MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part Two’

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part Two

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 & Klaus Janson
Starring: Peter Weller (Bruce Wayne/The Batman); Ariel Winter (Carrie Kelley/Robin); Michael Jackson (Alfred Pennyworth); David Selby (Jim Gordon); Michael McKean (Doctor Bartholomew Wolper); María Canals Barrera (Ellen Yindel); Michael Emerson (Joker); Conan O’Brien (Dave Endochrine); Mark Valley (Clark Kent/Superman); Jim Meskimen (PotUS); Robin Atkin Downes (Oliver Queen/Green Arrow); Tress MacNeille (Selina Kyle)

You know the story.

The Batman was conceived in an alleyway, baptized in blood and strewn pearls. A little boy was ushered out into the world with more than his share of shadows. Stories like that don’t end in happily ever afters.

Months after conquering Gotham’s pervasive Mutant gang and repurposing those lost souls as the Sons of Batman, the dark knight remains Public Enemy Number One. Newly installed police commissioner Ellen Yindel launches an aggressive manhunt under intense media scrutiny. President Reagan might conceal his rancor behind a showbiz smile, but he’s equally intent on stamping out the embarrassing vigilante problem in one of his bleakest districts. He enlists his most trusted soldier to yank the Batman from the news cycle, issuing Superman a kill-order right there in the oval office. All the while, threats nuclear and green of hair promise far more violence and devastation just in time for a long, cold winter.

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While the second half of Goodman and Oliva’s adaptation of the unadaptable feels less cohesive than Part One, it mostly delivers on the source material’s most iconic and shocking moments. Ronald Reagan is present to an extent few of us probably expected. Bruno’s twin swastikas are readily visible for several minutes, right there on her unmoving, bolt-on breasts. It’s all there on the screen, if not as righteously ragged as it was in the original comics. Plenty of viewers will be bowled over at just how faithful it all is, while others will classify it a valiant miss. Frank Miller’s grungy, expressive style is instantly recognizable in motion, but there remains something a bit too clean, a bit too ordered in this animation style to fully approach the tone and atmosphere of the source. It’s an impressive attempt and a closer match than I ever thought possible, but it’s evident that those talking heads on the news bulletins aren’t quite integrated to their full potential. That the timing and execution of Reagan’s on-air gaffes and platitudes don’t land as they might’ve.

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What ought to feel like a three act structure unfortunately registers as a three-episode anthology. After the first half’s cliffhanger and months of intermission, Joker’s return to maniacal greatness might culminate too abruptly. Then, that’s a structural conundrum that goes back to the comics, and any disappointment is swiftly dismissed by the mounting promise of Superman’s betrayal. Back to the Joker for a moment. Brief as his appearance might be, Michael Emerson offers up an appropriately chilling clown prince. His deliciously theatrical reading helps balance out a character who’s traded colorful showmanship for callous gunplay. Easily the most disturbing and genuinely creepy sequence DC Animation’s ever committed to the screen, Joker’s carnival killing spree makes Batman’s decision to break his code and finally put the madman down a far easier pill to swallow. His murders aren’t graphic, just appallingly casual. The struggle in the shallow waters of the Tunnel of Love is as brutal and even clumsy as it ought to be, climaxing in that gruesome, lonely moment emblazoned in our minds since the Spring of 1986.

If not for the resonance of Joker’s final bow and the war drums heralding Superman’s arrival in Gotham, the nuclear winter sequence might’ve proved disastrous. Though the initial cataclysm is as harrowing as it’s ever been, the film drifts into the doldrums for the fallout. The Mutants/Sons of Batman serve as set dressing as retired Jim Gordon rallies Gotham away from looting to seemingly fruitless volunteer fire-fighting. The exploration of America’s plight in the wake of an electromagnetic pulse seems shallow and underdeveloped, the escalation of violence too quickly halted in favor of easily-won community activism.

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Luckily, disgruntled and litigious Gothamites and slicey-dicey gang members clear the streets for a truly explosive encounter between Batman and Superman. Yes, one-armed Oliver Queen boasting Connery’s fresh-out-of-Alcatraz grizzle, steals the show in short order, proving a far more exciting cameo than flea-bitten madame Selina Kyle. As a Superman devotee, I was delighted by Mark Valley’s nuanced performance as well as the script’s overall handling of Clark’s turn as government stooge. This could’ve nosedived into dimensionless (fictional) character assassination, but even in the wrong, Superman reads as conflicted and honorable, not stuffy. Even if he does summon bald eagles to his waiting wrist.

In the end, Bruce retires completely from public life. Each Son of Batman, a spilt pearl set loose into the shadows. A quiet revolution instead of a bombastic one. Not a happy ending. Not an entirely bleak one either.

3.5 Stars

(Out of 5)

 

 


Comments

  1. I saw this last week when it became available via iTunes and absolutely loved it!! The only negative thing I can say about it is that the Joker part seemed really short. The Superman, Batman battle was straight from the comics and that’s a good thing. I’ve heard a lot of people say they really didn’t care for the second part, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It will definitely be one if the DC movies I will watch again.

  2. I’m definitely looking forward to watching the second half, but I was disappointed in the first. It did not have the bite that the comic book had. However, all that aside, it’s truly awesome that there is a Dark Knight Returns movie in full now.

  3. You’ll do a podcast for this I suppose? Any idea how soon that might happen? Enjoyed the review here and I appreciate that you were able to separate your dislike (too strong?) of the source material from animated product. But still, I’ll be interested to hear Conor’s take on it, since my opinion tends more toward his when it comes to TDKR (that is to say, it is perhaps my favorite comic story of all time, and it’s very important to me). Thanks for another great review Paul.

  4. I liked Mark Valley as Superman. Joker took some getting used to but the voice more or less fit the tone.

  5. In part one the politics really got to me. Pretty soon into pt 2 I realized that this stocky, deadpan, libertarian batman was basically Ron Swanson. Then I was cool with it.

    “not as righteously ragged” hits the nail on the head for me.

    • I understand your point about politics. Usually I’m able to compartmentalize my real-world political views from the various fictional worlds in the media I consume, which frees me to enjoy a lot of stories that I would not otherwise. I think a lot of the standard super-hero character motivations and plots can be boiled down to somewhat fascistic, hyper-violent revenge fantasies. For me, fantasy is the operative word. I doubt I would ever support a real-life vigilante, but Batman is nevertheless one of my favorite fictional characters. It has no effect on how I vote on election day.

    • Totally agree. I think it’s better to view superheroes psychological metaphors rather than political metaphors. For example, I don’t think Ayn Rand’s principles should govern the economy, but I love how her feelings of alienation and frustration came through in Ditko’s Peter Parker. I may not agree that you should give petty criminals compound fractures, but I understand that frenzied, ugly, primal urge. Separated from Miller’s frenzied, ugly, primal style, it’s harder to compartmentalize.

      It’s sorta like plot holes- if the work is great, I don’t notice. If its not, I nitpick.

    • Great examples, and I couldn’t agree more.

  6. It’s been awhile since I’ve read the GN but I was really surprised at how brutal the Joker/Batman fight was and that they got away with so much. I watched the Paley panel last night and I think they were all surprised they didn’t get an R. It’ll be interesting to go back and read the book and then watched the two films back to back. Great Review, Paul!

  7. Wow. They really went full out with Reagan in this? I’m really shocked. Was so sure that they were gonna go with a generic model for the President.

  8. Another well thought out, even review, Paul. TDKR II was a hard, well placed punch to the animated comics solar plexus. Parts one and two well worth screening for “comics-are-for-kids-only” believers.

    …And in other news… The Batman: Brave and the Bold movie-related extra was spot on enough to make me track down that series on DVD real soon.

    … Flea-bitten. Ha.

  9. Another nice, well-rounded review, Paul.

    With something this close to my heart, no adaptation would ever be good enough. That’s not a dismissal, it’s a fact. That said, I was really impressed with the first part. I had high expectations given DC Animation’s track record, and they were exceeded. It made for a really entertaining movie on it’s own, and as an adaptation it was … fine. My only serious gripe was Weller’s vocal performance, but now that I’m prepared for it I’m hoping it’ll be less of a distraction. Part Two is where most of the juice is, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they handle it.

  10. PymSlap (@alaska_nebraska) says:

    I could listen to the music from Part Two’s trailer all night long.

    • Me too, love the soundtrack. It seems like these Batman animated films always have good soundtracks. I actually bought the ‘Under the Red Hood’ soundtrack.

  11. I couldn’t agree with your review more. I also felt that the animation style just doesn’t fit the grim, dirty, hell that Gotham was in the book. Everything was so slick and clean, streets were empty and buildings had no texture. And while I did enjoy Peter Weller in Part 1, I was underwhelmed with his performance in Part 2. The climax fight scene, while dramatic and hard hitting, could of done without Batman’s super powered suit that could pick up cars, that the movie shoehorned into it.

  12. Good review Paul! Although I may have scored it higher. I’m looking forward to the Fuzzy Typewriter episode. One thing though, I’ve never read the tunnel of love sequence as Batman breaking his code and killing Joker. Batman shows restraint in the last moment and yet again spares Jokers’ life, although he breaks his neck . Joker kills himself. Or am I crazy?

    • You are correct. Joker breaks his own neck, and in doing so, GCPD believe him to be a murderer.

    • Paul doesn’t like DKR. Probably just skimmed over the graphic novel and didn’t notice that little part.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      I’ve read the book more than once. No, he didn’t kill the Joker. But he crossed a line he wouldn’t have crossed in his younger days. Though I suppose you could argue he had the opportunity to kill him instantly, but stopped just short. But only just short.

    • @Paul – no, after all that – he CANNOT cross the line. He even says it – He says to himself that he can’t cross the line.

    • @GrandTurk: I think he absolutely would have killed The Joker.

