Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 DVD Review

Twenty six years on from publication, Frank Miller's gritty dystopian epic is regarded as a masterpiece. If ever there were a definitive end to the Batman legacy, it would be "The Dark Knight Returns" (let's just forget the sequel "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" and put that down to early onset dementia, whether in us or Frank Miller). Picking up the story ten years after Bruce Wayne hung up his cape and cowl for what was meant to be the final time, Gotham City has been overrun by a new breed of criminal - the Mutants. Whether it be the elderly Wayne or the youthful Carrie Kelly, no innocent can so much as walk down the street without running into at least one member of the gang. Something must be done, but the Police aren't cutting it. The Batman must return.

First of all, let's get the gushing praise out of the way - this film is absolutely phenomenal. It captures the spirit of the original comic book perfectly. Gotham City is just that right blend of futuristic 80's grime we all imagined it would be and there's a palpable sense of dread for the residents. Whether Batman returned or not, something had to be done. This terror is effectively heightened through the use of worrying news reports throughout, not to mention occasional cutaways, showing the citizens being victimised. Never has there been a harsher depiction of Batman's hometown, let alone on film.

Fans of the original comic book may worry about how the story has been divided between Parts 1 and 2, but I'm pleased to report that this entry has been perfectly structured. It functions as it's own individual story, whilst establishing key components for the second half next year. This particular installment focuses almost solely upon Batman's war against the Mutant menace. Bruce has a lot to prove to the people of Gotham, as well as himself. Also along for the ride are faithful manservant Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner of Police  James Gordon and new addition, Carrie Kelly, as the latest to don the mantle of Robin (her choice, not Batman's). There is a certain sequence wherein Batman chases a deranged Two-Face that feels slightly off-topic, but that subplot comes straight from the source material and it felt rather a strange choice there too. However, it also functions as a valuable insight into Bruce returning to work as Batman. He's not quite back to 100%, but this outing makes for a useful test-run.

A lovely little design flourish I noticed about the film was the way in which Batman begins the story looking like his traditional self and slowly over the course of the 70 minute runtime morphs into what most would call a Frank Miller character. It was a trick originally used in the source material and over the years, Miller has repeatedly spoken of this methodology. To start with the iconography everyone expects of the character and then slowly make it your own. He used it to similar effect in his run on Daredevil and his reinterpretation of the Kingpin character. By the time TDKR Part 1 comes to it's end, the transition is complete and Bruce has ditched the blue and yellow hues of his famous costume in favour of a more stealthy black and plain logo. The old Batman is dead. In his place, the new Batman. Frank Miller's Batman.

The voice casting, the most essential part of any animated adaption, works in spades where it counts. Peter Weller makes for an absolutely wonderful Batman. Somehow he perfectly captures the weariness of old age, yet the wistful longing for a return to one's youth. His Bruce Wayne almost didn't need the Mutant threat to get back to the Bat. He's been living a quiet, dull, boring existence for far too long and he's positively itching to put himself back in danger. For instance, the film begins with the elderly Wayne competing in a prolonged race sequence and he's taking every conceivable risk to get that last ounce of power out of his engine. Later, when Commissioner Gordon mentions just how happy he is that Bruce survived his tenure as Batman, you can feel Bruce positively squirm at the thought. In his mind he never wanted to stop, but the tragedy of Jason Todd's death forced his hand. His retirement is akin to a raw nerve, poke the memory of it too many times and he's going to do something rash and impulsive.

Ariel Winter similarly makes for an equally impressive Carrie Kelly (aka Robin III). Her story largely takes place away from Wayne's, as her decision to take up a life of vigilantism is completely her own. Like most good sidekicks, there's a moment of inspiration where she sees her hero in the flesh and can't help but want to emulate him. Even when it comes to the big battle against the Mutant horde, her presence there is of her own choosing, Bruce has no idea she's out there dressed as Robin. But when they do finally meet, the moment is filled with the appropriate amount of pathos and you're excited to see the Dynamic Duo back together again. Winter brings just the right level of naivety and fangirl enthusiasm to the role.

The only weak links come in the form of David Selby's Commissioner Gordon and Gary Anthony Williams' Mutant Leader. It's not that they're necessarily doing a bad job, as overly generic. I think maybe I've been spoiled on Commissioner Gordon ever since Bob Hastings' definitive take on Batman: The Animated Series, capturing just the right measure of gruff gusto and fatherly concern. In comparison, Selby comes away the poorer, channeling far too much an old man at the end of his days. Admittedly, that's exactly where the character is at in the story, but Jim Gordon has always been portrayed as such a strong individual, even into his elder days, that to hear him so weathered and weary, it's a little disconcerting. As for Williams' Mutant Leader, he doesn't even have the benefit of a comparison. It's simply that he's loud, brash and chewing the scenery (or Mayors) at every opportunity. When your performance goes that big, it's hard to exude a quiet menace afterwards.

Ultimately, "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1" is a fantastic adaptation of what was already a masterpiece and could quite possibly be the best animated feature DC have put out thus far. Where occasionally they'd played it safe with generic titles like "Justice League: Doom", this is as close to edgy as edgy gets, especially for a PG rated film. Animated Batman films have always pushed the boundaries, resulting in some of the best work the field has ever seen, whether it be "Mask of the Phantasm" or "Return of the Joker". I would proudly list "Dark Knight Returns" alongside them. In a year where Batman has dominated theatrically with Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Rises", I'd ask no one overlook the home video additions, as more often than not, they're giving their big budget brothers a run for their money.

9.5 out of 10


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