Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 & 2

Get out your bat-a-rangs and tanks, we're reviewing parts 1 and 2 of The Dark Knight Returns!

It's the ‘80's. Batman has long since retired and is in his 60's. But when a new breed of "mutant" criminal threatens Gotham, Batman must come out of retirement one last time. This is an animation based on the graphic novel by Frank Millar.

I didn't grow up with comics, I only discovered them in college. The Dark Knight Returns was one of the first ones I read, and it's still one of my favs. So, to say I'm biased is an understatement. There's always a problem with these direct-to-DVD animations based directly on graphic novel stories. They always come up short and never do the original justice. And after watching both parts, I can't in good conscience say that the animation replaces the original. The animation is very well done, but if you haven't read the book, it's the better option.

One of the best parts about the new show is that the actual animation is quite good. Some of the direct-to-DVD cartoons have been lacking in good animation, like Batman: Year One, but thankfully they pulled out all the stops for this one. They even managed to get a lot of the same character styles as the comic, which I wasn't expecting at all. Part 2 fairs better in this regard, because they flesh out a lot of the fighting and show a little extra that wasn't in the original. There are also a bunch of 3D-made cars and vehicles that don't look terrible.

While the animation is good, the dirty, messy style Frank Miller used is gone. I understand it's easier to animate if it has a cleaner, sleeker style, but it really takes away from the story and atmosphere. It's not just that I love a messy style when it comes to comics, but that style helped to cement the dystopian, and almost post-apocalyptic, feel to Millar’s version of Gotham. That Gotham is messy and broken, and its inhabitants are disfigured and grotesque; all of that is gone with the clean line. There are also some parts where the magic of comics shows just enough to let the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks; as opposed to animation, which has to show everything. Take, for instance, a shot in the white house; mostly composed of close ups with two characters talking. It slowly transitions from the American flag to Superman's S when you finally realize who the president is talking to. That is lost in the animation where they try to slowly transition; it doesn't have the same magic. There are just some things that comics do better.

The biggest change from the graphic novel to the animation is that they've completely removed the narration and inner monologue. If you've read the book, you know how big a part that is. It completely changes the story. Narration can be handled very poorly and just used as exposition dumps, but when it shows character, it really shines. Most of the inner dialogue came from Batman, expounding on how he works and how his mental process was likely to be cracking. The comic starts off with Bruce thinking how "this would be a good death..." while he's in a race-car, and the comic ends with a quote that refers back to that opening, creating a kind of bookend. But in the animation, with no inner monologue, there's just one line he says to someone at the end with no context linking it back at all. A couple of my favorites are Batman explaining how he has a symbol on his chest to draw attention to his chest armor so he doesn't get shot in the head, or when he's going off on a rant about how he always has to save Robin while Robin is actually saving him.

It takes away a lot of little details they added, and a few major themes. One of the themes TDKR explores is the possible sexuality associated with costumed crime-fighting. At one point while Batman is tussling with Two-Face, he mentions that they "Tumble like lovers." Completely lost in the animation. Miller did an amazing job not only giving Batman an inner voice, but a voice to a handful of the main cast. You get to hear how they think… and it's all lost in the animation. It's interesting to see how Gordon goes about retirement, and how Robin looks up to Batman, and why Superman does what he does. All of that is lost. 

Watching this and seeing the story again, I'm reminded that this is a Frank Millar story before Frank Millar went insane. It's also probably the best he's been to women, like, ever. If you've picked up any of his comics (no, seriously: any) there's a prevalent "all women are whores" theme, and this is probably the best he's handled women in his stories. Looking back, it's pretty amazing how progressive he was. He made Robin a girl, and a woman replaced Gordon as police commissioner! Celina Kyle had an escort company, but that's only canon from Batman Year One where he wrote Celina Kyle as an actual whore before she became Catwoman (what did I tell you?). There are a lot of themes here that, in the 80's, made Batman darker and "more mature" about caped crusaders and sexuality: Batman's war on crime, his weird, borderline creepy association with young kids as sidekicks, and his possible insanity. There's been a backlash in recent years for a return to Batman's original campiness, so you may be on the backlash and hate the themes and politics in this, or you may be on the backlash’s backlash and enjoy how good it was at the time. Or maybe you just enjoy the story, that's an option, too.

And then there's the voice acting. The music is pretty good, actually, but the voice acting is disappointing. They have Peter Weller for Batman, and he does not pull it off. I hope this is a complement to Mr. Weller, but he is not old enough. He doesn't have that gruffness in his voice, especially for a Batman role, and especially – especially – for big, bulky, old-man Batman. I'm not sure why they didn't get Kevin Conroy. I mean, have you seen Batman Beyond? He is the best kind of badass old guy. Failing that, I'm not sure why they didn't get Michael Ironside, who did a pretty great job voicing old Batman in the tribute episode of Batman TAS: Legends of the Dark Knight. In fact, why they didn't just get that whole cast back is beyond me. Two Face is not great, and Joker is acceptable at best, and Superman is disappointing. The supporting cast isn't bad though.

It's a well-done animation, it's fun and enjoyable, but it's still not as good as reading The Dark Knight Returns. It's The Dark Knight Returns Lite. I think Part 2 fares better, because it adds a little here and there to the story and action, while Part 1 is a fairly standard rehash of the events of the book. I'm a bit surprised, because they got so much in, and also because both episodes are 76 minutes each. If you enjoyed The Dark Knight Returns, you'll enjoy this. But if you haven't read it yet, read the comic first.
  • THE GOOD: Great animation, character models are mostly true to original design, TDKR is still a fantastic story.
  • THE BAD: voice cast is disappointing, they took out the narration, sometimes animation can't do what comics can.
  • THE VERDICT: $$$$ It's still a really good animation worth checking out, but I wish they had included the narration. Read the comic first, it's better, as it always is.
  • MOVIES LIKE IT: Batman Superman: Public Enemies, Batman: Year One, The Death of Superman
  • ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: SPOILER WARNING sort of. If you haven't read the book. Superman gets hit with a missile and is dying, and can't fly up to the sun. He falls to the Earth, sucks up the energy stored in plants from photosynthesis, turning a green field black. All the while he's asking Mother Earth, pleading with her and saying how this was his second home. It's still well done in the animation, but the nuance is lost on the animation without his inner monologue.

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