The second part of DC's animated adaptation of Frank Miller's 1980s classic picks up a few months after the end of The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1. In the time since Batman and the new Robin defeated the Mutant Leader, the once formidable gang has fractured entirely - and, Batman and Robin have devoted themselves to dealing with the many off-shoots that have formed out of the former gang's remains. The most prominent of these new gangs, though, is one that has chosen the Dark Knight, himself, as their new leader - devoting themselves to Batman's goal of cleaning up the streets of Gotham City with the same brutality that they showed as members of the Mutants. Naturally, Batman wants nothing to do with them.
Under the Dark Knight's guidance, Carrie Kelly has grown into the role of Robin - finally becoming a proper side-kick, and a legitimate asset in Batman's personal crusade. At the same time, though, Commissioner Gordon has finally gone through with his long-planned retirement - stripping Batman of his main ally in Gotham. And his replacement, Ellen Yindel, is not only uninterested in allying herself with Batman, but is outright hostile to him - regarding him as no different to the gangs that he fights.
The greatest threats to the Dark Knight, though, come from sources both familiar and unexpected. First, Batman's renewed activity in Gotham has been enough to draw the Joker out of the catatonic state he has been in for the past few years - and, he is eager for one final confrontation. Also, growing increasingly concerned by the renewed vigilante activity (as well as being embarrassed by Batman's success at keeping the streets of Gotham safe), the US government sends their loyal agent, the Man of Steel himself, to put a stop to it.
Much like with part 1, the action in The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is broken up into two distinct halves. First up, we have the Joker But, of course, this is a different sort of Joker to what many fans may be familiar with. In place of the manic energy that the character usually possesses, we are given a subtler sort of malevolence. Soft-spoken, and almost effeminate, this is a Joker who gives every impression of being calm and almost reasonable right up until the point where he cuts your throat with the shards of a broken coffee mug. It is only during the final confrontation between Batman and the Joker that he get any real sense of the manic energy we are more familiar with. What that does mean that this particular Joker isn't quite as entertaining to watch as other incarnations, it is also a version that fits perfectly with the more somber tone of The Dark Knight Returns. Besides, stripping away the cartoon character affectations of the Joker really just makes him more intimidating - and, the vocal performance provided by Michael Emerson brings the subtler menace of this Joker across perfectly. Much like with Kevin Conroy and Batman, there are bound to be fans who want every animated Joker to be voiced by Mark Hamill - but, really, even if he were willing to voice the Joker one last time (despite already officially retiring from the role), his take on the character simply wouldn't have fit here.
Superman's portrayal in The Dark Knight Returns has always been a little problematic for his own legion of devoted fans. Superman has always been portrayed as the ultimate superhero - the ideal vision of compassion and virtue and bravery. But, here, the Man of Steel has allowed himself to become little more than a government stooge - an asset for the American government to deploy wherever and whenever it sees fit. Then, there's the fact that Superman's willingness to follow orders leads directly to the Cold War escalating into full-blown conflict. By the time that the Man of Steel is sent to confront the Dark Knight, it is pretty clear whose side we are supposed to be on.
The portrayal of Superman may be problematic, but the fight between the two heroes which brings The Dark Knight Returns to a close is damn near iconic - and, this animated version does it justice. It even expands on the action a fair bit from what was shown in the pages of the original comic.
As exciting as it all is, though, there is one potential problem that viewers today may have with The Dark Knight Returns - and, that is one of context. Even more so than part 1, The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is deeply mired in the fears and concerns of the 1980s - so much so that it runs the risk of all starting to look a little silly to a younger audience. After all, that period of palpable tension between the United States and Russia is a very long time ago to many of us, so it would be easy to forget what a looming threat it must have been. To a 1980s audience, though, Superman inadvertently triggering nuclear retaliation from Russia must have seemed disturbingly plausible.
The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2, much like its predecessor, is an incredibly faithful adaptation of a fantastic comic mini-series. Honestly, I have a hard time imagining how it could have actually gone wrong - and, I'm very thankful that I don't need to find out. Taken together, this two part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns is well worth the time of fan of the Dark Knight.