Batman: The Dark Knight Returns part 1: A Quality Compromise

Well, what a weekend I had!

There I was, sitting in a Second Cup enjoying an iced hot chocolate and the latest Transformers comic when I was unceremoniously black-bagged and tasered. Of course, this isn’t that unusual on a Saturday afternoon in my neighbourhood, but when I woke up this time I found myself duct-taped to a chair and being beat mercilessly about the face and chest by three rather snappily dressed men.

They never told me directly what I had done to incur such wrath, but towards the end one of them muttered “Boring my ass” and as they were dragging me out I’m fairly certain I saw them bringing Roger Ebert in.

This is what I get for reviewing movies by auteur directors.

So screw it, this week I’m reviewing something I wanna talk about, something whose director doesn’t have a cult following more loyal and rabid than the hordes of Sauron.

The Dark Knight Rises!

Nope, just kidding, if I told you what I really feel about that one I’d never be seen or heard from again.

No, I’m reviewing another Batman movie that came out this year, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1.

For the last few years now, DC Comics and its’ parent company Warner Brothers have been putting out a steady stream of Direct-to-DVD animated features based on some of their most beloved stories, and since this is Warner Brothers, most of them have involved Batman, him being the only superhero they know how to or care to market properly. Their latest undertaking is possibly their most ambitious yet, a two part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, the 1986 miniseries by Frank Miller, which most comic fans call either the best or at least most influential Batman story ever written.

So how does the first part stack up?

In a word, compromised.

Starting off on a good note, the plot remains intact. We start many years after Bruce Wayne (now over 50 but still built like the proverbial brick shithouse) has hung up the cape and cowl, leaving all that crime-fighting business aside in favor of drinking and growing a sweet mustache. But, as is usually the case, things in Gotham haven’t gotten better, and a new gang calling themselves The Mutants have started terrorizing the city. Inevitably, Batman decides to enter the fray, but this time he is decisively not fucking around, and matches the brutality of the mutants with an even more extreme and violent response to crime than before.

This is Batman pushed to his limit. Whereas before he’d tie a badguy up and leave him for the cops, this time he’s more likely to cripple him for life. The plot beats are kept intact, as well as Frank Miller’s trademark political/social commentary, in the form of “talking heads” that pop up as news reports, as people in and out of Gotham furiously debate Batman’s role in society, and whether he’s doing more harm than good. Only a couple of scenes are omitted, and the dialogue remains as faithful as possible, although I did wince at a few additions, including one that somewhat ruined my favorite scene in the book.

The brutal violence of the original is also kept in, to my surprise. The fight scenes are brutal, hard hitting and bloody, especially towards the climax. This is most definitely not for kids, despite being animated, and I dare say is even more brutal and violent than Rises.

Continuing on the positivity train before we get derailed at petty gripe junction, the soundtrack is fantastic, and gives a lot of dramatic punch to the already well-put together scenes. There are some really fantastic and well-directed dramatic moments here, to say nothing of the healthy share of Crowning Moments of Awesome.

But this is me we’re talking about, so sadly it’s gripe o’clock, and the film does have it’s fair share of those.

For starters, the animation is just boring, as is sadly the case with most of these DC Animated affairs. There’s clearly a lot of effort put in to mirroring specific panel compositions and iconic shots from the graphic novel, but the animators didn’t make much of an effort to imitate the actual art style.

The sense of grit and dystopia that came through from the original artwork is completely gone. Trying to emulate this faithfully would have, admittedly, been a great risk on DC’s part, and could easily have looked goofy or odd, and distanced newer viewers. However, if it would have worked, it would have made for a FAR more visually interesting movie, and set it apart from it’s animated brethren.

The voice acting is similarly nothing spectacular. Interestingly enough, Robocop himself Peter Weller plays Batman, and while I do applaud taking chances in casting rather than just giving the role to Kevin Conroy like they usually do….Weller sucks. Every line is delivered with the same robotic drone he employed in Robocop, and it absolutely ruins some of the best lines in the thing. I may have been willing to overlook this if they did something clever like cast Kurtwood Smith as the Joker, but alas no.

Finally, ALL of the narration from the original book has been exorcised from the thing like a Marlowe-esque demon, and while Weller’s performance would have ruined that too, how the bloody hell do you adapt a Frank Miller comic and take out the hardboiled narration?? The dialogue is re-worked in places to compensate for this, but still, it’s just not The Dark Knight Returns without jems like “The rain on my chest is a baptism. I’m born again. I smell their fear – – and it is sweet”, y’know?

And yet, despite these glaring flaws…I can’t hate this. Sure the voice acting sucks, and the animation is boring, and I miss the narration like hell, but what’s left is still damn good. It’s got some great moments, a solid pace, good atmosphere and brutal action, so the nagging voices in my head stayed more or less silent, except for the occasional flare up at a badly delivered line or the odd suggestion that I burn something.

And to tackle the elephant in the room: Yes, it is better than The Dark Knight Rises.

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