On video–DC Animation gets it right with The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

Review by C.J. Bunce

Thankfully for fans of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the first modern and most celebrated graphic novel, DC Universe Animation’s new animated movie The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 delivers all that you would want.  It’s not the live action film we’ve all hoped for for years, but if you just listen to the film it will pull you in to thinking this is a live action movie with full special effects and a new and appropriately dark Batman soundtrack.  The visuals are faithful to the original, with key iconic splash pages and panels from the sourcework recreated on the screen.  The only piece missing is Bruce Wayne/Batman’s inner narration, which was not used in the film, a choice that some may like and some may not.  As a fan of voiceover narration, I would have included it.  That said, if you’re not thinking about it you won’t miss it, and the action sequences are well choreographed so it’s not a necessity to keeping this a great adaptation.

The graphic novel is broken into two parts in the film, with the arguably weakest of the two halves in this first film–all the fun of The Joker, Superman, Green Arrow and Batman on horseback is saved for Part 2, due out by year-end 2013.  We begin as with the novel, a car race with Bruce Wayne at age 55 doing his best Paul Newman impression as a racecar driver.  He wrecks and were he anyone else he’d have been killed.  Young director Jay Oliva and writer Bob Goodman adhere closely to the Miller story, incorporating 1980s era fashion, futuristic street language (“Slice and dice, slice and dice!”), and talking head TV reporters that give us all the backstory and fill us in on all the details to amplify the plot throughout the film.  This includes interviews with Lana Lang, now head of The Daily Planet.

It’s ten years since Gotham last saw the Batman.  Bruce Wayne has been funding the reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation of Harvey Dent, a former mayor who turned into the psychotic villain Two-Face after an accident resulted in the loss of half his face. A gang called the Mutants are the foe, the crime element that pulls Batman out of retirement along with Dent vanishing upon release from prison.  Commissioner Jim Gordon has one month before retirement.  Bruce Wayne has many regrets, and in particular we hear several references to the death of Robin Jason Todd.  Todd was murdered by The Joker years before in the Batman comic book series, later compiled as a trade paperback in A Death in the Family As Batman confronts the leader of the Mutants he is nearly killed only to be saved by a little girl with gymnast skills who has purchased on off-the-rack Robin costume.  It is this Robin that was hard to love in Frank Miller’s work, yet here, as voiced by the young actress Ariel Winter, Robin is an older Daria from the old MTV series of the same name.  She’s likable, and it becomes understandable why Bruce would take her under his wing despite butler/confidant Alfred’s protestations.  By the end of The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, Commissioner Gordon is finally retired.  Batman crushes the Mutants, leaving them to splinter off into other gangs, including the ironic band of brothers the Sons of Batman.

The animated film really highlights how much of Frank Miller’s work Christopher Nolan swiped for The Dark Knight Rises, this past summer’s big Batman release.  This direct-to-video Batman story is a better executed film with more compellling story and acting than the big budget version.  Casting is key, and one bonus feature on the DVD includes casting director Andrea Romano, who we saw this year in San Diego as script coordinator for the animated TV series The Legend of Korra.  She herself is quite fun and animated and could almost have her own show talking about the animation process and use of voice actors.  Here, casting means using actors like Peter Weller as Batman and Michael McKean as Dent’s psychiatrist–familiar actors yet their voices blend in nicely and they never distract from the film.  The best casting decision will probably be found in The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 where the actor who played the villain from the TV series Lost, Michael Emerson voices The Joker–samples of which are found in the bonus features.

The sound work stands out–like the best of radio plays–voicing and sound effects and music come together to make this sound like a live action movie.  In fact if you flip off the lights and just listen to the film it brings us that much closer to what we all want–the live action version of this story.

The color and design are ripped off the pages of Klaus Janson’s original novel artwork.  The blues and gold hues of the stormy Gotham come to life, reflecting the key visual aesthetic of the graphic novel.

Keep an eye ou for “Easter Eggs” like these graphic novels in the abckground at a local supermarket in The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1.

The Blu-Ray/DVD set includes preview of The Dark Knight Returns Part 2, including discussion with the director, producers and actors.  Here are some of the features:

  • Standard and high-definition versions of the feature film
  • UltraViolet Digital Download and Streaming Version
  • Sneak Peak at The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2, the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie
  • Featurette – “Her Name is Carrie … Her Role is Robin” – An all-new featurette. Experience the role of Robin, through the eyes of a female warrior.
  • Featurette – “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story” – A documentary comprehensively chronicling the remarkable life of the creator of Batman.
  • Two bonus episodes from Batman: The Animated Series handpicked by producer Alan Burnett: Two-Face, Parts 1 and 2
  • Digital Comic – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (partial digital comic)

Part 2 is due out in late 2013.  The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is available in stores and at a discount off retail at Amazon.com.

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