There are graphic novels that I can't remember as well as I remember this one. The level of storytelling, especially through the use of the media in Gotham City. The animated film of Frank Miller’s redefinition and reemergence of the Batman as a gritty, tough, even sadistic version of his former self. However, make no mistake loyal Bat-fans. Bruce is old. Too old to be out swinging over rooftops. Or so we think. He still has the edge, but most importantly, he scares criminals more than ever now. He has a lifetime’s reputation to live up to, and with Peter Weller (Robocop) voicing him it makes it even more terrifying.
The deep bass of Weller’s voice, mixed with Frank Miller’s dialogue makes the Dark Knight a truly magnificent vision in this newest graphic novel adaptation from Warner Bros. Those who’ve read this masterpiece will be surprised how closely it sticks to the graphic novel. Another interesting things for Batman academics out there, the plot of “The Dark Knight Rises” as well as Christian Bale’s portrayal of an older Batman coming out of retirement show us how much “The Dark Knight Returns” still resonates over twenty years after it’s original publication date. Even Tim Burton was inspired by it. When you examine Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman you notice that who he is as Bruce Wayne is vastly different than who he is as Batman. The same is evident in Miller’s dark reexamination of the Caped Crusader.
We open with Bruce nearly dying in a spectacular crash in a Formula One race car. If anything is obvious, Bruce has a death wish. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that he’s past his prime, and that he can’t keep up his old life forever as he hoped. He’s retired now, having not donned the cape and cowl for over ten years. He’s bitter, bored, and the need for Batman in Gotham is evident more and more. News broadcasts throughout the story keep us informed of the political machine, messages from the new gang called the Mutants, as well as spectator comments on what the citizens of Gotham think of the return of their protector who dwells in shadow.
The buildup to Bruce donning the cowl again reaches its pinnacle while he’s watching television. Flipping through channels, sipping down bourbon, he keeps hearing more and more news about horrible crimes, especially murders throughout his city. And then he flips to a classic movie channel. He’s helpless, because it’s the very film he saw the night he watched his parents die in front of him; “The Mark of Zorro” with Tyrone Power. Ironic on several levels, mainly due to the fact that the film itself is about a man who dons a mask to fight injustice as an outlaw.
Then he has an inner dialogue. It’s something I’ve always respected about Frank Miller, he’s not afraid to show Batman for the psychologically damaged person he’d have to be to exist. The Bat has its own voice in his mind, it is its own entity. It has lurked there all his life, ever since he found the cave, the totem of the bat and he have been entwined. Just like that, that very night, he’s out on patrol. It’s as if he never left, and yet, it’s like his first night out all over again. Re-establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with, he goes from one crime to the next. His first night out reaps unexpected benefits. He seems to be an inspiration in different ways to different people throughout the graphic novel, and that is no exception here in the animated adaptation. He inspires a new youth to pick up the mantle of Robin. Carrie Kelly is young, brave, intelligent; a good soldier. She is voiced by Ariel Winter, an impressive young actress from the cast of “Modern Family.”
However, we see the awakening of another old acquaintance. His deadliest enemy; the chaos to his order. The Joker, having sat nearly catatonic in a facility for the past decade, suddenly wakes up at the mere mention of Batman’s name in the news. These are merely foreshadowing scenes for Part Two of the animated adaptation, which we all must unfortunately wait until January of this upcoming year for. Voicing the Clown Prince of Crime shall be a newcomer to the DCAU voice talents; actor Michael Emerson from the shows “Person of Interest” and “Lost.”
The great thing about this story will always be that it begins with an old enemy. Harvey Dent is fresh from surgery, having made “both sides match” again, as his psychologist Dr. Wolper says. Dent is voiced by Wade Williams, and also voiced Black Mask in “Under the Red Hood.” Wolper is another interesting character from Miller’s story. He is voiced by the exceptional Michael McKean, those of you who are familiar with him from “Clue” as Mr. Green, and many other film roles will recognize his baritone voice instantly.
Overall, I’m incredibly impressed by this endeavor on the part of DCAU. Perhaps they’ve finally realized how many great stories they can tell without compromising the stories of so many great comics. I still think they should do the entire Starman, Jack Knight to be specific, saga in animated feature format. It could be amazing. And there are so many more stories. Also, keep in mind that this Batman, in this story, seriously enjoys hurting the bad guys in this one. He does seriously painful things to these guys, and you understand why he’s such a force to be reckoned with all over again. And this, was only part one. Stay tuned for part two.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1:
Reviewed by Chris Gering