This is the animated movie adaptation of Frank Millers legendary comic book, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The book was originally four issues which can be broken down roughly as Batman fights 1) Two-Face, 2) Mutant Leader, 3) Joker, and 4) Superman - in Part 1 we get 1) and 2) though it isn't just fighting as we see Bruce's journey back to being the Dark Knight after a 10 year break. It is an incredibly faithful version of Millers story, often praised as the greatest Batman story ever told, and its because of this faithfulness to the original book that its impossible to talk about this film without comparing the two. Its strict adherence to the book might be the reason why the film was released in 2 parts so as not to leave anything out without making it an over-long watch (though, yes, I do know it was probably for financial reasons as well). And it's a really awesome movie too, though not perfect.
The story is set in the near future, Bruce Wayne is 55 and Batman has not been seen in Gotham for 10 years. On the eve of Commissioner Gordons retirement, he and Bruce share a drink and briefly reminisce about old times, especially as Gotham has since gone to hell. A gang called the Mutants are destroying the city but Bruce is too old and too traumatised by the death of Jason (Todd, former Robin) to don the cowl and stop the threat. It takes the release of one of his old rogues, Harvey Dent aka Two-Face, who quickly gets back to his old tricks, to stir the bat within and finally break the tension thats been building inside Bruce so that, for one final time, Gotham City will witness - the Dark Knight Return! Im a huge fan of the book so it was an astonishing experience to see this film after seeing it so many times on the page suddenly up on the screen, moving. The film-makers have included all of the iconic imagery in that book, most of all the silhouetted Batman against a lightning storm at night backdrop, but the look of the film is noticeably different from the book. Gone is Millers scratchy, almost feral, line-work replaced with the clean animation style of all Batman cartoons - except it felt too clean, it was missing its unique artistic style. And while I saw this on blu-ray, I can't imagine you'd lose much visual quality in watching this either on DVD or digital download, the animation just isn't that detailed. That said, it is recognisably Millers Batman - his character model is all there, as are the character models for Gordon, Carrie Kelly, Alfred, Two-Face, the Mutant Leader, and Joker.
While it shares the clean animated look of many other Batman adaptations, this film does retain the pugilistic nature of the book, setting itself apart from other Batman films of recent years like Under the Red Hood or Year One. The two fights between Batman and the Mutant Leader are especially brutal with Batman, smiling, snapping arms and legs left and right. You feel the violence as Batman and Mutant Leader just lay into each other without restraint - the production team did a great job of conveying the sheer power and aggression of their fighting. The intermittent news reports was one of the few annoying aspects of the book that definitely worked better on screen than it did on the page. Its less intrusive, less laborious to see, it pops up briefly then disappears rather than dominating the pages of the book like an irritating, tedious Greek chorus. But for all its adherence to the book, the film does make some odd changes though they are quite small. Rather than bust up a game of 3-card Monte with a firecracker when she first puts on the Robin outfit, Carrie instead twirls out of an alley, halting a potential mugging. It feels much less in the spirit of the character and rather a dull incident. Also instead of smoking cigars, Gordon is obsessively chewing nicotine gum. But like I said these are minor changes and mightve been made to reflect the times we live in now - what if a kid copies the firecracker incident, smoking is looked upon very poorly, etc. Some of the changes were things Id not thought of like the inclusion of 80s synth music to Batmans first fight scene which gives the run-down city a kind of Blade Runner feel while also referencing the time the book was published - 1986. The music throughout is excellent, particularly the Dark Knight Returns theme which manages to reference Hans Zimmers Batman music and Danny Elfmans Batman music while becoming its own thing. Its like a summation of Batmans career which is both soaring and dramatic - its perfectly suited to the character. But by far the biggest and most lamentable change this film made was the absence of Batmans inner monologue. This is a massive difference not least because the inner monologue contained some of the most poetic, most memorable lines ever written for Batman. Lines like This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle - broken, spent, unable to move. And, were I an older man, I surely would But Im a man of 30 - of 20 again. The rain on my chest is a baptism. Im born again. I wouldve loved to have heard Weller utter this, or the line at the start of the story This would be a good death... But not good enough. which instantly gives you Bruces mindset and the tone of this version of Batman. The film does contain a number of great lines from the book which Batman speaks like You dont get it, boy. This isnt a mudhole... Its an operating table. And Im the surgeon and I will never forget Jason. He was a good soldier. He honored me. But the war goes on. Awesome lines but I missed the internal dialogue, I really wished the film-makers had kept it in - the movie feels too silent without it.
