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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns(2012)
Batman has not been seen for ten years. A new breed of criminal ravages Gotham City, forcing fifty-five-year-old Bruce Wayne back into the cape and cowl, but does he still have what it takes to fight crime in a new era?
For more about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray release, see Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on September 15, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Peter Weller, Michael Emerson, Gary Anthony Williams, David Selby, Ariel Winter, Mark Valley
Director: Jay Oliva
» See full cast & crew
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray Review
A seamless cut, new audio commentary, and feature-length Frank Miller doc? Count me in...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, September 15, 2013
Successfully adapting Frank Miller's seminal 1986 limited series, "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," would be a monumental challenge and undertaking for anyone, Christopher Nolan included, and it's long been considered unfilmable. (Alan Moore's Watchmen being another, not that Zack Snyder didn't prove just how filmable a fairly faithful adaptation really could be.) Executive producer Bruce Timm and his team apparently don't scare so easily. For Warner Bros. Animation's fifteenth and sixteenth DC Universe animated original movies, Timm and his fellow producers have decided to finally give comic fans the adaptation they've spent more than twenty-five years begging for.
Originally released in two parts, The Dark Knight Returns is a far more successful adaptation than I expected, and a more fully realized animated film than the bulk of DCU original animated movies on the market. Part 1 admittedly lacked some of the depth and complexity for which Miller's take on the Dark Knight mythos is revered -- specifically the comicbook's running narration and the insight it provided into Batman's perspective and actions -- but as a traditional animated venture, it excelled. Part 2 also doesn't offer much in the way of Miller's original narration, an unfortunate necessity for the filmmakers and a bittersweet change for fans of the comic, but it doesn't pull any punches either. On almost every front, the film's second half is an intelligent, able-bodied adaptation of its source, a surprisingly bloody, hard-hitting actioner, and a thrilling conclusion to director Jay Oliva and writer Bob Goodman's carefully crafted and beautifully animated superhero saga.
The new Deluxe Edition of The Dark Knight Returns is a slightly different Dark Knight, though, offering a seamless 148-minute cut of the film that stands as a more effective delivery device than either half on its own. And while some will cry "double dip!" and argue this is the only version that should have been released, it's an experiment I'm happy to see the DCU animated movie team attempt. Before now, each DCU film has been 70-80 minutes long. Hopefully, be it by dividing longer stories or by releasing significantly longer standalone movies, the DCU team will be able to present a more cinematic take on these adaptations, and be less and less hemmed in by runtime and budget.
As Oliva and Goodman's adaptation opens, Batman is no longer Gotham City's Dark Knight. There is no Dark Knight. Superheroes have been forced into retirement, the government has taken it upon itself to police the criminal element superheroes once contained, and Batman (voiced by Peter Weller) hasn't been seen or heard from in ten years. Not that Bruce Wayne has disappeared. He's been watching. Growing old. Stale. Disillusioned. Angry. His retirement wasn't a response to government mandate -- the Bat bows to no man -- but to grief and fear. Grief over the death of Jason Todd at the hands of the Joker and fear that his all his efforts have only made Gotham City a breeding ground for the likes of the Clown Prince of Crime. The Joker has retired too. Catatonic since Batman's departure, the once relentless madman has fallen into the depths of his own mind and gone silent. That all changes, though, when a supposedly reformed Harvey Dent (Wade Williams) is released from Arkham and resumes old habits. Bruce reconnects with the vigilante within, dons the cowl, elicits the help of a soon-to-be-retired Commissioner Gordon (David Selby), inadvertently inspires a young girl named Carrie (Ariel Winter) to take up the Robin mantle, and eventually tackles an even greater menace: the Mutants, a gang of vicious thugs led by a brute of a beast (Gary Anthony Williams) who's more than happy to fill the void left by Gotham's incarcerated villains.
