Review: ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1’ Won’t Disappoint Bat-Fans

It’s been a few days since I sat in a room of screaming, excited fans, watching the world premiere of “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1” here in New York. Certainly, this is a vastly different experience the rest of you will have when you watch this movie at home (unless you manage to get 280 of your closest friends in one place), so any review of the movie is going to be tainted by the circumstances surrounding the viewing. That’s why I feel confident in saying: it’s pretty good.

There’s your pull quote for the cover, right? But actually, for someone who’s had a bit of trouble with animated offerings from both DC and Marvel in the past, and who went into this with a fair amount of trepidation on par to viewing the movie version of “Watchmen” for the first time, this might also count as gangbuster praise.

I’m going to assume all of you have read “Dark Knight Returns” at some point, but in case you haven’t, or mistakenly picked up the DVD thinking it was a sequel to “Dark Knight Rises” (clever box art by Warner Brothers won’t hurt there), here’s the gist: ten years after Batman retired, things are worse in Gotham City than ever. The Mutant Gang, led by the mysterious Mutant Leader terrorizes the streets. Commissioner Gordon, long time protector of the people is retiring. And Bruce Wayne is having some very, very bad dreams.

It doesn’t spoil a whole lot to say that Wayne reaches a breaking point, puts the costume back on, and wages his one-man war on crime again with fiercer intensity than ever before. It’s also probably not a spoiler to say that some of his most famous villains come back, too. It’s all there in Frank Miller’s seminal work, of course, but even if you haven’t read the book, you can jump right into this movie. It doesn’t pick up on any particular plot points from other comics or movies, and even fills in the origin and legend of Batman with exposition, in case you were born five minutes ago, have no idea who Batman is, and decide as your first act as a sentient being you’re going to watch a direct-to-DVD animated movie.

I have a couple of large qualms with this film, which was inevitable given the high expectations… But on a whole, I can safely say this is probably the best animated offering from DC since “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker”. A large part of that credit goes to Director Jay Oliva, who makes some bold, interesting visual choices that depart from Miller, but forge a visual identity all his own. Don’t get me wrong, there’s images straight out of Miller in this movie, including the cover of one of the books, and a silhouetted showdown between the Mutant Leader and the Batmobile.

But Oliva adds his own flair throughout, from shakey-cam fight scenes, to recurring images of bats, to the whole look of the piece. One of my main sticking points with most of the DC and Marvel animated features are their generic look. When I watched “The New Frontier”, my heart broke a little that we didn’t get Darwyn Cooke’s made for animation designs in the film. Here, Oliva eschews Miller’s style, and instead, fully embraces an anime aesthetic, and intense amounts of shading. What this does is keep the soul of Miller’s work, but filter it squarely through an Eastern look that plays like the makers of “Akira” had decided to take on Batman.

It doesn’t always quite work… Oliva and Vocal Director Andrea Romano pretty much perfectly hit the comedic timing of the satirical newscasts Miller peppered throughout “DKR”; but the look of the newscasters is, by the nature of the designs, slightly less insane and horrific than they played in the comic. And the reveal of the bat signal, in particular, is muted by the lack of exaggeration in the movie.

There’s also one major excision that changes the piece entirely: the movie cuts out Batman’s omni-present narration. One of the biggest, most important aspects of “Dark Knight Returns” is the internal battle Bruce Wayne is fighting, along with his external battle. Outside? Batman is a nearly unstoppable pummeling machine, kicking serious butt and grinding the city under his fascistic thumb. But inside? He’s fighting against this with every fiber of his being, reminding himself that Batman is a symbol… And though his foes may use over-bearing force, he always has to hold back, and do the right thing.

One key sequence in the book – which is repeated in the movie – finds Batman battling some bank robbers in a broken down building, as a young cop tries to take down Batman. Both the movie and the book have almost the same exact action beats: the cop tries to shoot Batman, the crook shoots, Batman breaks the crook’s leg. In the movie, it plays like Batman is dodging their bullets. But in the book, the narration explains that he’s really trying to stop the crook from shooting the young cop, even though the cop is trying to shoot him. Even when Batman is being attacked and shot at, his first thought is of saving someone else.

Pretty key difference, right?

This change recontextualizes the whole movie. The audience I watched it with certainly didn’t mind, cheering all the bone-breaking action… But that’s what it becomes. An action movie, with Batman kicking crooks up and down town. There’s even an added sequence involving a key character who is pretty much goaded into killing himself by Batman, and again, this went over great with the audience. But it’s not Batman, and that’s not what “Dark Knight Returns” was about.

Maybe this is what a modern audience wants? A Batman who uses any force necessary? The movie version certainly doesn’t seem to have a problem blasting people to their death, as long as he doesn’t shoot them himself, so that might be what we want. It’s also what makes “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1,” and “The Dark Knight Returns” intrinsically different works.

Still, for fans of the book, or the character, you won’t be disappointed. This is a solid film that pays tribute to the original, without replacing it. And if it drives one person back to the comic? That makes it even more worth it. And regardless, based on the last two words of this movie… We’re definitely back for “Part 2”.

RANDOM NOTES:

– Peter Weller is pretty great as Batman. As much as I would have loved for Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to return for the “last” Batman movie, the Batman here pretty much IS Robocop, so it works.

– It’s really weird to see a modern movie depicting the future as seen in the 1980s. Maybe if Gotham City had gone through Grunge, everybody would have been able to get their anger out, rather than keeping it in, you know?

– Carrie Kelly’s story gets vastly abbreviated in this, going from victim to acrobatic Robin in no time. Still, Ariel Winter does a great job on the voice, and Kelly has some of the best scenes in the movie.

– The movie – like the book – is very episodic. This would have possibly worked even better as four movies, rather than two; though Bob Goodman manages to balance the script pretty well for “Part 1”, melding the two halves and building them nicely.

“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1” hits DVD, Blu-Ray, On-Demand, and digital download this Tuesday, September 25th!