The Dark Knight Returns… again.
Last September, DC released the first of two animated films bringing to life Frank Miller’s classic comic book series involving a retired Dark Knight’s return to fighting crime. While Miller’s series (it was a series then collected into one book, thus it is not a Graphic Novel) remains the Holy Grail of Batman stories, the first part of the animated release fell rather flat. I was particularly harsh on it, which made my excitement for part two very thin. The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 hits stores this week. The question is, is it better than part one?
Yes, yes it is. Problems still abound in the new film and it’s not nearly the wonderful depiction of the comic that it could be. Still, this installment is head and shoulders over its predecessor. First and foremost, there is actual drama and tension in this film. Part 1 was so flat, no highs or low, just exposition and plot movement. Director Jay Oliva’s pacing of the first Dark Knight Returns raced to get from plot point to plot point without any of the emotional impact of the comic series.
Having set those points up in part one, Oliva is free here to explore the human aspects of the story and let the action flow freely. As Part 2 opens, the dust has settled on the war between the Mutant Gang Leader and Batman. With the latter victorious, the gang has broken up and become the Sons Of The Bat, a new gang who has an overly developed and violent idea of bringing justice back to Gotham. With Batman’s return in full swing, the president and his administration are feeling the pressure. Years ago, a decision was made that all costumed heroes were to be banished into retirement. The Dark Knight’s return has thrown that decision into chaos.
Cue Superman, the only hero allowed to stay on the force because he’s the puppet of the establishment. While the main story arc here is Batman’s epic final battle with Joker, the undertones of his constant clash of ideals with Superman is apparent. Oliva does a fantastic job of keeping that relationship going. From friendly, to tense to the last-man-standing match the two have in Crime Alley, the build and release is palpable.
I was also impressed with the disintegration of Batman’s ideals and relationship with the Joker. The Clown Prince Of Crime still exists in the notion that he and Batman need each other, that they are a symbiotic circle of good and evil. The older, colder and angrier Batman just wants to do what he always knew he should, kill the Joker. He can’t though, when the ultimate moment of truth comes, Batman is too controlled by his ideals to eliminate the man responsible for so much death. Joker snaps his own neck, laughing in the knowledge that Batman will be blamed for a murder he couldn’t commit. It’s a dark scene, one I was surprised made it into the film.
DC Animation keeps a faithful adaptation of the comic. They don’t lessen the violence or the darker themes at all. Bob Goodman’s script for Part 2 is smarter, leaner, with better dialog and much more excitement. Watching part one and part two together, I would not be surprised to find Goodman adapted The Dark Knight Returns as one long film that was chopped in half by DC Animation. Altogether, the original clunk of the first part is lessened (though not eliminated) by the second.
Bringing us to what doesn’t work. I will say from now until doomsday that this should have been a three-hour epic told all at once. DC’s need to shill it for more money by splitting this in two kills what could have been a classic animated adaptation. The animation is also lacking to me. Instead of taking the time to animate Frank Miller’s style, DC combines some basic elements of his original pencils with their standard faux American/Japanime computer animation. It isn’t awful, but when you realize what could have been, the animation seems impersonal and dull.
The voice casting is also in suspect here. Peter Weller does not make a good Batman. He’s too monotone, his delivery too close to a mumble. Batman comes off more like a grumpy old man at a costume party than an angry embodiment of justice. Joker’s voice doesn’t fair much better. Person Of Interest star Michael Emerson is a solid actor, but his voice is too effeminate for Joker. His Joker is coy and cooing, a little too much a Bond villain than the Joker. Emerson also gives no indication of Joker’s madness, he’s too busy being grand and sweeping. In musical terms, Joker is the dirty back alley recordings of Charlie Parker. Emerson plays it more like Bach, which doesn’t work. Between the grumble of Batman and the cooing of Joker, the chemistry between the two is never realized and the entire film suffers.
The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 is much better than part one, but not good enough to save the whole project. This is a great example of missed opportunities. If DC had animated the work of Miller instead of their standard factory-like animation, the movie raises a level. If original animated Batman voice Kevin Conroy and Joker voice Mark Hamill were involved, plus Bryan Cranston returning as Commissioner Gordon, then The Dark Knight Returns becomes something pretty special. The final piece of that puzzle would have been to make this one long film. DC Animation decided against all of that, and so they’re left with a film that is a tepid representation of classic comic book material.
(Dark Knight Returns Part 2)