed upon Gotham once again.
The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is understandably violent. Easily earning the PG-13 rating, with its use of blood and situation. Despite this you actually don’t really see a whole lot of it. During the first return montage and later action sequences, Batman is shown as if he were a supernatural being pulling ne'er do wells into the shadows. Only giving brief glimpses of the Batman in action. This stops after the first fight with Mutant Leader since there is no one left to fight. The two encounters with Mutant Leader bare a certain resemblance to the structure used with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
One of the more constant complaints from the DC features have been the running time. All of them have been in that 70-77 minute range. The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is not hampered by its 77 minute run. Part 1 follows the first two issues, dealing with the Mutant gangs hold on Gotham City and the return of Batman from his 10 year exile.
Part 1 is a largely faithful adaption. The only thing missing is the near constant inner monologue from Bruce Wayne. Other than a couple of dialogue changes things are as they were on the page. At one point during Gordons biggest speaking moment I had to check if they had changed it, they hadn’t. It still doesn't fully work for me. Part 1 tells the story correctly, hitting most of the beats but some of the nuance, like most DC direct to video features, is lost.
One of the things that seemed most likely to be cut in the adaptive process would be the majority of the news segments. The whole movie is connected together by commentary from the news. This commentary builds the world better than any other thing in the book or film. As previously stated, some nuance is lost, mainly the slight satirical nature of Gothams portrayal. Playing it straight doesn't hurt the overall impact of the film.
If there were one thing to update (read: change) from book to film it would be the reasoning used by Gordon during his chat with new Police Commissioner Yindel. He her a metaphor about the Pearl Harbor attacks and the possibility that President Roosevelt might of known the attack was coming and didn’t stop it. Similar to the Coventry conspiracy. Gordon uses this to remove himself from making judgements about the good or bad of working with Batman, claiming it to be too big for him. That’s a cop out if I ever saw one. Expecially after having the Dark Knight Trilogy or shows like Sons of Anarchy explore the morality of the Police working with things outside the law.
One of the most contentious things going into this was the casting of Peter Weller. Not to sound like a rabid fanboy but Kevin Conroy or Bruce Greenwood had previously voiced Bruce Wayne/Batman before. Conroy already did his own “Old Man Bruce” in the Batman Beyond series. Upon first watch the voice of Peter Weller stuck out like a sore thumb. Robotic with a bit of a growl at the end, in the beginning. It sounded so segmented from the rest of the film. Going through this again, and again it became more noticeable. The humanization of his voice. Go back and listen to it in the first 15 minutes compared to his goodbye to Gordon and they two different but similar tones. The latter though sound far more integrated than the former. Conroy may be an iconic voice of Batman, but never really did anything with great range.
The majority of the focus of Part 1 is correctly put upon the state Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 does introduce a key character in the form of Carrie Kelly, who becomes his new Robin. She becomes more important later on. In Part 1 her existence symbolically is what is important, for Wayne and the story. What is a Batman without Robin? She does help ad character to the world, further building it out.
With singular works being split into two part offerings becoming more common it is heartening to see it (so far). The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 shouldn't be thought of half of a singular story. Part 1 is the beginning of a series of stories set within this universe.
Christopher Drake does his best work in The Dark Knight Returns Part 1. Making viewers cognizant of his music but never overpowering the film into some sort of AMV. The majority of his music can best be described as brooding marching synth, which really is what comes to mind if I think of movies from the 1980's. At the sametime he fits the same abstract style that Hanz Zimmer has used in The Dark Knight trilogy.