For years, shows like Batman: The Animated Series and The Brave and the Bold have given us tantalizing glimpses at an animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s groundbreaking Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. If you had asked me what comic I most wanted to see adapted into The DC Animated Universe, it would have been without question The Dark Knight Returns. Now finally, close to thirty years after its publication, I finally get my wish.
And it is … disappointing.
The Dark Knight Returns is one of the greatest American comics ever published. That isn’t idle praise. Frank Miller tapped deep into the collective unconsciousness to deliver a myth that continues to be an influence to this day. It is an incredible work of art. And DC had to have known that they needed to treat the story with a little more reverence. I am actually confused by how it got such a poor treatment. There are so many problems with this release, from the main film to the bonus features, that it boggles the mind.
First off, and most obvious, is the decision to split the film into two parts. There is nothing behind that but money. DC knows they have a hot property on their hands, so they want to sell it to you twice. But, The Dark Knight Returns is still only a 4-issue comic, only slightly longer than Batman: Year One which was adapted to a single film. In order to justify the two-parter, they pad the story. Every scene of dialog is stretched just a little bit further. All of the conversations have just a few more lines thrown in, a few more long pauses. Not only is this awkward, but it completely throws off the pacing of the story. The scene with Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne sharing a drink occupies half a page in the comic, but here it is stretched out into minutes of dialog.
And not good dialog.
And the bizarre thing is, they cut out much of the actual great dialog already in the comic—or monologue in this case. All of Bruce Wayne’s internal monologue, the very thing that drives the story, that gives depth and meaning to the dystopian landscape, that makes The Dark Knight Returns rise above, has been removed. All of his comments on his body, on the weight of age—gone. That famous scene where he does the back-kick? “There are seven working defenses from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three of them kill. One of them … hurts.” Yeah, we still get that scene, but without the play-by-play. Just Batman kicking the guy behind him.
I really don’t understand how that decision could have been made. Was there a meeting? Did someone propose “Hey! You know all of that great, famous monologue in The Dark Knight Returns? The stuff everyone quotes when they talk about the book? Why don’t we just nix that and write a few more scenes of Wayne and Gordon having drinks?”
And the voice acting. I had the same problem with Batman: Year One, which looked great but just didn’t have strong voice actors. Peter Weller does Batman, and I think he pulls it off well. Everyone else though … Ariel Winter doing Carrie Kelly just doesn’t sound right. She sounds like a pampered rich kid, with no edge or spirit. And all of the other voices; I know Miller put in some dialog that is hard to pull off. The Mutant-speak isn’t exactly normal English. But these actors sound like a bunch of frat guys doing a parody of “gangster talk.” It sounds so forced and fake, like they don’t believe a word they are saying. When a killer steps up behind you and says “I need you mommie. Make me feel safe.” it should send a chill down my spine, not a chuckle.
Art and animation-wise, things look decent.
They didn’t try to imitate Miller’s style at all, but I am OK with that. I think they could have been more creative with the television cut-scenes, and more moody with their use of shadows, as well as making better use of some of the visual impact of the comic. Gone is the iconic scene of Batman holding the flag-covered corpse of the General. Gone is the scene towards the end of Harvey Dent’s face “matching.” But all in all, the animation is solid, and if this were just a regular Batman animated show I would give it full marks.
Now the bonus features (and I am talking about the Blu-Ray here). This is another “What were they thinking?” moment for me. There is almost nothing here about The Dark Knight Returns. Instead there is an (admittedly interesting) piece on Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story. What? Bob Kane? Umm, that’s cool and all, but Bob Kane had nothing to do with this. Where is the Frank Miller and Batman featurette? Where is the 1986: The Year that Changed Comics short? Or something like that. Something to show the impact and gravity of the comic they are adapting.
I have the 25th Anniversary leather-bound edition of The Dark Knight Returns, and it is filled with newspaper articles and stories about the impact the comic had, the firestorm of press it created, how it directly lead to the creation of Tim Burton’s Batman film. There is a wealth of material available. I am always amazed at how little effort DC spends on these bonus features to lead people back to the source comics. It’s like they don’t want to acknowledge Miller’s contribution at all, or how this single comic revolutionized the industry. Maybe they are scared of leading people to the original Dark Knight Returns because then they will see what a poor adaptation this is.
Instead we get The Bob Kane Story. Which again, is admittedly cool. It’s funny how all of these comics professionals try to tip-toe around the truth, and bite their tongues to keep from shouting out “Bob Kane was an asshole!” It’s even funnier than not all of them succeed. And to hear Stan Lee call someone an egotistical, self-promoting gasbag without even a trace of irony is hilarious. But still, this is The Dark Knight Returns. I want to hear about Frank Miller. I want to hear about THIS comic.
And the two Batman: The Animated Series episodes included: They are about Two-Face. That’s cool. But why not Legends of the Dark Knight from Batman: The Animated Series or The Battle of the Superheroes from Brave and the Bold that featured scenes from Dark Knight Returns? I don’t get it. Even the cover of this DVD. Why didn’t they use the famous cover from the comic? Sigh …
Am I getting Part 2? Of course I am getting Part 2. Am I going to be disappointed? Yes. That seems to be par for the course nowadays.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more o
f Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.