With DC putting out a seemingly continuous stream of animated films for the past few years, many of which were adaptations of particular comic-book stories, it seemed inevitable that they would eventually turn their attention to the classics. And, there probably aren't many comics more deserving of the title 'classic' than The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller's dark, and very bleak, four-part mini-series from 1986. Though, a single animated film clearly isn't good enough for a series as important (for a comic-book) as The Dark Knight Returns. So, instead, we got two - with the original story sliced neatly in half.
Set in a sort of alternative 1980s America, The Dark Knight Returns offers up a world in which Batman, along with every other superhero, has been forced into retirement. It has been 10 years since Bruce Wayne last took on the identity of the Dark Knight - but, without him, crime in Gotham City seems to have got completely out of control. A new gang calling themselves the Mutants is threatening to raze the entire city. And Harvey Dent, despite giving every indication that his long stay in Arkham Asylum and the plastic surgery to fix the damaged half of his face has cured him, vanishes shortly after being released.
Despite this, though, Bruce Wayne feels that he has little more to offer the city. But, this is also a man who willingly embraces an odd form of conscious alcoholism as the only reliable way of keeping himself in retirement - so, clearly, letting Gotham City slide into complete chaos doesn't sit well with him. As things get increasingly out of hand in the city, Bruce Wayne finds himself compelled to become the Dark Knight once more - once again coming to the defense of his city.
However, as Batman returns to the streets of Gotham, he finds himself confronted by a Two-Face who seems even more deranged than usual. And, also, the violent and savage Mutants - along with their monstrous leader.
But, he is also not alone. Batman is eventually joined by Carrie Kelly - a young girl who, after being rescued by the Dark Knight, is inspired to try to reinvent herself as the new Robin, only to find herself given the opportunity to become the real thing when she comes to Batman's aid later. Together, they set out to put a stop to the Mutant's plans, and to save Gotham City from complete destruction.
Following as closely to the narrative of the original comic series as it does, along with the knowledge that there is a second part coming afterward, gives this film an oddly disjointed quality. Batman's fight against Two-Face, and his and the new Robin's battles against the Mutants, could almost be two separate episodes slapped together - rather than a single, self-contained, film. But, thankfully, that isn't as much of a problem as it could have been. We know from the start that the Mutants are going to be the real threat here - and, that the return of Two-Face is really going to be more of a side-plot. Compared to Two-Face, though, the Mutant Leader is a much less interesting villain. He is a straight-forward physical threat for Batman to overcome, while Two-Face is more of a psychological challenge - the split between Harvey Dent and Two-Face being presented almost as a reflection of that between Bruce Wayne and Batman. To be fair, though, the film-makers are simply following the comic by placing the greater emphasis on the less interesting challenge. It was a problem I had with Frank Miller's original story, too - so, it probably isn't worth dwelling on too much here.
For the most part, the quality of the voice-work is excellent. I'm sure most long-time fans of the adventures of animated Batman would have loved to have had Kevin Conroy reprising the role here - but, this is an older and much wearier Dark Knight that we are seeing here, and Peter Weller does a fine job of bringing that across. This is a much different Batman to what fans may be used to (those fans who aren't familiar with Frank Miller's take on the character, at least). Batman has always been an imposing figure - he is a hero who has always relied on fear and intimidation, after all. But, here, he is particularly ruthless. He has seen what Gotham City has become without him - and, now, he is determined to make up for lost time. Ariel Winter, taking on the role of Carrie Kelley, has the not inconsiderable challenge of providing the film's only real source of heart and light humor - and, once again, she proves that she is up to the task. Though, the film also doesn't shy away from showing the unhealthy aspects of the relationship between Batman and Robin. There has always been something a bit unsettling about Batman's willingness to put children into dangerous situations - though, it often seems to be glossed over. Having Batman refer to the different kids that have taken on the role of Robin over the years as his 'soldiers' brings it into much sharper focus. Even if the film doesn't dwell on it, it is good that it, at least, seems to be acknowledged.
I have to admit, though, that there was something about the performance given by David Selby, as Commissioner Gordon, that just struck me as a bit off. It was a performance that, at times felt oddly flat - giving the impression of someone simply reading from a script, rather than actually 'acting'. It's the sort of performance you tend to get from an actor who simply isn't used to doing voice-work, really. Which is a shame - because, as an important counterpart to Bruce Wayne/Batman, Commissioner Gordon is a role that demands more. The Mutant Leader, on the other hand, is an entertaining and over the top villain who almost seems out of place in this grim and serious tale - with a scenery-chewing vocal performance to match.
The animation is typically very impressive - particularly during the various action sequences. And, there are plenty of them, naturally. The strict adherence to the very 80s inspired look and feel of the comic may be a bit jarring to anyone that had hoped to put that particular decade behind them, though - but, it was also important that it be preserved.
The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 may be one of the most faithful adaptation I have ever come across. In many ways, though, it is also a product of its time - heavily steeped in the fears and concerns of the 1980s (something which becomes much more pronounced in the follow-up film). Also, 'grim and gritty' became the standard for superheroes in the years after The Dark Knight Returns was first released - so, it would be easy to forget who ground-breaking it was at the time. Still, for many fans it is also one of the greatest Batman stories ever written - and, this animated adaptation definitely does it justice.