Heavily publicized as a faithful recreation of Frank Miller’s highly influential 1986 vision of Batman, The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 was anticipated by a lot of Batman fans. Unfortunately, the latest in DC’s line of original animated films fails to deliver any of the sensible and nuanced political commentary that made the Nolan line of movies so compelling, although it is well animated and notably loyal to the original writer’s vision.
The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of Gotham after it has not seen Batman in over a decade. We soon learn that the Caped Crusader has abandoned the cowl and just watches as the streets crumble and meaningless bloodshed has overtaken the city. This aspect of Miller’s work was the inspiration for many great interpretations of Batman over the next two decades so the similarities between this and the aged, isolated Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond are difficult to avoid. However, what all other interpretations of the hero over the last two decades had in common was the vocal perfection of Kevin Conroy as Batman; Peter Weller simply does not command the same fear with his voice. His delivery lacks the intimidation, inflection and steely resolve that Conroy’s voice so naturally exuded. In a sense, the performance is rather dry and even one-note.
Of course, one-note is a term that you will think of again and again when watching this film. The greatest thing about Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman was that he demonstrated a remarkable affinity for nuance in his understanding of human nature. If we were to describe that along political lines, as we do everything nowadays, it can be best understood that no one side could unequivocally support Nolan’s Batman. In Batman Begins’s famous “Swear to Me!” sequence, Nolan showed that intimidation and fear tactics were often the only way to deal with criminals but he also showed the self-righteous nature of the supposed hero that used such tactics. In The Dark Knight, the director showed the need for his hero to invade people’s privacy in order to save their lives by tapping into their phones but he also showed that this was not an acceptable amount of power for any one man to hold. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan showed how a large mob essentially seems to prefer the end of civilization rather than its improvement but he still did well to criticize the fact that certain people hijack these movements to negate any chance for peaceful negotiation. In The Dark Knight Returns, however, the discourse is far more one-sided and narrow-minded.
In this quarter century old work, it seems as though Miller’s entire purpose is to condemn anyone that speaks out against vigilantism or in favor of ideals such as civil rights and criminal rehabilitation. When psychiatric specialist Dr. Bartholomew Wolper tries to convince the world how Batman is a “social disease,” he uses such a poor argument that forget about viewers, you can tell that even the writer doesn’t buy it. Yet, defense attorneys often call in psychiatric specialists and they succeed in turning over juries because the power of their rhetoric often forces people to reconsider their decisions; Miller does not want to take that risk because the thing people might begin to disagree with is his narrow-minded vision.
Similarly, the mayor of the city is shown as a cowardly, pathetic wimp that concerns himself only with polls, inspiring political maneuvering such as appointing a female police officer. Now, I’m not implying that Miller is a sexist but God forbid anyone actually appoint a female because she was competent or capable, eh, Miller? But, no, Miller can’t allow such polyvalence in his writing and his vision is pathetically constricted. The writer does not want to recognize that the reason polls often reflect such popularity for certain candidates is because those men are incredibly in line with what people are thinking and they legitimately know how to rally political support. Miller, however, simply wants to be able to win arguments with himself so he constructs easily targetable characters that neither act nor speak with the intelligence that makes such individuals so formidable in real life.
Of course, the flaws in the writing don’t end there. The movie starts off with a high-octane car race but the pace slowly dissolves, a problem furthered by constant interruption in the form of poorly written debates and news broadcasts. Also, the Robin subplot is truly boring and her rushed, forced entry into Batman’s life allows for no room to develop a genuine and compelling back story for what should be a crucial character. Of course, this is a Frank Miller work from the 1980’s so only a fool would expect deep, compelling female characters. Also, Batman’s monologues are genuinely unmemorable and come off as uninteresting, particularly when compared with the wonderful writing in the legendary Black and White series.
That having been said, the movie does have its positives. The voice acting is decent although, as aforementioned, it is hardly as spectacular as anything from the likes of Batman: The Animated Series or Justice League Doom. Of course, the one exception here is Gary Anthony Williams, who does a fantastic job as the antagonist and really voices a viciousness that makes you forget the sweet, lovable roles he does on television. Also, the writing is occasionally sharp and does well to mix subtle bits of Alfred’s humor with the more serious subject of Batman and his moral resemblance to many of his enemies.
The greatest strength of the movie, however, is in the fantastic art direction. Batman’s gadgets are suitably dated, with machines such as a grapple rifle or an incredibly old-school tank vehicle. Also, the chubby look for Batman does well to deliver the unfitness of old age while the design similarities between the mutant leader and Batman’s classic villain Killer Croc are much appreciated. Finally, and crucially, the rare bits of action are nicely animated, although not quite up to par with something like Batman Year One.
Ultimately, however, cool art and visual effects cannot make you forget just how bad the writing is. Lacking maturity, depth and even consistent wit, The Dark Knight Returns Part I ultimately fails. It saddens me to see such a poor product, particularly because I am a fan of Frank Miller. However, that is the risk in faithfully recreating a story that was written well over two decades ago. By today’s standards, this narrative is both simplistic and irrelevant because one cannot shake the feeling that Miller wrote his to defend his vision of just how little civil liberties matter, a job he made incredibly easy for himself by never offering compelling arguments from the other side. And, even though I believe that this is a result of the time difference, good writers always offer a nuanced look at problems; perhaps Miller was just having an off day. Future writers did well to emulate Miller’s vision of a world without Batman but, luckily, they abandoned his limited thinking.