Movie Review: ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One’

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1

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.

No, they didn’t forget the lightning thing.

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 is the Dark Knight

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.

4.5 Stars

(Out of 5)


  1. Great review, Paul. I’m looking forward to checking this one out. However, as I’m only now getting to the last film in this series, I think I’ll have a while to wait.

    Have you seen the B:TAS episode ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’ lately? It’s on YouTube. How did this version of Miller’s story compare to that version? Or, perhaps, I should just wait for the podcast to hear those thoughts.

    • Of course. The TV version is truncated obviously, or at least it’s just the climactic encounter with the Mutant Leader if memory serves. But it’s also more hyperbolic. Almost to the point of parody. Almost. It’s hard to out-Miller Miller. This is still big and bad, but it’s got less bluster. More grounded. I mean, for what it is. the Mutant Leader still eats a dude.

    • “It’s hard to out-Miller Miller.” Well stated.

  2. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”

  3. Sounds like it’s pretty good. This is a relief. So it covers books one and two I suppose? Guess we’ll have to wait to see bizarro Reagan and the T&A nazi lady. Is it a Zack Snyder-esque panel-by-panel retelling, or do they change things around a little. Any new subplots or omissions of significance?

    • Definitely not panel-by-panel. All of the pieces, I think, are present. It’s just streamlined a bit. I didn’t miss anything, but then I’m not a diehard fan of the book. If anything was truly lost in the translation, it’s atmospheric stuff. The way the world looks and feels. But that’s near-impossible to capture.

  4. Is the animation brain trust meeting to do a podcast for this? Cuz that’d be great.

  5. Enjoyed most of it…the opening CGI race car scene made me cringe. It seemed like the Harvey subplot was streamlined and made more sense, but many great lines seemed to be cut to my chagrin.

    I really missed the inner monologue. In some fo the scenes I thought hearing Weller’s gravelly monotone would have added more of the gravitas that seemed to be missing. Lines like calling himself “old man”, the blow by blow calculated commentary on his attacks, esp. for the Mutant Leader fights that seemed a bit lacking in depth aside from being a climactic fight scene.

    Parts were enjoyable and many impressive ideas were created to turn the stylized sequential art into convincing animation without just moving the original art in front of a camera.

    I think 4.5 is high, but I always enoy the thought you put into these reviews.

  6. This sold out at EVERY Best Buy in my area! 🙁

  7. Saw this last week and loved it. The film made some great choices in what to include and what to leave out. It was thematically very faithful.

    Here goes:
    2.Under the Red Hood
    3.Crisis on Two Earths.
    5.Wonder Woman/Year One

  8. Best DC Animated offering to date. Was extremely impressed with the whole film and cannot WAIT for Part 2. As always, great review Paul.

    1. TDKR
    2. New Frontier
    3. Under The Red Hood/Crisis on Two Earths
    4. Year One
    5. All-Star Superman

  9. Another strong release. I watched it on demand yesterday afternoon. Plan on buying it after part 2 comes out. Hopefully they’ll do a two disc edition with both parts.

  10. “DC Animation rescues a lost Batman tale from the depths of obscurity.”

    I don’t know how close to obscurity this legendary batman tale was.. that might be a little bit of an exxageration

  11. Wanted to buy this last night but Jim Hanley’s didn’t have it and the hipsters behind the desk looked at me like I had three heads for asking for it and insisted “we’re not getting it in.” OK. Thanks.

  12. This movie blew my mind. By the final line of the movie I was in tears because it was so damn good. By the way, that final line had this JokerNut craping his pants and rewinding about eight times to watch it again. Bravo to everyone involved, This is possibly the best animated Batman since Phantasm.

    • I kept my eye on the Joker every time, i just love the Joker, and to just see him slowly come back to reality was well done.

  13. I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’m glad to hear it’s solid.

  14. This was great. It’s as good as the best of any of the DC animated movies. Well worth picking up. It’s gonna feel like a long wait til part 2 though!

  15. I only have one bad thing to say about a film was near flawless. David Selby’s Gordon didn’t work. I think his voice style was too soft. I normally do not have anything bad to say about DC voice casting, but this was a poor choice or a poor directive. I loved Cranston’s Gordon from Year One very much and I’m sure he could of put this film over the top for me. Having said that, this was still a soild film. 4 stars easy. The Carrie Kelly / Robin moments were favorites. Also, I think I surprised myself by enjoying the visuals that keep just enough of the Miller-look to know that it was his work that created this.

