More than 25 years after Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s four-part prestige format comic book series/graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns changed the landscape for comic books thereafter, DC Animation produced a quality animated adaptation. Released in two parts, we reviewed The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 here last year. Part 1 was a faithful adaptation of roughly the first half of the original graphic novel. It proved first and foremost that Christopher Nolan really pulled his key story elements in his Dark Knight trilogy of films from Frank Miller’s work. Part 1 really keyed in on Nolan’s Bane character. Both Part 1 and the Dark Knight trilogy failed to provide an exciting narrative, however, when compared to The Dark Knight Returns Part 2, now on video.
Part 2 is every bit as faithful to the original as Part 1. Commissioner Gordon has already stepped down and was replaced by a new commissioner whose first act is issuing a warrant for Batman. The vacuous Doctor Wolper brings his patient The Joker to appear on Miller’s take on The David Letterman Show, only for The Joker to release a gas bombing that kills the entire audience as well as the host, leaving The Joker’s trademark grin on all their faces. From the first sentences of Part 2, you know this is not a kid’s Batman film. The Joker escapes and proceeds to bloodily murder everyone in his path until he confronts Batman in the bowels of Gotham City. Here the classic confrontation between the long-time foes plays out exactly as it should.
Peter Weller’s Batman voice work is not a traditional Batman, but it is the Batman/Bruce Wayne required of Miller’s story–an older Batman without the energy he had in his prime, a bit out of steam. We even see what appear to be either borg hand workings or possibly it’s just part of his elaborate armor, a must-need for Batman to be able to believably take on his next epic battle in the film. Lost’s Michael Emerson similarly portrays not the classic over-the-top animated Joker of Mark Hamill, but his Joker also is more grizzled by time (and likely decades in prison?).
Ariel Winter continues as the female sidekick Robin, and enough time has passed in the story between Part 1 and Part 2 that we see a genuine partnership between Batman and Robin, if a bit more of Batman watching over Robin than prior incarnations of his wily sidekick. Winter’s performance is spot-on for the eager and excited kid superhero. Fringe star Mark Valley (who we’ve said before would make a great Steve Austin/Bionic Man) voices Superman. His performance is actually better than Miller’s weak Superman deserves.
The musical score, as was Part 1, is cinematic and possibly equal to that of The Dark Knight Rises. As we mentioned in our review of Part 1, if you close yours eyes it is easy to imagine that what is in front of you is a complete live-action movie.
Memorable scenes from the book are plentiful: When Superman fails to prevent a nuclear warhead from detonating, the power grid in the northern hemisphere dims, including loss of batteries, leading to Batman and Robin rallying on horseback the Sons of Batman to help keep peace in the city instead of continuing their thuggish ways. For Batman’s classic battle to the death with Superman, Alfred again burns down Wayne Manor, dying of a heart attack as he finishes his work.
But it’s Batman’s scheming with Green Arrow/Oliver Queen that provides the high points of the film’s climax. Now primarily bald but with a classic Robin Hood-esque appearance and minus one arm thanks to a previous battle with Superman, Oliver returns again with a bow and quiver full of arrows to save the day and allow Batman to prove Superman can be beaten. Where Miller’s story revealed the days of the World’s Finest team-up long gone, we are left at the end with the Batman-Green Arrow duo from the pages of The Brave and the Bold forging ahead. I’ve always appreciated Miller’s choice to include only Oliver Queen from the Justice League of America outside of Superman and Batman in his classic work instead of the Flash, Aquaman, Hawkman, or even Wonder Woman. It leaves a great future Oliver Queen vs. Superman story to be told by someone else at another time.
What we missed the most from the standard DVD version were any extras, which are available on the Blu-ray edition. Make sure you check which version you buy if you want to view any extra features about the film. A Blu-Ray edition includes a “Making of” featurette.
Taking both Part 1 and Part 2 together, DC Animation successfully adapted a key graphic novel for the screen. What doesn’t possibly stand-up today are the talking head broadcasters that push a lot of the original plot forward. The animated film might have benefitted from Bruce Wayne/Batman’s inner-narration, which is such a key part of the graphic novel. And the animation doesn’t approach the grittiness of Miller’s original pencil work. Ultimately you either love or hate what Miller did to these beloved characters: Batman’s role in retirement and beyond is not that surprising, but Robin was completely reworked and Superman becomes a stooge for President Ronald Reagan. The political battle undercutting the story between Russian and U.S. relations also does not carry the weight it did in the 1980s. And as format is concerned, releasing the movie in two parts seems simply a way to make more money off the film. There’s no reason for this movie not to be released in a single release, and no reason why it shouldn’t have had some kind of even limited run in theaters.
Together Part 1 and Part 2 create a fun ride, more fun in Part 2 than in Part 1, but it will hold your attention with great animation, colors, music, and action. Both are available in video stores, via Netflix and at Amazon.com.