On the surface, writer Bob Goodman and director Jay Oliva haven't deviated that far from Miller's "Dark Knight." A few dialogue changes here, a few necessary snips there. A cigar becomes a pack of gum, the media plays a smaller role in the narrative, minor scenes have been exorcised in favor of a more streamlined story. Nothing too severe. Yet beneath the surface, something is off. Miller's noirish narration, which pulled back the curtain on everything Batman was thinking, is gone. A bit of it has been repurposed as offhanded quips but, for the most part, much of what made Miller's Dark Knight so complex and fascinating an avenging angel is left to the imagination or, for those lucky enough to be intimately familiar with the source material, memory. For most comicbook-to-screen adaptations, dropping the original comic's narration is priority number one; in film, it's a tiresome tool that very rarely adds substance to a story. Here, though, it's sorely missed, be it Bruce's dissection of his retirement and reluctance to return to Gotham's rooftops, the particulars of the physical and mental struggles he deals with upon returning, the little details or observations he interjects along the way, or even those things that are more articulated (his taunting of the Mutant leader prior to his second fist fight with the behemoth). With the narration removed, Goodman and Oliva's terrifically animated Batman is -- ironically -- a more two-dimensional man and hero than Miller's Batman, who was bound to the flat page but loomed larger than life. "The Dark Knight Returns" was Batman by way of "Sin City." Initially, The Dark Knight Returns is Batman by way of a more traditionally expositional animated movie.
None of that is to say the opening 73-minutes of the film is a failure. It isn't. Not by any means. What works on the page doesn't necessarily work on the screen, and if you haven't accepted that by now, you're much more of a comic fan than a filmfan. Goodman and Oliva obviously had to make some tough decisions here, and doing away with much of Miller's narration and Gotham's media coverage was one of them. Tonally, it makes sense in a lot of ways. As far as the story and action are concerned, it even helps, allowing the movie to stand both as a functional entity unto itself and a respectful comicbook supplement that departs from the panel-for-panel remake some fans may be expecting. Even when things drift off course (as far as the first two issues of the 1986 limited series are concerned), Goodman and Oliva guide the movie back to where it should be: running parallel to Miller's pulp-dystopian superhero-fiction without being beholden to every bump and twist in the road. There are a few missteps -- without fuller glimpses into Wayne's thought process and mental state, the ghostly bat that haunts him and other aspects of his personal demons aren't given nearly as much context -- but those who haven't read the comic won't take issue with any of it, other than to wonder if Bruce is going senile or having a breakthrough.
The first half of The Dark Knight Returns nails most everything else. The animation is everything it should be, with character designs and compositions lifted straight out of Miller's "Dark Knight," a more evocative style than most DCU animated features are afforded, and a greater flair for the cinematic. Batman's various battles are fluid, hard-hitting and altogether thrilling as well, from his early outings to his construction site fight, Two-Face takedown, tank assault, Mutant leader melee, and final brawl. And the casting, voicework, music, and pacing of the story all click into place, lending extra punch where it's needed and extra finesse when called upon. There are a few quibbles to be had I suppose. Weller is no Clint Eastwood, who Miller envisioned when creating and developing his grizzled Batman. Selby's voice isn't ideal for Gordon either, although his delivery grew on me as the film pressed on. And, spoken aloud, the faux-future Mutant slang sounds stilted, as if the actors weren't sure how to sell it. But these are minor gripes. Winter is dead on as Carrie (spunky and spirited as she should be, without coming off as precocious), Williams doesn't fumble the Mutant leader, and the voice actors filling some of the smaller roles (Michael McKean!) are a blast. And, taking a step back for a moment, Weller works out in the long run, stiff as he is on occasion. Kevin Conroy can do no wrong, mind you, and I'm sure the Batman veteran could have added the requisite age to his now iconic Bats voice. But beggars can't be choosers and I've begged for a "Dark Knight Returns" adaptation for years.
So we come to the second half of the film, which does nothing less than lunge for the jugular...
I didn't have to go easy on you. A different binding agent, a stronger mix... I want you to remember that. I wanted to remind you to stay out of my way. In all the years to come, in your most private moments, I want you to remember the one man who beat you.
