Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Animated Discussions- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1
DC Comics' next direct to DVD feature was released today, in this case an adaptation of the first half of Frank Miller's classic The Dark Knight Returns; the second half will be released in the Winter of 2013. I have a complicated relationship with the story itself; while I appreciate it for what it is, it isn't my favorite Frank Miller work. It's not even my favorite Frank Miller Batman story; that honor belongs to Year One. But this is an excellent adaptation, and it reminds me of how really great the story was when I first read it, and makes me want to go and read it again.
I'm not going to spend much time talking about the story, since the majority of you out there have read it, and if you haven't, well, you probably should. The basic premise is a Bruce Wayne who has been retired from being Batman for ten years must come out of retirement to face a Gotham that has gotten worse since Batman disappeared. The Mutant Gang terrorizes the streets and the people have lost hope. While the piece was written in the 80s, and there are bits that somewhat date the book, those have been glossed over to make the story feel more timeless.
What I want to spend time talking about the animation and the cast. The actual adaptation is faithful to the source material. This isn't an embellished adaptation; the creators of the movie really want to stick to the original story. There are attempts to translate the television broadcasts that make up much of the narration of the original, and it works well. While it's not word for word, losing much of Miller's internal monologue, dividing it into two parts allows for the story to breathe and the pacing to feel right.
The animation is gorgeous and fluid, playing with light and dark in the same way Miller does. Batman slips in and out of shadow that seems to wrap around him. There's a touch of modern, anime influenced animation to the movie, but the influence isn't as heavy as it was in the previous piece, Superman Vs. The Elite; just don't come in expecting Batman: The Animated Series. Gotham is a city in decline in the dark future of the movie, and the city which always feels dark now feels like it's dying.
The moments that really are stunning are the moments when Bruce is alone, talking to himself or reliving moments from his past. Movies, both real life and animated, tend to either avoid this kind of internal narrative or overdo them with heavy voice-over narration. There's not of that here. The scenes are taught, and gorgeous to look at, especially the moment, after Bruce has been beaten by the Mutant Leader, when he talks to the bat in the cave. There's something in the mix of animation and the performance in that scene that really struck me.
Speaking of the performances, they are excellent. I often have trouble with anyone but Kevin Conroy voicing Batman, but Peter Weller's voice suits the persona of the elder Batman. The voice is gravelly and carries the right tone if resignation at the beginning of the movie and righteous anger and Batman-ness by the end. Ariel Winter voices Carrie Kelly, the female Robin, and has so much energy and spunk that she almost seems ready to jump right off the screen. Filling out the principal cast, David Selby's Jim Gordon is pitch perfect, sounding like a man who has fought many battles, but still has some fight left in him. Among the supporting cast, voice actor Michael Jackson is an excellent Alfred, Gary Anthony Williams puts on a perfectly scene chewing performance as the Mutant Leader, and Michael McKean's unctuous pop psychologist Dr.Wolper makes your skin crawl in just the right way. From her brief appearance, I look forward to more screen time for new police commissioner Yindel in part two, voiced by Maria Canals, best known as Hawkgirl on Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, and the trailer for Part 2 gives a good peek at Michael Emerson's Joker, who has only one line in Part 1, and from what little I heard, it's the best Joker I've heard since the seminal work of Mark Hamill.
In many cases with these DC animated features, the strength of the source is not reflected in the strength of the film, do to constraints of time and I would assume budget. Fortunately, those problems aren't present in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1. This is an outstanding film, and worth a place in any Batman fan's library