Like a lot of Batman fans, for me Kevin Conroy is Batman - there is no other. When I read a Batman book, his is the voice I hear in my head. But I can understand why the film-makers went with someone else in this film - Peter Weller is cast as Batman and for the most part I thought he was a fine choice. I hear Bruce when Weller speaks but with a difference - the voice is definitely older, which matches the character of the 55-year old Bruce, more so than Conroys younger-sounding timbre of the character. That said, I felt Wellers readings were at crucial moments too lacklustre. For example, the first appearance Batman makes after 10 years was a very dramatic and exciting sequence, the tension and action ratcheting up perfectly. So when the cops catch up to the bank robbers, their cars headlights turning to reveal, out of the darkness, Batman about to enter the abandoned derelict building theyve escaped to, Weller simply says, quite calmly These men are mine, before heading inside. That line felt so much more emotional on the page than it did on the screen. Bruce is Batman for the first time in 10 years, the blood and adrenaline is pumping like the old days, the DNA is moving, its almost joyous for Bruce to once more be his true self after so long - I wanted to hear all of that in his voice instead of the flat delivery that Weller gives it. Weller delivers all of his lines in this near-monotone which works for the most part but also makes the film feel less urgent. It made me wonder how other actors wouldve delivered that line like Michael Ironside, Diedrich Bader, or even Tom Selleck. And speaking of alternate casting choices, David Selby does a decent job with Gordon but his voice just didnt seem right. I wouldve preferred to hear Bryan Cranston, who played Gordon in Year One, reprise his role - Im sure he couldve made his voice gruffer to reflect Gordons 70 year-old age in this movie. Both Weller and Selby do good jobs with the material, if not quite as perfectly as Id hoped, but Ariel Winter is excellent as Carrie Kelly as is Gary Anthony Williams as the Mutant Leader. Williams in particular matches the voice in the comics perfectly, giving him the bluster and menace that makes him the perfect obstacle for Batman to defeat to prove his return. Wade Williams as Two Face was good but wasn't that memorable. To be fair to Williams, Two Face doesn't feature very prominently in the story so he had a handful of scenes and only one major scene before the character exits the film, but he was good in that final scene - I bought Harvey's mental disintegration. The mutants voices in general were done as well as could be. The mutant gang members are definitely the most dated aspect to the story. They seem idiotic, anachronistic and silly rather than scary and their dialogue sounds like a poor version of Anthony Burgess Droogs, as they chatter tiresome phrases like slice n dice repeatedly. Again, its faithful to the book so this is more a critique of Millers writing, but that said the film does its best to pull it off, which it almost does. But overall I have to say I enjoyed the hell out of this film. Im a huge Batman fan, a huge fan of Millers book, and this was a genuine thrill to watch. Its one thing to read the story and its quite another to see it and moments like seeing Batman take out Two Faces crew through the smoke was amazing as was seeing him balancing on the side of a building holding the grappling gun, waiting for Two-Face to show. Familiar scenes like that gave me goosebumps they were portrayed so perfectly and yet so differently as they were alive!
It retains enough of the book to make this a superb adaptation while any Batman fan, whether youve read the book or not, will enjoy seeing Bruce become the Dark Knight once again to do battle one final time. Its hard for me to imagine what someone who hasnt read Millers book would make of this film for the first time but Id hope that the story was different enough to interest them. It is Batman and it isnt - its Batman as a far older man than he is normally portrayed and the vulnerability that this quality brings makes for a tense and gripping take on the character. The film isnt perfect but its flaws in no way hindered my enjoyment of watching it, and I really got a kick out of it. Its as close to a big screen treatment of this classic book as fans are likely to get and for most this version will be totally satisfactory. Watching the behind the scenes featurettes, its clear that the film-makers have really put the effort in putting this together so that its as faithful to the source material as it can be while being its own beast. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a good film. Good enough. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.