  16. Just finished watching this… I thought it was fantastic, how they keep real close to MIller’s work, like watching the panels spring to life. To me this is something that one day if done right can easily pass for a big budget hollywood movie. cant wait for part two.

  17. Watched it last night and will probably watch it again tonight. Overall, I would say it is one of the best, if not THE best, of the DC animated features. The only thing I didn’t like? Peter Weller as Batman. I know he has cult status due to roles in Robocop and Buckaroo Banzai, but he’s a mediocre actor at best. I thought his Batman was the weakest performance among and otherwise great cast. Which is weird, given that he’s the main character and I still thought this was awesome.

    If you got the DVD/BD, be sure to watch the preview of Part 2. Michael Emerson is gonna KILL as the Joker.

  18. Whoa sounds good! What are the DVD extras? C’est cool?

    • There’s a fairly dry documentary on Bob Kane, the sneak peek for Part 2, a behind the scenes feature on Carrie which sort of turns into a discussion of the story in general, and the Two-Face origin episodes from Batman the Animated Series. Not as robust as some of the previous releases, but there’s some good stuff in there.

  19. “melts like a Werther’s Original after a day’s journey in a grandfather’s pocket”

    Bravo, Paul! This review was a a delight.

  20. I agree with many that this is the best thing they’ve done yet. There was some great pacing and storytelling ideas that only work in animation, maybe the best example being the transition from Bruce’s face to his mother’s pearls. Almost above all, I thought the music was startlingly good, like non-straight-to-DVD-release good!

    • Agreed on the music. They typically release the soundtracks on iTunes, but this is the first I’d even consider grabbing. I was really impressed with it.

  21. I love all the DC toons… I had pre-ordered mine from Amazon, so still waiting for it (along with my copy of Avengers 🙂 )

    Now that they FINALLY broke the mold and went all-out and gave 2 discs to tell one really great story (rather than truncate and squeeze something epic into 90 minutes!), I am DEMANDING we get Kingdom Come in animated form. I bought all the ot\her DC DVDs, I’m allowed to make demands. Who does NOT want to see Magog in motion… or an epic brawl between Superman and Captain Marvel?

    • AGREED! I’ve thought they should do KC since they started these videos. But I only want it on two conditions:

      1. Be as faithful to the source material is TDKR animated has been. No changing things!

      2. It should not be abridged – tell the full story. Not sure if there is a clean break or good cliffhanger at which to split between two releases, don’t leave anything out.

      And put a little Magog figure in the Best Buy exclusive too! 🙂

  22. great point, Paul, about the media depiction. Rapid editing would have been an awesome translation of all those small panels. And shiveringking8 is right to point out the music. Zimmer is having starting to influence the animation scores like Elfman before him.

    When separated from Miller’s crazy tone and masterpiece panels, I find it very hard to see past the politics of this story. I love it when it’s unfiltered Frank’s pure passion perfectly portrayed on the page. I didn’t feel any of that passion on screen, just a faithful adaptation of the narrative. Prominent in that narrative is a Cheney-esque argument for the effectiveness of torture. All of Batman’s intelligence is gathered through torture. That was tough for me to swallow.

  23. Would the Animated Brain Trust (or anyone else) have any clue as to when or if we will get Batman: The Animated Series on Blu-ray?

  24. I agree with Paul’s view that the movie just isn’t dark enough visually to make Frank Miller’s story seem to flicker to life. It’s not that the animation isn’t decent it just doesn’t use the same shadowy and bleak feeling that you got with the printed version and that was a huge disappointment. Peter Weller’s as Batman wasn’t grizzled enough either. It seemed like he just borrowed his “Robo-cop” voice to use for this project and I kept waiting to hear “Your under arrest” from this version of Batman. He has the right timber, but I don’t hear any world weariness to his voice or any excitement when Batman is wearing the costume again.

    I’ve been waiting for this story to come to video since they did a version of it in Batman: The Animated Serious and THAT was the look and feel I was hoping for.

  25. Loved it. The art direction and animation were the tops in my opinion. The two main fight scenes were fantastic and brutal. Mutant leader was genuinely scary, especially during his “sit down” with the mayor. I agree the news media parts could have been better, but don’t really take anything away from the rest of the movie. Took a while to get used to some of the voices, especially Weller and Selby, but after the scenes with Batman and Robin in the tank and Gordon’s Pearl Harbor monologue, I really enjoyed their take.