    • @Conor: that’s really interesting, I’ve always interpreted it the other way–that he couldn’t bring himself to do it even though he wishes he could. The Joker seems to interpret it that way–that he “didn’t have the nerve.” But looking back at it, I can see where others might interpret it the other way around, that Batman was incapacitated and that’s why he couldn’t. Maybe it was an intentional decision on Miller’s part, to leave it somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation?
      Since TDKR, it seems like a bit of a trope–Batman is so mad that he almost kills the Joker. I feel like it’s been done several times (Death in the Family, Knightfall, Hush). I wonder if Miller was the first to employ it.

    • @Master Destructo: I think it was probably definitely intentional on Miller’s part to make it ambiguous and up to the reader to decide what Batman would have done.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      If the Joker hand’t taken it the last few steps to the finish line, wouldn’t he have died from the injuries anyway? Or at least remain in a state worse than death?

    • My take is that Batman paralyzed The Joker and that he might have died anyway (then again, he IS The Joker) without further action.

    • Looking back on my comments I don’t think I’m being clear enough (which comes from commenting while on the phone). I think that Batman was going to kill The Joker in the heat of the fight. He’d had enough. Now, after he snaps Joker’s neck and paralyzes him and they both have a few minutes to calm down I don’t know that he was going to kill him anymore, I think it could go either way but we’ll never know because The Joker makes the decision for him.

    • @Conor and Paul: Valid interpretations certainly. It’s really fun dissecting the finer points of this story 25+ years after it was first told and realizing aspects I hadn’t before.

      Also, just wanted to clarify my use of the term “trope.” Probably it is more of a theme than a trope. Trope is more pejorative than is deserved in this case.

  13. I agree about the animation coming off a bit “too clean.” I missed the scratchy, dark lined atmosphere from the comics. There was also not enough of that sort of staccato chaos from the tv inturruptions and things. Yes, the tv cut ins were there, but they felt neat as opposed to jarring.

    I found myself taken out of it by Peter Weller’s performance as Batman as well – not because I think he was a bad choice. I realize that he was going with more of a controlled voice, but I felt like there were some key points where Bats should have been losing control more than he did. There just seemed to be a bit of emotion lacking.

    Not my favourite entry into the DCU DVDs but still an entertaining enough take on a classic story.

  14. Abosolutely a 5 out of 5. You seriously could not ask for a better adaptation of this comic. It was damn near perfect. The two parts combined form what is probably the best DC Animated feature since Phantasm. No hyperbole.

  15. Again, like part 1, Weller’s voice acting was really bad. Awful, actually.

    • Just watching it now…When he did the line “good soldier…good soldier”, I thought he may have phoned it in from his pedicure. That was awful. And there wasn’t much in the rest to redeem him.

  16. How was Conan O’Brien?

  17. I also have a problem with Superman being described in this review as “wrong.” Maybe he wasn’t on Bruce’s side, but he was hardly doing the wrong thing throughout the book. Geeez – he took a nuclear missile to the chest for everyone.

    • Everybody’s wrong to somebody else. It’s Batman’s story. He interprets Clark’s decision to take the legislation lying down as cowardly and subserviant. Superman thinks the compromise is worth it because he still gets to save lives. Despite Miller’s obvious bias, he does an excellent job of showing both sides of the argument and letting the reader decide for themselves. We’re in Bruce’s mind for the majority of the story, and in Bruce’s mind Clark is wrong.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Yeah. That.

    • @WheelHands – well stated.

    • But by the same token – its not in Supes’ nature to have taken Bruce’s side. He could hardly have been wrong if he’s doing as he must.

  18. I didn’t enjoy Part 1 quite as much as Paul did, but I still loved his review(s) and I look forward to watching Part 2!

    Though at least from what I see in the above clip, I do disagree with Paul’s description of Joker’s carnival killing spree being “the most disturbing and genuinely creepy sequence DC Animation’s ever committed to the screen.” For me? That trophy is a two-way tie between the beginning of BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD (when Joker so violently beats the hell out of Jason Todd) and the ending of BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER (when we see Joker torturing poor Tim Drake).

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Believe me, those moments are right up there. But there’s something about the starkness of this scene. It’s so casual and unadorned. Taken out of context in that clip above, maybe it’s not so gruesome. But in the moment, I was shaken. Maybe some of that has to do with all the recent spree killings in the news. Maybe I’ve been re-sensitized.

  19. Loved it. I enjoyed it as much as part 1. 4 stars easily. I was particularly mesmerized by all that pink glow in the tunnel sequence. I think I know exactly what you mean Paul. You see (for me anyways), there was something about the peacefulness of that setting in the tunnel. The soft pink glow with lovers in arms, their hopes and dreams… suddenly, quickly, and without any particular importance to anyone of them, their lives come to an abrupt end. A gun in the hands of a madman. How can you not feel the real world creeping into your head with that scene. It wasn’t that there was a lot of actual violence being portrayed on screen. The significance lies in the fact that it occurred in a public place where you would least expect one’s safety to be jeopardized. That whole scene was well executed.

  20. Anyone catch the Christopher Reeves Superman poster in the apartment during the Superman|Batman fight?