Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action,Adventure Movie Review of ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1’ (2012)

Movie Review of ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1’ (2012)

For over twenty years, comic fans have yearned for a film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 1986 four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, which has long been considered a vital, iconic part of comic book history. Although a live-action adaptation is yet to be produced, it’s hard to complain about the quality of 2012’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, a straight-to-video animated production from Warner Bros. Animation. A constituent of the long-running DC Comics animated universe, this is an impressive, lavishly-produced feature which manages to do the groundbreaking comic book justice. While there are a few issues here and there, Part 1is a satisfying rendering of Miller’s celebrated work, with impressively stylised animation, a superb voice cast, brutal fight scenes, and an enthrallingly dark atmosphere.

As opposed to a typical tale about Batman in his prime, The Dark Knight Returns is the story of an aging Bruce Wayne (Peter Weller), who retired his masked vigilante alter ago ten years ago. It’s a dark time for Gotham City, as a gang who call themselves The Mutants are causing turmoil on the streets, committing random acts of violence and causing unrest. Fed up with the injustice, Wayne opts to once again don the cape and cowl, heading out as Batman to clean up the streets of Gotham one last time with help from the soon-to-retire Commissioner Gordon (David Selby). Meanwhile, Harvey Dent (Wade Williams) is released from prison, soon returning to his old psychotic ways as Two Face. Due to his age, Wayne is in need of assistance, and is soon approached by the young, plucky Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter) who dons the Robin outfit.

Those unfamiliar with Miller’s work may find The Dark Knight Returns to be a departure from the ordinary. Miller depicts the Caped Crusader as an unrelentingly dark, Clint Eastwood-esque figure who’s physically intimidating and brutal. In fact, the brutality of this movie cannot be understated; it’s more or less an R-rated take on the character. While Part 1 carries a PG-13 rating, director Jay Oliva does not baulk from sequences of intense violence. Also worth noting about this story is the way it explores the Dark Knight’s twisted psychology, as Wayne has a primal need to be Batman. For the most part, the script by Bob Goodman stays faithful to Miller’s work, even devoting large portions of time to news reports, showing the media’s perception on Batman and his enemies. This material works wonderfully, as we are given an overview of the bigger picture in Gotham, and see the moral debates over the need for the Caped Crusader. However, the film excludes Batman’s inner monologues from Miller’s comic. While a voiceover-heavy presentation might have been too overbearing, snippets of inner monologues could’ve made for a richer and more complete experience.

Minor script flaws notwithstanding, Part 1 soars in every other department. For a direct-to-video production, the animation is stunning, with stylised character designs and creative compositions evoking the pages of Miller’s comic book and possessing a cinematic flair which belies its modest origins. In fact, this is one of the most visually interesting DC animated features so far, with an eye towards noir-ish lighting and clever use of colours. The Dark Knight Returns is a dark movie, but it’s not unrelentingly dour or dull like Christopher Nolan’s movies, which is an enormous benefit. The various battle scenes are extremely impressive, most notably the hand-to-hand combat scenes involving Batman that are better than anything Nolan staged in his trilogy. Fluid, hard-hitting and altogether thrilling, Part 1 is an amazing action film, superior to most of the live-action interpretations of the Dark Knight. Plus, the pacing is spot-on and the music clicks beautifully, not to mention the voice acting adds finesse to the production. Peter Weller nails it as an older, world-weary Batman, while Ariel Winter adds spunk and energy playing the new female Robin.

Like its iconic source material, this animated version of The Dark Knight Returns is an engrossing, mature take on one of pop culture’s most beloved icons. It’s not perfect, but it’s a promising start, benefitting from slick visuals, a strong screenplay and a wonderful sense of atmosphere. Dark and layered, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 easily places itself in the upper echelon of DC animated movies, and anyone who’s even mildly fond the Batman character needs to watch this film (and Part 2) at the earliest opportunity.

8.2/10

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