Depending on whom you ask Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” is either the greatest or the second-greatest comic book story of all-time, so there’s a lot of expectations involved in adapting it to a movie.Warner Bros. Animation handled those with “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1,” but the second half of the four-part story is arguably harder as it’s packed with iconic moments that helped craft a generation of comic book creators.
While I question the need to split the story into two 75-min. films, this second half is a fully-realized achievement that does right by fans of the source material and is the new standard of excellence for Warner animated films.
In the first installment, Batman (Peter Weller) has returned after a decade-long absence to his role as Gotham’s Caped Crusader. Physically, he’s not the man he was, but he’s just as passionate about cleaning the streets of Gotham. Just as he’s getting re-adjusted to being Batman complete with a new Robin (Ariel Winter) the Joker (a perfectly unhinged Michael Emerson, “Lost”) is recovering from a mental breakdown; his ally, Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) is retiring and his successor, Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals), wants him arrested while Superman (Mark Valley) is being forced to take him down for good.
Emerson makes Joker more terrifying than any previous version and finally there’s a version of Joker that’s so crazed he has no redeeming value and Valley has the perfect tone for an idealistic, heroic Superman. Weller’s take on Batman didn’t do much for me as it’s just too flat. The definitive Batman story needed the definitive voice of animated Batman — Kevin Conroy. It was far more distracting trying not to hear Hawkwoman since Canals didn’t change her voice at all in playing Yindel. At least Conroy would have played the same character.
The story is the most faithful of the DC Comics direct video films so far — a smart decision as there’s no sense adapting Miller’s work if you’re going to make wholesale changes.
Still, it was shocking at how true to the graphic novel it stayed particularly with some of the more risqué elements like Joker’s henchwoman, Bruno, running around topless save the two Swastikas covering her breasts; keeping an obvious, but unidentified Ronald Regan as the president and a bound and gagged Catwoman in a Wonder Woman costume. This isn’t an all-ages Batman story and Warner Bros. Animated deserves a ton of credit for not shying away from the tale’s more controversial elements.
The animation gives the story greater weight such as Joker randomly shooting people and the climatic showdown with Superman has the epic clash of titans it merited. Miller’s art and words can only convey so much, but watching it “come to life” makes it even more impactful. The violence is even more in your face and there’s a greater sense of suspense watching a bleeding and battered Batman trying to stay ahead of his numerous pursuers.
If you’re a fan of Miller’s work, this was the best possible way to see it realized on screen save Christopher Nolan taking one more spin in the Batman universe. Highly recommended.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10