Two Face defeated. The Mutant Leader forcefully deposed. The Mutant gang fractured and dispersed. Batman is Gotham's Dark Knight once again. His resurrection, though, comes at a cost: the Gotham City police have been ordered to hunt him down, the President of the United States (Jim Meskimen) is growing irritated with his return, and the Joker (Michael Emerson) has escaped his Arkham Asylum incarceration, killing hundreds in the process. On live TV no less. Now the new commissioner of police, Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals Barrera), is aggressively tracking the Bat. The President, running out of options and distracted by a nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, sends government-sanctioned one-man-army Superman (Mark Valley) to deal with the Russians and the Dark Knight. (Three guesses as to which target presents the greater challenge.) And the Joker, plotting his next killing spree, prepares to face his lifelong nemesis. With a mounting army of Mutant converts at his side and a few familiar faces -- newly anointed Robin, Carrie (Ariel Winter), former commissioner Gordon, old friend Selina Kyle (Tress MacNeille), loyal confidant Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Jackson) and brother-in-arms Oliver Queen (Robin Atkin Downes) -- Batman has to defeat the Joker, Superman and death itself. Tall order... for anyone other than the Dark Knight.
With the groundwork already laid in the first half of the film, Oliva and Goodman are free to indulge in one climactic showdown after another. Batman vs. Public Opinion. Batman vs. the Mutant remnant. Batman vs. the Joker. Superman vs. Nuclear Annihilation. Batman vs. Gotham City Mobs. Batman vs. Nuclear Winter. Batman vs. the Big Boy in Blue. Superman vs. Integrity. Batman vs. the Grave. And in most every way, it makes for a more exciting animated epic. Miller's narration isn't so sorely missed this time around, the adaptation is even more faithful than before, and the battles are more vicious and visceral than I ever imagined they would be. Watching the Joker stumble through an amusement park with a batarang jutting out of his eye, indiscriminately shooting anyone who crosses his path, is chilling. His final hurrah as disturbing as his last laugh. Following Oliver Queen from rooftop to rooftop, down one arm but as full of fight as ever, is invigorating. His last-second shot a breath of relief. Seeing Batman stand his ground against Superman, putting all of his skills to work in an armored suit that allows him to go toe to toe with an invincible Kryptonian, is the stuff of fanboy dreams and frenzied comic-shop chatter. His assault as perfectly planned as it is perfectly executed. There are other standout moments lifted directly from the page -- too many to list without spoiling the story for those who haven't read Miller's original series -- and each one is given its just due.
The animation is also some of the best the DCU branch of Warner Bros. Animation has produced. Fast, fluid and fierce, every punch makes an impact, every fall has a consequence, every movement has weight and convincing heft. Batman's age is at play at all times, dragging him down, making him slower, and it reads on screen. Superman's vitality is intact, the Joker's impulse bleeds through his pores, Carrie's youth is apparent... from character design to final animation, the heroes and villains Miller re-imagined move and breathe just as they should, and it's abundantly clear how much thought went into animating some of the most iconic sequences in DC comicbook history. (If that strikes you as hyperbole, you haven't read Miller's original graphic novel.) Considering how relatively simplistic the Timm-established DCU animation style is, The Dark Knight Returns represents quite a feat, relying on motion, space, framing, color and speed to convey so much with so little. I'd even go so far as to call the second half of the film the most visually stunning DCU animated production to date, even though a few hiccups and shortcuts take a brief toll. (Camera zooms sometimes distort the line art, the scenes involving the struggle for control of Corto Maltese are too small in scale, and a negligible number of panel-to-screen shots -- namely Superman's American hero pose, complete with a bald eagle perched on his arm -- seem hokey and a bit too on the nose, in spite of being yanked directly out of Miller's comic.) It might be the most arresting too, even if the fluidity that bolsters the animation doesn't always bolster the actors' dramatic performances. Example? Superman's quick exchange with Gordon, for one. Some of the lines in Goodman's script deserve dramatic pause before being delivered, but they're sometimes rushed together, depriving them of the gravity of what's being said. But I'm just nitpicking now.
