The Winding Road to Getting ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ Animated

In 20 years of bringing the animated adventures of Batman to the small screen,* one of the most remarkable feats Warner Brothers Animation has accomplished over the years is working classic Batman stories into a 22-minute episode of TV, leading all the way up to the September 25th release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Pt. 1. From getting Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Daughter of the Demon” and “The Demon Lives Again” “The Demon’s Quest” on TV, giving us the epic showdown between Ra’s Al Ghul and Batman in the desert, while “Joker’s Millions” gave us the villain’s rags to unearned riches to rags story from Detective Comics #180. Even Frank Miller, Lynn Varley, and Klaus Janson’s own The Dark Knight Returns’ epic fight between the Bat and the Mutants made its way into the “Legends of the Dark Knight” episode with Michael Ironside lending his rumbling voice to elderly Bruce Wayne.

Still, going from that to a feature-length adaptation of a comic that defined not only a character for years to come but also reshaped how superhero comics played out for at least the next 15 years was kind of a leap. As imagined by Miller and company, The Dark Knight Returns was the END OF BATMAN in a way (or at least, the type of Batman that had come before). You should really check out Chris Sims’ analysis of this story, but given the maturity, social commentary, on-panel death, and relentless darkness of DKR, it would take a full two decades before Warner Brothers was ready to bring this particular story to audiences.

That’s not to say WB Animation was afraid to go dark or mature. That was kind of their thing with BTAS. The Batman: The Animated Series team created a collection of theatrical and direct-to-video animated features which upped the ante and maturity level beyond what might have been allowed during daytime TV for kids. Starting with 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm which received tepid theatrical release before finding a second life on home video, and later with Return of the Joker in 2000, these features saw showrunners Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski going to lengths they really couldn’t (or didn’t have the scope to cover) in the show: Tim Drake tortured in Return of the Joker, the redemption of Mr. Freeze in Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, and Bruce Wayne’s doomed first love in Mask of the Phantasm.

What these episodes and features did, I believe, is prove to WB Animation (and audiences) that classic Batman stories could be animated and given the level of attention they deserve. So let’s take a look how some legends of the Bat (and his friends) have made their way to animation and how Warner Brothers has seemingly been working all this time to get The Dark Knight Returns onto your TV (and some of the challenges that previous DC animated adaptations have faced up to this point).

In all, there have been 13 DC animated original features since the first, Superman: Doomsday was released back in 2007. That feature attempted to condense the sprawling “Death and Return of Superman” into around 80 minutes of animation. Even while cutting out the whole “Reign of the Supermen” storyline and condensing the tale down to something that would explain the villain Doomsday and give viewers a satisfying resurrection, you can see how the film, directed by Bruce Timm, Lauren Montgomery, and Brandon Vietti might feel a little cramped.

The second feature, adapting Darwyn Cooke’s Kennedy-era set Justice League: The New Frontier faced the same problem but compounded by several orders of magnitude. The purpose of The New Frontier was to reimagine the Justice League against the backdrop of the Cold War while providing the scope of the social and political tumult of the era. That story got all of the beats from Cooke’s story down but in juggling nearly two dozen characters and a world-ending threat, lost its heart (and in a way, missed the point).

Now, let me jump back really quick to that episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “Legends of the Dark Knight. If you haven’t seen it, the episode involved a group of kids spinning tales about Gotham’s hero, each story taking on the style of Batman comic or animation from a particular era. What BTAS absolutely sold in the eight minute or so DKR sequence was black humor of Miller’s script, with Ironside absolutely nailing the line “Rubber bullets. Honest.” This whole sequence had the benefit of being able to breathe, and wasn’t constrained by having to tell the entire story. And it’s a perfect example of keying in on a choice bit from an iconic story and bringing it to the screen. WB Animation’s challenge wasn’t simply adaptation but editing.

You’d actually have to skip over a couple of features to 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood before WB Animation was really able to nail the source material while telling a solid story**. And Under the Red Hood was such an unlikely contender, based, as it was, on a 2005 story by Judd Winick that saw long-dead former Robin Jason Todd show up to plague the Batman and kill the Joker. That story had already begun to experience a decrease in its rep for comics readers given how awkwardly Jason Todd’s reintroduction to the DCU had been in the years since (and the clunky explanation for the character’s resurrection which involved, among other things, Superboy punching the walls of reality).

Under the Red Hood was a success for streamlining some of those same problematic story elements and finding elegant solutions to them.

With fidelity figured out (and handled well in Justice League: Doom and Batman: Year One), there remained the problem of scope and the passage of time for the animated Dark Knight Returns. I’m trying to find a running time for DKR, but if history is any indication, it’ll be somewhere around 75 minutes which isn’t a whole lot of time to tell the story of Bruce putting on the mask again, the return of the Joker, and the city and country’s reaction to a Caped Crusader ascendant.

Which is why I’m cautiously optimistic about the filmmakers’ plan to split the story in half, dropping part one this year and the second half in 2013. I can see the first half clearly ending where Book Two of the comic did, with Batman’s knock-down, drag-out fight with the Mutant gang’s leader in the mud, and maybe even with the Joker (who’s been long since catatonic in Arkham following Batman’s retirement) showing the first flickering of awareness (the trailer seems to lean heavily on the vicious street gang as the heavies with some bits of the sad end of Harvey Dent in there).

Will Warner Brothers nail it? Well, their track record has been getting better over the years, and while I’m not wild about them splitting the story up with several months’ gap in between, I’m looking forward to the execution.

*Longer if you want to count his appearances on Superfriends and Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, which I’m not.