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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1(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, Part 1 and the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray release, see Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on September 20, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Peter Weller, Michael Emerson, Ariel Winter, Michael McKean, Wade Williams, Gary Anthony Williams
Director: Jay Oliva
» See full cast & crew
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray Review
Miller's quintessential Batman arc is brought to reasonably faithful animated life...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, September 20, 2012
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. Having watched Part 1, though, I can't help but wonder if Miller's opus should have been divided into three animated features. Much of "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Dark Knight Triumphant," the first two issues of the larger "Dark Knight Returns" limited series, has been preserved. Honored even. But some of it has been muted or shoved aside too, making for two distinct viewing experiences: one for those who consider Miller's original 4-issue story a masterwork among the greatest comicbooks, and another for those who've never cracked its pages. For fans of Miller's groundbreaking take on the Batman mythos, The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 will be a bittersweet step toward the live-action adaptation we all know could work so well given the right screenwriter and director. For those who've never picked up the book, Part 1 will be much more satisfying, and perhaps even convince those same filmfans to finally pick up one of the most influential, skillfully crafted Batman tales of all time.
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 (Michael Emerson) 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. I understand the need to drop narration in most comicbook adaptations; it's a lazy filmmaker's tool and very rarely adds substance to the story. Here 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 it all gone, Goodman and Oliva's terrifically animated Batman is -- ironically -- more two-dimensional as a 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." Part 1 is Batman by way of a more traditionally expositional animated movie.
None of that is to say Part 1 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.
Part 1 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 conjured when creating and developing his grizzled Batman. Selby's voice isn't ideal for Gordon either, although his delivery had grown on me by the end. And the faux-future Mutant slang sounds stilted, as if the actors weren't sure how to sell it. But those are minor gripes. Winter is dead on as Carrie (I couldn't ask for anything more), 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.
I could nitpick all day long but that wouldn't change the fact that Goodman and Oliva's Dark Knight Returns is impressive -- and commendable -- in almost every regard. Divorced from the original comic, I'd even go so far as to say it's easily in the upper echelon of DCU animated movies. The devil's in the details, though, and those bedeviled details make Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 an imperfect adaptation and a movie that isn't as definitive as it could be.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray, Video Quality
Typical of a DCU animated feature high definition presentation, The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is striking but flawed. Its flaws, though -- faint artifacting, slight to moderate banding, and hints of aliasing -- seem to trace back to the original animation, not Warner's 1080p/AVC-encoded efforts. Thankfully, the artifacting is only noticeable on occasion (and even then, only if you're scrutinizing the picture); the banding isn't all that distracting, and when it is (during the first fight between Batman and the Mutant leader) it tends to involve static horizontal lines inherent to the background image; and 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). Otherwise, there isn't much to complain about. Colors are as bleak, grim or vivid as needed, primaries pop, black levels are inky and contrast, while oppressively dark by design, is satisfying and consistent, even as night falls or shadows close in. Detail is terrific too, with every nuance of the movie's hand-drawn animation and CG elements reproduced to perfection. As far as the encode is concerned, there isn't much to worry over either. Fans of Warner's DCU Blu-ray releases won't be surprised by anything here. The good, the bad or the ugly. Fortunately, the good is pretty great, the bad isn't all that bad, and the ugly is tough to spot.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Warner's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is true to Part 1's sound design. That sound design just isn't the all-out sonic assault it could -- I'd argue should -- be. Rear speaker activity is my biggest qualm. Even when Batman is rolling into the Mutant basecamp in a souped up Batmo... tank, firing to his heart's content, there isn't much in the way of rear speaker aggression, directional depth or soundfield immersion. It isn't underwhelming per se (it's still reasonably loud and rowdy), but it doesn't match the intensity of the events unfolding on screen or the prowess that might come with a live-action adaptation. Nor is it the only scene that sounds a bit too front-heavy. That said, everything else comes through nicely. The LFE channel hits hard and doesn't let up, throwing its weight behind every meaty punch, cannon blast, explosion and general unruliness the movie has to offer. Dynamics are decidedly effective too, as are channel pans, the integration and prioritization of Christopher Drake's music, and other elements that up Part 1's cinematic quotient. Dialogue is clean, clear and exacting as well, rounding out a solid but not entirely enveloping lossless audio experience.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
"The Dark Knight Returns" may be one of the most important and influential comicbook limited series of all time, and its adaptations may combine to make one of the most hotly anticipated DC Universe animated features to date, but that simply isn't reflected in Part 1's supplemental package. While Carrie is put under the microscope (for a whopping twelve minutes), the rest of Frank Miller's masterwork and director Jay Oliva and writer Bob Goodman's movie go unexplored. "The Bob Kane" story is a welcome (albeit relatively unrelated) addition, sure, and the Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 sneak peek suggests the second half will be an exciting one, I'll admit. But you'd think there'd be more here. A lot more.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 isn't quite all that it could be and, in a few seemingly small but arguably fundamental ways, alters Frank Miller's original four-issue comic more than is necessary. But there's a lot to love in the first part of Warner Premiere's "Dark Knight Returns" adaptation and even more to suggest Part 2 will be even better. Diehard fans of the 1986 limited series will declare Part 1 a bittersweet success, casual fans will find the movie more than satisfactory, and newcomers will enjoy it far more than the other two camps. Warner holds up its end of the bargain too. Its Blu-ray release doesn't disappoint, at least as far as its strong AV presentation is concerned. The only major letdown is the disc's fairly anemic supplemental package. All that said, there's no reason to hedge your bets with a rental. Even those expecting more than the movie delivers won't regret a purchase.
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