Monday, October 29, 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

A few weeks ago, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 was released on Blu-ray and DVD. If you're a serious comic book fan, you've probably already read or at least heard of the original graphic novel by Frank Miller. Along with Alan Moore's Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns was one of the most influential comic books of the 80's, and gets much of the credit for the launch of the "gritty era" of comic books, which continued through much of the 90's and still leaves traces today. This animated movie attempts to adapt and condense the original story into a two-part movie series.

The story takes place 10 years after Bruce Wayne has retired from being Batman. There are suggestions that his retirement has something to do with a tragedy that befell Robin. Wayne is now at least in his 50s, although he remains in great shape for his age and busies himself with dangerous hobbies, such as automobile racing. He is clearly unsettled and still haunted by the deaths of his parents, and as a new breed of criminal takes hold of a spineless Gotham, he finds the ghosts of his past pulling him back into the persona he left behind.

While the citizens of Gotham are either victimized or willfully ignorant, Batman resumes his one-man war on the criminal element, and with more grit and ferocity than ever before. But although Batman is a supernatural creature of legend, Bruce Wayne is just a man, and his aging, battered body continually reminds him of the fact. It may be that this new breed of criminal is more than he can handle.

This is a great story with some of the most iconic Batman moments you're likely to encounter on screen. Paraphrasing to avoid offense, Frank Miller said that with this story he "gave Batman his [manhood] back". And that's certainly the sense this movie gives. Batman is more brutal and tough than ever and he is rightfully feared by criminals.

But this is not just a "tough guy" movie. An argument could be made that this is the most character-driven Batman movie ever made, as we are given a glimpse into how truly haunted Bruce Wayne is by the tragic past he can't forget. For those who felt Bruce Wayne's final status in "The Dark Knight Rises" was inconsistent with the perpetually haunted nature of Bruce Wayne's character(at least as presented in the comics), this movie will feel like a satisfying follow-up, or maybe even a pseudo sequel, to the Christopher Nolan films.

The visual design and animation is very well done. Although it has a slightly cleaner look than the art from the original comic, the color pallet helps maintain the bleak flavor, and the general scenery and character design strongly evokes the original art. The animation is also smooth when it should be, and more abrupt when appropriate. A skillful blend of both computer and cell animation that plays up the strengths of both.

The sound was also well done, though I would have preferred just a little more of the lower tones. (Of course in home theaters this can be adjusted to taste.) And in the very first scene the dialogue falls so deep into the mix that I had to use subtitles to understand what was being said beneath the roaring sound effects.

The music takes a cue from Nolan's recent Batman films with a grand, slow-moving strings melody representing Batman, aided by strong percussion and some electronic elements as well. A great score that gave weight to the entire experience.

Once again, DC does a solid job with their voice casting and direction. Although they don't quite hit it out of the park. They fall back on using one or two familiar voices from the animation world (including at least one of the "animaniacs" if you're old enough to remember that show) that took me out of the story with their easily distinguishable voices. And Peter Weller, while a good choice for an aging Batman, was not a great choice in my opinion. I think the role would have been served better by simply casting the best fitting voice, rather than drawing from a pool of actors with star power or "geek cred", as this choice seems to be motivated by.

The adaptation is done very well. Although it's been awhile since I've read my copy of The Dark Knight Returns, I didn't feel like anything important was missing. In fact, the adapters smartly removed much of the dated social/political commentary that was a product of the 80's.
That said, there is still a noticeable theme of activism. It is frustrating to watch the people of Gotham shut themselves off in a self-serving corner as the world goes to pot at their doorstep. This movie screams out, "C'mon! Get up and DO something about this mess!" Batman and a precious few answer that call and viewers may feel a small desire to do so as well.

The second part of The Dark Knight Returns will be released in early spring of 2013, but there's no reason not to watch or buy this movie in the meantime. Part 1 certainly leaves the impression that there is more story to be told, but doesn't end on a cliff-hanger either, and provides satisfying resolution to the first half of the larger story.

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action

Quality: 9.0/10

Relevance: 7.5/10

What do these scores mean?

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