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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1


"Lucky. Lucky old man."

DC Animation totally succeeds in the daunting task of adapting arguably the most seminal Batman graphic novel of all, Frank Miller's 1986 epic "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns". The influence of "The Dark Knight Returns" on Batman in every media over the last 25+ years is immeasurable, with Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy as direct descendants of its impact. This summer's The Dark Knight Rises drew freely from concepts and iconography depicted in Miller's story. Miller distills the essence of Batman, a grim, avenging creature of the night - dark, terrible, dreaded, and driven with compulsion bordering on madness to dress up as a bat and hunt down the criminal element infecting the soul of Gotham City.

The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 handles the first two chapters of Miller's story, "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Dark Knight Triumphant". Retired for a decade, a sixty year old Bruce Wayne, enormous in stature but a shell of himself, is compelled by his inner demons to resume wearing the cape and cowl of the Batman. Miller combines Wayne's childhood memories of his parents' murder with a bizarre worship of an enormous bat living in the cave beneath Wayne Manor. There's a monster inside Bruce Wayne that he can't control. As Gotham City falls under the terror of a gang called the Mutants, Batman's immediate concern is Harvey Dent, the arch criminal known as Two Face, who has had his face surgically repaired and is considered "healed." Dent then disappears, and Batman discovers his plan to stage a helicopter assault and bomb the Gotham Life Building (changed from "The Twin Towers" in the graphic novel out of respect for 9/11). The one disappointing aspect of Batman's confrontation with Two Face is the omission of the dialogue when Two Face asks Batman to look at his true face. In the graphic novel, Batman says, "I see a reflection, Harvey. A reflection", while Batman sees his own true face, the face of the bat.

The second half of Part 1 is even better as Batman turns his attention to the Mutants, and their leader, a hulking, shark-toothed abomination who, in 1986, predated Bane by seven years. Batman's tank-like Batmobile also predates and inspired the Tumbler in Nolan's Trilogy. Batman's resurgence has given hope to the people of Gotham, while authorities are quick to condemn the return of a masked vigilante to their streets. Commissioner Gordon, Batman's staunchest ally, who knows his true identity, tries to protect him as best he can before he's replaced by a younger, decidedly anti-Batman female commissioner (who is awful dense when Gordon tried to relate his story about FDR and Batman to her). Meanwhile, Batman inspires a young girl named Carrie Kelly to don a homemade Robin suit and join Batman's crusade. Batman battles the Mutant Leader mano e mano twice, where the animation delivers above and beyond in depicting the brutality of blood spilling and bone breaking. By defeating the Mutant Leader, the Batman becomes the new symbolic leader of the Mutants, who re-name themselves the Sons of the Batman. Order has been restored in Gotham and the Dark Knight is triumphant. Until the Joker is reawakened by Batman's resurgence...

Robocop himself, Peter Weller, voices Batman this time around, almost dreamily at first, then gradually escalating in fearsome authority. Ariel Winter from Modern Family voices Robin with the right amount of flippant attitude. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 labors at first to match the drama of Miller's innovative panel layouts and storytelling in the graphic novel, but as the Batman returns to action, the spectacular animation and thrilling score invoking Hans Zimmer and James Horner's score for The Dark Knight Trilogy combine for an immersive experience. All of the ultra violence of the graphic novel is depicted with no apologies. The physical toll being Batman takes on old Bruce Wayne isn't shied away from. (Though another notable omission is the shot of the naked Bruce Wayne in the Batcave hugging Robin, who leaped into his arms.) The era of the tale hasn't been changed; between Gordon speaking of his past fighting in World War II, and the aesthetic design of Gotham City, this is clearly the 1980s, even though it tells of Batman's possible "future". The Mutants are a distinctly 1980s-style cross between cyberpunk and A Clockwork Orange, complete with their own slang ("spuds" and "shivs".) "The Dark Knight Returns" also anticipated Batman's wardrobe changes, starting from the blue and grey "New Look" Batman of the 60's and 70's and to the black and grey look Batman sports today.

Overall, The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is easily the most aggressive, most enjoyable and the finest of the DC Animated films starring Batman, and it's only half over. Noticeably missing from Part 1 is a certain, Ronald Reagan-serving Man of Steel, with the super fight fanboys have loved for almost three decades still to look forward to in Part 2...

The conversation (mostly with myself but also with Strikeforce MMA World Champion Ronda Rousey!) re: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 continued on Twitter: