Warner Premiere has some large shoes to fill with its adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns Part 1. Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns is considered by many to be the defining Batman story (neck-in-neck with Miller’s other Batman masterpiece, Year One), reestablishing a tone and mood for the character that would resonate throughout the comics and films. So conscientious is the studio of the material’s loyal fanbase, they have decided to split the graphic novel into two animated films, thus allowing proper breathing space for the rich plot and complex characters.
The blacker-than-oil narrative is set in a dingy, 1980s Gotham City. Batman has been retired, living in obscurity for over ten years. Violence (or rather, ultra-violence) runs like a disease through the city, chiefly authored by a gang of sadistic thugs known as the Mutants. When Harvey Dent/Two-Face is released from Arkham Asylum, a new crimewave is about to strike Gotham. Batman is drawn back into the vigilante game, but fighting crime isn’t exactly what it used to be. My review of the Blu-ray after the jump.
The studio has pulled no punches here – the movie is hardcore, dark and about as faithful an adaptation as it could be. A great number of frames are recreated exactly (dig the Mutant Leader’s pronounced nipples) and the atmosphere of Miller’s universe is captured brilliantly. There’s blood, guns, rapists, murdered kids, kidnappings and an overall grittiness to the film that keeps it well-aligned with its source material. The two mano-a-mano fights between Batman and the Mutant Leader are particularly brutal, their punches, kicks and bites amplified by some truly unnerving sound effects.
The film’s pace is snappy, constantly zipping us along to the next action sequence (there are many in this movie). In addition to keeping the energy at a fever pitch, this fast movement of story doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to dwell on the sporadic, somewhat wooden moments of character inflection (which seemed to read fine in the graphic novel, but don’t reach that same level of strength when put on their feet).
Peter Weller does a far better job in this film than Ben Mackenzie did in the Batman role in Warner Premiere’s Year One (Weller actually emotes). True, he’s no Kevin Conroy, but we work with what we’ve got and Weller has the gravel down in the voice that quickly makes you forget about Robocop. The other cast members are equally sufficient, without anyone standing out as predominantly outstanding or distracting.
The graphic novel was dark – in both tone and aesthetic, so it only makes sense that the adaptation should visually follow suit. The blacks on this Blu-ray are fantastic, crushed to a truly exceptional level. Their deepness contrasts and deftly highlights the (seldom-found) scenes with bright, vivid colors. The action in particular is very well rendered and fluid, often featuring Batman striking from the darkness, illuminated only by flashes of lightning. The master audio 5.1 is a superb match to the film’s visuals. The sound effects – from tire screeches to gun shots to shell casings clinking on pavement – are crisp and add a strong element of authenticity to the world, bringing the animated universe that much more to life.
As a whole, the extras are fundamental and a pretty unimpressive lot. For a movie the studio clearly put a lot of passion into, they really seemed to phone it in on the supplemental section of the disc. While there are a number of featurettes, none of them resonates heavily; there are a pair of Batman: The Animated Series episodes (Two-Face focused), a featurette on Carrie Kelly, the documentary Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story, and some stills and enticements for the upcoming Dark Knight Returns Part 2 (mostly panels from the graphic novel). The preliminary animatics with the Joker look great, and Michael Emerson’s turn as the character should play really well.
The filmmakers rose to the challenge of adapting one of the most revered Batman stories of all time and overall, Warner Premiere did a better job with The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 than it did with Year One – the pace and casting are largely improved here. If only they had put a bit more into its supplemental section (Frank Miller is conspicuously absent from it, as is any featurette on the graphic novel’s enormous impact on both the Batman universe and comics in general). We eagerly look forward to Part 2…