Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One
Warner Bros. Animation / DC Universe Animated Original Movie
Directed by Jay Oliva
Screenplay by Bob Goodman
Based on The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
Starring: Peter Weller (Bruce Wayne/The Batman); Ariel Winter (Carrie Kelley/Robin); Michael Jackson (Alfred Pennyworth); Wade Williams (Harvey Dent/Two-Face); David Selby (Jim Gordon); Michael McKean (Doctor Bartholomew Wolper); María Canals Barrera (Ellen Yindel); Gary Anthony Williams (Mutant Leader); Michael Emerson (Joker)
You know the story.
You know about the man who saved Gotham from itself time and again and how, out of some twisted sense of gratitude, that city swallowed him up, made him immortal. Another gargoyle for the heights. Another urban legend. You know how ten years passed and the gargoyle sneered, drooling rain down on the man beneath. Ten years with nought but the memory of a Batman.
In this, Warner Bros. and DC Animation’s most ambitious animated feature since Mask of the Phantasm, writer Bob Goodman, director Jay Oliva and a host of gifted animators and craftspeople chronicle the resurrection of a vengeful spirit. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is doubly audacious because it tackles some deeply revered source material, while flying in the face of animation’s most frustrating conventions. While it’s not as hard and cynical, or even as grimy as the original Frank Miller comics, DKR manages to locate and skirt that razor’s edge of the Bruce Timm house style for the maximum level of darkness possible. It falls short of embracing the Heavy Metal level of grunge some fans would probably like, but then it wouldn’t be a Bruce Timm or DC Animation project. Close comparison between the movie and the comics proves the animation style to be a little too sterile to convincingly recreate the seedy dystopia of tomorrow’s Gotham. That said, the decision to cut the story into two features allows for some of the studio’s best storytelling yet. Lean as this chapter is, Goodman and Oliva have ample opportunity to flesh out Bruce’s journey from lifeless retiree to emboldened avenger. This isn’t the fast and flashy animation of recent DC Animation ventures, offering a return to the moodier sensibility and tone of Batman: The Animated Series. There are a few wordless exchanges and even a brief conversation between characters over a completely black screen that surprised me in their gutsiness. That tempo and visual restraint might not fly on a Saturday morning.
That’s not to say that DKR is bereft of action. Batman’s two bone-splintering battles with the hulking Mutant Leader are just as visceral as his recent live action brawls with Bane, replete with even better choreography. The sound effects gurus are also to be commended, as melee combat, gunfire, and vehicular mayhem are masterfully rendered through sound as never before. Speaking of vehicular mayhem, the studio’s often wince-worthy CG cars are back in action, especially in the formula one race prologue. These digital elements still stand out from the traditional animation, often to the point of distraction, but are not nearly so clumsily boxy as they once were.
One of the first stylistic or narrative flourishes we think of when recalling Miller’s comics is the use of news bulletins and talking heads to drive the exposition and establish a theme of pervasive media scrutiny and decadence. That carries over to the feature, though it’s not always cohesive. Though the news anchors and pundits are a constant presence, they don’t quite feel like the bombardment effected in the source material. Perhaps this is where the pacing could’ve benefitted from rapidity and a less subtle hand. It’s a complicated element though, and balancing the bulletins’ use as exposition driver and the more thematic function of infuriating nuisance isn’t the simplest of tasks.
It’s worth noting that this feature offers the nine hundredth animated flashback to the murder of Bruce’s parents and the fateful visitation of a bat through a pane of glass. Viewers have grown jaded to the depictions of Bruce’s road to vigilantism, but such imagery here ranks among the best in recent memory. Bruce’s visions of the bat that shattered the sanctuary of his grief to deliver his vocation of vengeance are particularly strong. Even after donning the cape and cowl for the first time in a decade, Bruce still isn’t operating at the capacity he demands of himself. Most would resign this to a disfunction of his advanced age, but Bruce Wayne isn’t most people. In one of the most powerful and visually striking scenes in the movie, a battered Bruce wanders into the darkness beneath his house and seeks out the spirit that once drove him. It’s not often that we consider the Bat as independent of the Man, but here it functions almost like a tribal god and the source of Bruce’s inhuman energy to win back the night.
While the Diablo Cody specificity of the Mutants’ street speak might grate on some, the gang’s vast numbers and vibrant red visors make for some creepy set dressing, highlighting Batman’s poor odds in this fight. The filmmakers smartly downplay and truncate Bruce’s encounter with the not-so reformed Harvey Dent, allowing for the Mutant threat to stand tall over any other conflicts. Wade Williams doesn’t have all that much time in his role as the troubled Two-Face, but in that time he offers a nuanced and tragic performance that should make up for the diminished role.
Peter Weller makes for a cold, unmovable Batman. That’s entirely appropriate to the suicidal old warrior rolling formula one cars and sharing war stories with Jim Gordon (a true highlight and one of several great showcases for both Weller and Selby). But I worried that the character might be too rigid, too austere for such a weighty, operatic film. Would Weller’s Bruce Wayne take us careening over the edge with him? Fortunately, there are some chinks in the armor. Especially in his all-too brief interactions with Carrie, Weller’s tone ever so subtly melts like a Werther’s Original after a day’s journey in a grandfather’s pocket. It’s almost imperceptible, but both the expressive animation and Carrie’s reactions help augment the change in ol’ Batman. It’s not that Bruce is getting sentimental. He’s simply remembering the simple pleasures of grounding punks into the pavement and vaulting from parapet to parapet against storm-streaked skies. Visually, he’s a goliath. Just a huge, brick shit-house of a Batman, butcher’s mitts and all. A real aging bruiser, far removed from the svelte and stealthy dark knight of recent years.
One small note: For better or worse, the Michael Jackson playing Alfred isn’t that Michael Jackson. Actually, he’s really good in this role and has great chemistry with Weller and Winter in both comedy and pathos, of real importance for part two.
Speaking of which…
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of DKR Part One is a small spark slowly devouring its fuse. Throughout the feature, Oliva cuts to the wards of Arkham and the instantly recognizable figure of the Joker. Of course, this isn’t the manic clown prince of crime as we’ve come to fear and adore him. This Joker is even paler than usual, his pasty countenance somehow more pallid than its iconic white. There’s less luster to his mossy hair. But most unsettling of all is his placid temperament. He’s a clown deflated. Then slowly, you can almost hear the creak of the valve, the hiss of the laughing gas as it reasserts itself. The Joker is watching those news bulletins, keen to the rumors of a rekindled myth. And when he finally hears the name of his beloved, “darling” Batman, the color rushes back to his face. Michael Emerson is almost unrecognizable in the role teased in this coda, but coupled with an ominous bit of scoring by Christopher D. Lozinski, this moment serves as a chilling ellipses.
(Out of 5)