The Dark Knight Returns is a DCU animated masterpiece. And considering we're dealing with one of the most respected and influential DC comicbook stories of all time, that's no small feat. It's a blistering animated feature and a fine adaptation; a wonderfully dramatic, action-packed clash of the titans that won't soon be forgotten. As a two-part experiment, it succeeds. As a seamless film, it exceeds expectations, and then some. Timm and his fellow producers should take note. If dividing a DCU production into multiple parts is the only way to avoid the curse of the truncated 80-minute adaptation, I'd love to see the experiment repeated. It certainly worked for The Dark Knight Returns. Perhaps this can serve as a launchpad for greater things to come.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray, Video Quality
Typical of a DCU animated feature high definition presentation, The Dark Knight Returns is striking but flawed. Fortunately, its flaws -- faint artifacting, slight to moderate banding, hints of aliasing, and intermittent softness -- trace back to the original animation, not Warner's 1080p/AVC-encoded efforts. On a positive note, macroblocking is only noticeable on occasion (and only if you're scrutinizing the picture); stair-stepping involves static horizontal lines inherent to the background images; what little aliasing there is only makes a nuisance of itself here and there (the worst of which appears in a pan of the red-visored mutants early in the film); and the "camera" moves that sometimes distort, soften or pixelate the image (zoom shots in particular) are short-lived and easy to overlook. Otherwise, there isn't much cause for alarm. Colors are as bleak, grim, brave or bold as they need to be, primaries erupt through the shadows beautifully, black levels are inky, and contrast, while oppressively dark by design, is satisfying and consistent, even as night falls or darkness closes in. Detail is terrific too, with every nuance of the movie's animation and CG elements perfectly preserved and presented. All told, fans of Warner's DCU Blu-ray releases won't be surprised by anything here... the good, the bad or the ugly. Thankfully, the good is pretty great, the bad isn't all that bad, and the ugly is tough to spot.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Batmobile assaults, rowdy mobs, pit fights, murderous crime sprees, rickety roller-coasters, superpowered showdowns and nuclear fallout. The Dark Knight Returns has it all, including a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that handles Gotham City's calamity and unrest in stride. Dialogue is intelligible and carefully prioritized in the mix, voices are decently (but not perfectly) grounded in the soundscape, and dynamics are more than sufficient for the task at hand. The LFE channel, meanwhile, cranks up the intensity of the battles spectacularly (hand to hand, vehicle to army and super-punch to super-punch), sinking its all into every blow, explosion, roaring engine, machine gun burst, charging horse, collapsing staircase, thunderous clash and struggling heartbeat. The rear speakers aren't quite so aggressive -- blame the movie's at-times two-dimensional sound design -- but they fill Gotham and its shadows with enough ambience and atmosphere to pull their weight. Directional effects are assertive and precise on the whole, pans are smooth, and the soundfield is reasonably immersive, particularly when the action scenes in the second half of the film crank up the intensity. I doubt The Dark Knight Returns could sound much better than it does here. Fuller, more encompassing sound design would help, but that has little to do with Warner's lossless efforts.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The 3-disc Deluxe Edition release of The Dark Knight Returns not only features a seamless 148-minute cut of the film and a new audio commentary on a single BD-50 disc, it also includes a second Blu-ray disc packed with high definition extras, including a new feature-length Frank Miller doc that's arguably worth the price of admission alone. The Blu-ray discs are stacked on the same hub, which will irritate some, but there really isn't anything else to complain about. This is the justifiably definitive release of the film.
Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Combo Pack Contents (Subject to Change): The initial combo pack release of The Dark Returns: Deluxe Edition features a slipcover (with the original pressing), two BD-50 discs (one for the feature film and commentary, the other devoted to special features), a standard DVD copy of the seamless cut, a small pack of art cards, and an UltraViolet digital copy (Flixster download via redemption code, expires 10/08/2015). Please note: the Deluxe Edition UltraViolet digital copy "does not include an iTunes file, but is compatible with iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and most Android devices."
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you already own The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 and Part 2, the 3-disc Deluxe Edition release may not seem so appealing. As far as new content goes, it offers a seamless cut of the film (albeit one that doesn't include any additional scenes), a new audio commentary with Oliva, Goodman and Romano, and a fantastic feature-length Frank Miller documentary. If you feel that justifies the cost, double dipping and picking up the Deluxe Edition will be a no-brainer. If it isn't enough, enjoy the individual releases you already own. If, however, you have yet to experience The Dark Knight Returns, the Deluxe Edition is definitely the way to go. Don't put it off any longer. Don't hesitate. Add this one to your collection post-haste.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: Other Editions
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