The Dark Knight Returns Part One Gets Too Hung Up On Its Source Material

By bill - September 25, 2012

DC Animation releases the long-anticipated Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part One, transforming Frank Miller’s legendary graphic novel into a two-part animated event. But despite some gorgeous animation and some cool extra features, this adaptation is crushed under the weight of its own devotion to the comic.

Say what you will about Frank Miller today, there’s no denying the man produced some truly iconic and influential comics at his prime. My favorite will always be The Dark Knight Returns, his tale of an older Batman returning from a ten-year hiatus to once again clean up the streets of Gotham.  It’s a plot Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises borrowed from liberally, but don’t hold that against the comic– unlike this Summer’s self-important trilogy-ender, Miller told a fantastic story.

Apparently Bruce Timm and the rest of the creative team behind DC Animation’s new Dark Knight Returns animated movie agree with me, because their feature length cartoon take on the series is nothing if not faithful to the source material.  But just like the last staple of the comics genre to falter when making the jump to a new medium, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, the animated DKR feels so obsessively by-the-book (pun partially intended), the result feels stifled by a sense of expectation, of knowing exactly what beat comes next and then seeing it played out after the fact.

When the familiar beats do play out, they look great– the animation in Dark Knight Returns Part One is gorgeous and fluid, a perfect hybrid of Timm’s own BTAS sensibilities and Miller’s own chunky, stylized design. The result is something familiar on both fronts, and the look and feel should be instantly recognizable to any fan of the graphic novel. I do wish the team had applied just a little more of Miller’s artistic flourishes in the end product– while the designs are very faithful, there was a lot of room to go more left-of-center, with use of the heavy shadows, solid-color figures and dramatic contrasts that really scream Frank Miller.  The result feels more polished than anything Miller has ever made, even from his older work when he cared about any sense of visual continuity.

I could get over the stylistic shortcomings of the movie, since the design they did go with gets the job done in a solid way, but what really pulled me out of this adaptation is the voice cast. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be hearing the iconic voices of Kevin Conroy and Richard Moll (although getting to hear the BTAS team in this new setting would have bridged the gap between Timm’s work and Miller’s creation beautifully), but most of the new cast really feels like they’re phoning it in.  Dark Knight Returns isn’t the easiest comic to vocalize– between the stylized future lingo of the Mutants and Miller’s own penchant for punchy, exaggerated tough guy posturing, actually hearing these words out loud is kind of awkward. Sometimes things work perfectly on the printed page but just don’t work when you flip mediums, and that’s what harms the watchability of DKR the movie.  The script is so faithful to Miller’s comic, so devoted to a fault, that I couldn’t shake the idea that the voice actors were all just reading a copy of the graphic novel in the studio, as if they thought they were doing an audio book instead of a movie.

Peter Weller makes out best, doing what he can with Miller’s stilted dialogue, and he’s solid as the elder Batman. The rest of the cast is all over the place, but that resounding feeling that it’s more “voice” than “acting” feels pretty overt among virtually everyone.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part One takes us through the first two chapters of Miller’s four-part story, and it ends with the same beat as Book Two, with The Joker awakening from his catatonic state, ready to get to the tale’s most engaging and well-known chapter as the Clown Prince and Batman square off for the final time.  I’m certainly going to check out the second half of the animated movie, to see how they pull off the brutal final battle.  I’m hoping Michael Emerson will bring a life to The Joker that just wasn’t there in Wade Wilson’s Harvey Dent or Gary Williams’ Mutant Leader.

The Blu Ray/ DVD combo pack is a nice set though, with a nice transfer that really highlights the fine animation. We also get some cool special features including a documentary on Bob Kane which delivers an entertaining look at Batman’s creator.  He was a card, and the storied history of both he as an artist and his greatest creation are well chronicled, with the help of his friends and colleagues including Stan Lee.

We get a much softer feature on Carrie Kelly, Frank Miller’s female Robin, which includes some fun facts about the character’s development (including the story that John Byrne told Miller his Robin must be a girl while they were flying together).  There’s also a 10-minute look at Dark Knight Returns Part Two which really talks up The Joker (and oddly ignores government stooge Superman almost entirely), along with a few classic BTAS cartoons (“Two Face” parts one and two), and a behind the scenes look at Batman/ Superman: Public Enemies (I believe the same one that came out a few years back).

I wish I could have given Dark Knight Returns Part One a glowing review. I love the source story, and I’ve been a huge Bruce Timm fan for almost twenty years. But there’s something about this adaptation that’s just so clinical, so step-by-step that it feels like the drama bleeds out before the close of act one.  You don’t have to go into an adaptation with the mindset to change everything but the title, but on the flipside when a retelling is so obsessively similar to the original, it begs the question, why bother?  Batman: The Dark Knight Rises Part One serves as a gorgeous-looking experiment in how reverential a feature film can be to its source material, but I really hope they loosen the reigns on Part Two and let a little more life back into the proceedings.

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