Batman’s re-emergence in the popular media at the end of the ’80s was preceded by a signpost moment in the maturation of comics: the release of Frank Miller’s “grim ’n’ gritty” graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. So from Tim Burton’s Batman on, movie directors and TV animators have nodded to Miller’s project as an inspiration, though not until now, 26 years after DC first published The Dark Knight Returns, have DC and Warner Bros.’ direct-to-DVD animation team delivered an actual adaptation, not just a glancing homage. And it’s a testament to the graphic novel’s vaunted place in comics history that DC and Warner aren’t delivering an abridged version, as they have in the past with their frustratingly terse takes on The New Frontier and All-Star Superman. Sure, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 reduces the first two books in Miller’s novel to just under 80 minutes, but with an even longer second part due next year, the whole finished movie will run around three hours, with little of the original Dark Knight Returns left out.
It’s not an entirely faithful adaptation, though. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns has been rated PG-13, so a lot of the violence is toned down from Miller’s book. It’s still pretty relentless, action-wise, but there’s far less blood and bone-crunching in this depiction of Miller’s burly, over-the-hill-but-still-shrewd Batman. Also, the hero’s terse, stream-of-consciousness narration is largely missing, which robs the story of its pulp poetry. (In other words, no lines like, “Even bone is turned to powder. Not much of a corpse left. Mostly liquid.”) And unlike the recent Batman: Year One movie, the animation in The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t approximate the original too well. The characters’ jawlines are appropriately square, but otherwise the look of the film is more Batman: The Animated Series than Miller and inker Klaus Janson’s frayed, blocky Gotham City.
But there are ways in which the animated Dark Knight Returns gets across Miller’s vision even better than the comics page did. Miller aimed for his layouts to create a cinematic effect—especially in the sequences of The Dark Knight Returns when newscasters and their panels of experts comment on the action, montage-style—and that works quite well when it’s no longer static. Also, director Jay Oliva and composer Christopher Drake pick up on the extremely ’80s Death Wish/Sudden Impact/Escape From New York aspects of the graphic novel, and give their movie a retro-urban-apocalyptic sound and mood. And it’s hard to beef with the voice cast, which includes the suitably gravelly Peter Weller as the aged Batman making a comeback, Ariel Winter as the teenage girl scout who volunteers to be the new Robin, Michael Emerson as an institutionalized Joker (who only appears briefly at the end of Part 1), and Michael McKean as a bleeding-heart psychologist who argues that Batman is to blame for the supervillains that have sprung back up to plague Gotham.
That’s something else that survives the transition from the page to the screen: Miller’s satire of what in the ’80s were called “pablum-puking liberals,” standing in the way of the Rambos and Dirty Harrys of the true U.S.A. But whether the audience buys into The Dark Knight Returns’ aggressively right-wing perspective or not, it’s still a compelling story, full of wit and tension, following the hero as he comes out of retirement to challenge the messianic leader of the gang of street punks that’s been terrorizing Gotham. Oliva and his animators (led in part by DC animation guru Bruce Timm) soften Miller’s grotesquerie, and emphasize the parts of Dark Knight Returns that deal with the more well-known Batman mythology, tying their movie more closely with the existing DC animated universe. But the core of the story is there, exploring the same theme that Bat-adapters continue to call back to, right on through to Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises: the idea of Batman as a symbol, giving the powerless the strength to stand up against their oppressors, and kick whatever needs kicking.
Key features: A sneak peek at Part 2, a puff piece about the story’s introduction of a female Robin, and the full, 40-minute 2008 documentary Batman And Me: A Devotion To Destiny, The Bob Kane Story.