THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, PART 1"
Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns was revolutionary. Its dark, brooding take on Batman was light years away from the often campy way the character was portrayed on screen, and a few shades darker than he was typically depicted on the page. Miller's vision was a direct influence on Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie, as well as Christopher Nolan's later Dark Knight trilogy. Amazingly, the book itself has never been adapted for the screen, until now. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, on DVD Sept. 25, uses animation to tell the first half of the tale – a perfect format for this groundbreaking work.
The story finds Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) a middle-aged man, now ten years retired from fighting crime in a bat costume. His longtime colleague, Commissioner Gordon (David Selby), is also about to retire. When Gotham falls victim to a gang of ruthless lunatics known as the Mutants, Wayne gets itchy to save his city again, especially when he discovers they may have a connection to one of his long-time adversaries, Harvey Dent. Much to his surprise, the return of Batman isn't entirely welcome. TV pundits – and a suspicious psychiatrist named Dr. Bartholomew Wolper (Michael McKean) – are quick to label him a public menace. Nevertheless, he soldiers on, eventually getting an assist from a young girl named Carrie (Ariel Winter), who aspires to be the new Robin.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 maintains the distinct visual style Miller created for his book, using animation to bring it to life. It wasn't broke, so they didn't try to fix it. Good move. The storytelling approach is kept faithful too. As on the page, the events are often interspersed with television commentary. Miller made a bold-for-its-time statement about the prevalence of “talking heads” in media that the film replicates. Part of the genius of the story is that it deconstructs the idea of a costumed crime-fighter, with side characters arguing for and against the vigilante approach. This gives it more depth than you'd expect from a comic book or a comic book-based animated feature. Voice acting is top notch, too, with Weller making a terrific Batman.
Of course, this is only part one of two, so there's an abrupt ending that will leave you hanging until the second part arrives in 2013. Still, they picked just the right moment to stop, creating the very best kind of cliffhanger, i.e. the kind that makes you crave more. If you're a Batman fan and you've never read Miller's book, you should. I also recommend checking out this film. It's highly respectful of the work on which it is based, yet also a solidly entertaining effort in its own right.
The DVD comes with a sneak peek of Part 2, while the Blu-Ray will contain a featurette on the character of Robin, a documentary about Batman creator Bob Kane, two bonus episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series,” and a digital comic.
( 1/2 out of four)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action. The running time is 1 hour and 16 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!