The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 1,
directed by Jay Oliva
(Warner Bros., 2012)

Ask any Batman fan which Batman stories were the best, and it's likely Frank Miller's genre-defining The Dark Knight Returns will be on the list. This animated adaptation lives up to the legendary graphic novel, from the animation itself to the voice direction, to the dark and gritty atmosphere and overall bleak-but-hopeful tone. Although the lack of Batman's internal monologue drags it down just a bit, the rest of the dialogue and many panels of the actions are reproduced exactly as they are in the source. Burton and Nolan's films notwithstanding, I can honestly say that I finally saw the first film that truly captured Batman's legacy. It is, quite simply, superb.

It has been years since Bruce Wayne retired his cape and cowl. He drifts aimlessly through life, while Gotham falls more and more under the control of The Mutants, who are incredibly savage criminals, worse than anything he's ever encountered. Additionally, Two-Face is released from a long confinement and is not only not cured but madder than a parade of March hares. Of course Bruce reaches his breaking point, the extreme actions of the criminals eventually forcing him to confront the fact that chaos and crime are running rampant.

It wasn't Miller's futuristic vision that was so compelling, nor even his rather progressive take on the first female Robin. It was the way he presented Batman/Bruce Wayne as two distinct personalities fighting for control of one soul. He strives to be a symbol of hope and justice, but his actions can sometimes act as a catalyst for criminals to return to their old ways. His battles with the two main villains, Two-Face and the Mutant Leader, throw that internal struggle into high relief. It was the deconstruction-and-reconstruction-of Batman that makes Miller's narrative the watermark, and the animated film is completely loyal to that ideal.

The fluidity and detail of the animation bring the story to life by adding new dimensions to it. In fact, the animation is so well balanced that it actually sands down some of the rougher edges of the original story while perfectly capturing the sullen, twisted, violent mood of Miller's world.

Batman is a badass. Plain and simple. A hero, but a violent one with a dark personality and a darker past, a man fated to be what he is and who suffers, body and soul, when he does not act on that destiny.

Batman doesn't bring perfect solutions to the table -- in fact, he creates quite a few problems on his own -- but few of us live in the world in which he lives. That world is deeply flawed, and dealing with it will be a long and messy battle. The adaptation took this view, which is the heart of The Dark Knight Returns, very seriously, and delivered a nearly flawless and solid success of a film that, like the graphic novel, will set the standard for years to come.

review by
Mary Harvey

23 February 2013

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