Movie Review – The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

Ok – first of all let me say that I am an avid Batman fan, have been for nearly 30 years. I’ve owned a copy of The Dark Knight Returns for nearly 20 years and I must’ve read the thing dozens of times. In the past couple of years, DC has released some amazingly entertaining animated films, and like many fans I was excited to hear that TDKR was getting the same treatment. Having just purchased and watched it, however, I’m afraid it fell well flat of my expectations. Don’t get me wrong – it’s by no means terrible, it’s just not as good as it should’ve been. Let me explain…The Dark Knight Returns - Part 1

Animation:
The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most important books in the history of Batman, and the reason is because in 1986 this gritty, mature “graphic novel” re-introduced characters to the Batman – but this wasn’t the “Super-Friends” Batman with his goofy gadgets & Mr. Rogers take on crime-fighting. This was a man who was tormented by psychological demons, a man whose drive for revenge-tainted justice nearly controlled him instead of the other way around. Two ways the book immersed readers in this world was the moody voice-over narration of the characters, but perhaps even more was the dark, gritty, bloody artwork of the piece. Although TDKR Part 1 does manage to somewhat mimic that look, it’s intensity & edge is completely lost in the more vibrant and colorful animation style of the film. One of the darker styles seen in Batman: Gotham Knight would have suited this work much better. To the animators’ credit, however, the character art was fairly similar to those seen in the book.

Story:
As I mentioned above, the graphic novel was a very story-driven piece. Much of the plot advancement was in the form of narratives given by each character, sometimes many all at once merging together into a jumbled chaos of “voices”. This resulted in it coming off as almost more of a psychological thriller than a superhero action piece. The overall story arc of the book is broken into 4 chapters or volumes – each dealing with a significant milestone of Batman’s return. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading the graphic novel, here is a breakdown of the major plot for each volume:

  • Volume 1: The aging Bruce Wayne returns to the mantle of the Bat when a supposedly rehabilitated Harvey Dent appears to have reverted back to his criminal ways. After a decade of retirement, Batman begins taking the city back from the increasingly violent criminal element.
  • Volume 2: Having come to terms with his role as the Batman, Wayne now concentrates on a plan to wrestle control of Gotham back from the vicious gang of criminals called The Mutants. It also marks the last time he works with Commissioner Gordon in any official capacity. Lastly, thanks to the re-appearance of Batman in the media, a near-catatonic Joker returns to his old self and starts working on both his escape from Arkham and his final battle with Batman.
  • Volume 3: Joker proceeds with his plan to finally force Batman to cross the line he swore he never would. While eluding the Gotham Police – who are now pursuing Batman under the leadership of new commissioner Ellen Yindel – Batman and his new sidekick must unravel the Joker’s plan and stop him at all costs.
  • Volume 4: Following the events of the previous book, the federal government can no longer overlook the vigilante of Gotham. Their solution is to send their enforcer – none other than Superman – to deal with the situation. While planning for the inevitable showdown, Batman begins taking steps to secure his legacy once and for all… and no spit-curled Kryptonian is going to stop him.

Now, TDKR Part 1 covers primarily the second volume of the four, which leaves the first part with Harvey feeling kind of rushed. From what I’ve read, there will only be two parts to the film, but I really would’ve liked to see at least a trilogy so that each story element could get the attention it deserves. Which brings me to my next point – in Part 1, I noticed that there were several minor scenes that didn’t appear in the books and didn’t add anything to the story. These obvious “fluff pieces” were most likely added because once they broke down the original script into parts, there were gaps. I knew it wouldn’t be a panel-for-panel translation but I don’t see why they added these scenes (most of which extrapolate what happened between the scenes actually in the book), yet left out or truncated other scenes that were in the book. Especially if they only have two movies to work with – there is plenty of source material without adding anything!

Another aspect of the story-telling that was quite jarring for me was the lack of narratives. Many of the details from the character’s narrative “thoughts” in the book were instead inserted into dialogue in the film. In my opinion, this again forces the film to lose much of its potential intensity. Rather than catching a glimpse into the psychology of the characters, we get a short, terse line of dialogue that may or may not convey the intent of the original narrative. In many cases I think the original intent was lost when changed to dialogue.

Voice Work:
For me, the voice work in the film is perhaps the biggest disappointment. I had a lot of fun watching Peter Weller as both Buckaroo Bonzai as well as Robocop… but his voice just doesn’t leap out as Batman. Granted, after years of hearing Kevin Conroy in the iconic role, these are tough shoes to fill. Gordon was ok (but not great), and some of the other voices left me on the fence. I realize that everyone “hears” a different voice in their head when they read the graphic novel, but almost none of these voices sounded anywhere close to what I imagined. The mutant leader sounded like Christian Bale’s “growling” Batman whereas I always imagined something closer to Michael Clarke Duncan or Keith David with their deep, booming voices. Many of the voice actors sounded like they were just phoning in a paycheck rather than immersing themselves in the character – they almost sounded bored, even. Carrie’s parents didn’t sound like hippie stoners, even though they were saying the lines. Almost none of the mutant gang members sounded like teenagers… or even gang members. It sounded like a bunch of white-collar nerds trying to sound gangster. The debates about the ethics of Batman didn’t sound heated, and the Joker (his one line at the end, that is) sounded simply awful – not psychotic or manic at all. Again, I suppose maybe I’m just spoiled after listening to Mark Hamill for years.

Overall:
I realize it probably sounds like I’m ripping this thing apart, but it wasn’t all bad – it just didn’t live up to my expectations by any means. With such an iconic book that I’ve read over and over (and over), perhaps meeting those expectations was impossible. Then again, DC and Marvel both have done some amazing things lately with animated films. So who knows… maybe Part 2 will change my mind. Until then, I give this a 7 out of 10.

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2 responses to “Movie Review – The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

  1. I’ve always liked The Dark Knight Returns and have been hearing mixed reviews from all sides about this animated film. Regardless I’m still going to watch it, but I liked how you made valid arguments grounded in the previous work. Very few were able to actually articulate to me what they didn’t like about it (or did like…beyond it being a ‘cool batman movie’) Thanks!

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  2. Pingback: Movie Review – The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 | Omegacron: The Blog

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