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THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS PART 1
(***)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:
Jay Oliva
Writers:
Bob Goodman, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller
Starring the Voices of:
Peter Weller, Ariel Winter and David Selby
Length:   76 minutes
Released:   092512-direct to dvd
Rating:
PG-13
It's not a perfect translation, but Batman fans should be pleased, and admirers of Nolan's version of the character should definitely check this out." 
"You don't get it, son. This isn't a mudhole. It's an operating table... and I'm the surgeon."

A dark, gritty rendition of the Batman mythos, Frank Miller's 1986 classic, 'The Dark Knight Returns,' remains one of the most important stories ever told in the superhero medium. Along with Alan Moore's seminal 'Watchmen,' the series helped define the modern era of comic book storytelling, paving the way for more complex, literary interpretations of classic spandex-clad heroes. Though it's been a major influence on Christopher Nolan's 'Dark Knight' film series, a true adaptation of the comic has remained elusive. That is, until now. Produced by Batman mainstay Bruce Timm, this animated adaptation attempts to do the groundbreaking series justice. Faced with a rather daunting task, the filmmakers have done a solid job, and while there are a few issues here and there, this is a mostly successful translation of Miller's celebrated work.

Set in a dystopian Gotham City, the story follows an aging Bruce Wayne (Peter Weller) who decides to come out of a ten year long retirement as Batman. With a vicious street gang called "The Mutants" terrorizing the city, Wayne once again dons the cape and cowl to fight injustice. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent (Wade Williams) is released from imprisonment, complete with plastic surgery that's healed his hideous scars. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about his fragile psyche, and Two Face soon returns to a life of crime. Joined by a plucky young female Robin named Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter), Batman attempts to handle Two Face and the Mutants, but the Dark Knight isn't a young man anymore and his body might not be up to the task. As he is beaten and battered, Wayne struggles to find the strength needed to vanquish his foes before it's too late.

Staying rather close to the source material, the filmmakers present a mostly faithful adaptation of Miller's challenging comic. Elements have been simplified, and there are a few bits of new material, but all of the major beats are here, and several scenes are taken straight from the book. The film even features many of the extended news reports that litter the comic, providing a larger overview of Gotham and Batman's place within the mindset of the city. The most notable absence from the book, however, involves the exclusion of Batman's inner monologue. This makes sense, as a voice over heavy presentation would likely have been overbearing, but I can't help but miss Batman's noir influenced observations and personal insights.

For those unfamiliar with the comic, the film's portrayal of Batman might seem like a pretty jarring departure from many classic interpretations. While a dark and brooding take on the character and his rogues gallery has become a staple of the Batman mythology, Miller's work really takes it to the absolute extreme. An unrelentingly dark, exaggerated, Clint Eastwood-esque figure, Miller's Batman is a hulking, weathered beast of a man. Calculated, physically intimidating, and quite psychotic, this is a much more violent and brutal take on the Caped Crusader. Likewise, the story examines the twisted psychology of the character, elaborating on Wayne's almost primal need to be Batman. He seems to relish every punch and kick, whether he's doling them out or receiving them.

Keeping in line with the respectful treatment of the story, the animation also provides a pretty decent approximation of Miller's distinct style. The characters have certainly been streamlined, and the overall presentation lacks the gritty texture of the source material, but the designs still manage to evoke Miller's intentions fairly well. It's not quite a direct translation, but at times it's pretty close. Action scenes are well staged and carry a moody sense of atmosphere, and while the flick can be very brutal, the violence has been toned down from the book.

Robocop himself, Peter Weller, handles vocal duties for Bruce Wayne/Batman, and while this paring sounds great on paper, in practice it's a bit of a mixed bag. Weller's monotone delivery can feel flat at times, but the actor still manages to bring a solid level of grizzled intensity and restrained psychosis to the role (though I still think they should have gone with Michael Ironside who did a great rendition of Miller's Batman on an episode of the 90s animated series). Unfortunately, several other characters are prone to occasionally stilted delivery as well, but the majority of the cast is decent overall (Ariel Winter's spirited Robin being the real standout).

While mostly effective, the film does have some issues. The animation is good, but there are times when the style can be a little too simple, with rather bland and mundane backdrops. Despite my admiration for the source material, I actually think that the book is a bit overrated, and many of its flaws find their way onto the screen as well. Beyond the novelty of Miller's dark take on the Batman mythology (which isn't so novel anymore), characterizations are actually very thin. Batman's internal monologue helped to flesh out his motivations in the book, but as I mentioned earlier, those insights are lost here, and it really hurts the presentation. I remember being really drawn in by Miller's dark prose, and that sense of character found in the comic's captions is mostly absent. Likewise, the plot is basic and while it leads to some cool action, there really isn't a whole lot of depth beneath the narrative (if the comic is any indication, the second part should be more robust in this regard). Though understandable, Warner's decision to split the comic into two films also doesn't help matters much, as the story feels incomplete and a little too short. Also, the Mutants' ridiculous futuristic lingo is just as annoying as it was in the book. Actually, it's even more annoying.

A truly defining work of superhero storytelling, Frank Miller's 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Part 1' is given a very solid adaptation. The story is largely intact, the animation evokes Miller's style well, and there is an effectively moody sense of doom that permeates throughout the runtime. With that said, the voice acting is a mixed bag, the inherent flaws of the source material remain, and the missing narration places us at a distance from the protagonist. It's not a perfect translation, but Batman fans should be pleased, and admirers of Nolan's version of the character should definitely check this out.
 

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS PART1  2013 Warner Home Video
All Rights Reserved

Review 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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