Warner Bros. animation’s latest feature-length direct-to-video movie is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman magnum opus The Dark Knight Returns, and it’s better than The Dark Knight Rises. For those of you who haven’t read Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it was considered a groundbreaking classic the moment it was published by DC Comics back in 1986 as a four-issue comic book mini-series that was soon after collected and released as a graphic novel that told the story of a 55-year old Bruce Wayne who becomes the Batman again after a decade of self-imposed retirement.
The creative talent in charge of bringing Miller’s seminal Batman work of art to animated life, executive producer (and WB Animation legend) Bruce Timm, writer Bob Goodman, and director Jay Oliva wisely took a cue from the Harry Potter and Twilight movie franchises and decided to split the four chapter The Dark Knight Returns book into two, 75-80 minute films. The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1 comfortably translates the events of the first two chapters of Miller’s graphic novel, while making smart modifications to the narrative, such as not using Bruce’s dense narration from the comic book as a voice-over narration for the movie, in order to create a truly cinematic experience with the story instead of throwing the actual panels from the book onto the screen. I was hoping the creative team would decide to omit Bruce’s non-stop narration because when I’m watching a movie I’d rather not know what the protagonist is thinking. I want to figure that out through his actions, mannerisms, and dialogue, and the animators achieved that sense of subtly and nuance with terse bits of dialogue and fluid body language worthy of live-action film.
The best part of the movie (and the graphic novel) is when Bruce Wayne finally succumbs to the seething undercurrent of the supernatural entity that manifests itself in Bruce’s body and soul as the “Batman” side of his persona. Miller presented Bruce Wayne as merely a host for a mythic warrior spirit in his comic book, and that mythic spirit chose to reveal itself to Bruce in the form of a bat. The filmmakers beautifully kept Miller’s supernatural fever dream elements intact throughout the film. And this is exactly where The Dark Knight Rises faltered by having a limp interpretation of Batman’s grand return to action (riding around the Batpod with his high-tech EMP gun) while The Dark Knight Returns has Batman descend on Gotham City’s pimps, would be-muggers and rapists, and mutant gangbangers like an omnipresent maelstrom of violent justice.
Bruce Wayne is revisited by his "true self" in a page from The Dark Knight Returns #1
I could write dozens of articles telling you just how monumentally important The Dark Knight Returns has been — and still continues to be — on influencing the characterization of Batman for the last 25 years, but I’ll just flat out let you know that we wouldn’t have had any of the great Batman works in any of the mediums without The Dark Knight Returns. Tim Burton’s 1989 BATMAN film. Batman: The Animated Series, or as I like to call it: “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.” Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. And those examples are just the tip of the iceberg. If you haven’t read Miller’s masterpiece, then stop reading my insignificant little “review” and go pick up a copy today. After that, watch the relevant — pay close attention to the portrayals of the politicians and their shifting opinions based on polls — and visceral animated version.
The “rinse and repeat” rule applies here.