A Chinful Of Knight.
Published in 1986, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a watershed moment for The Batman. After a ten-year absence, a 55-year-old Batman returns to fight spiraling crime, though fiercer criminals and simple old age threatens to stultify his efforts to redeem Gotham. And then there’s the problem of exorcising his own demons that made him take up the mantle of the bat in the first place…
26 years after the graphic novel, DC Comics brings the movie to the screen in powerhouse animation, gunmetal storytelling, and chin for days.
There are so many plot threads and deep dives on social commentary in BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS that the film is in two parts, each 1 hour, 16 minutes. Both parts are direct-to-video releases. (In October 2013, both parts would be combined into a 2 hour, 32 minute DVD release.).
Here in Part 1, Batman/Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) has been retired for a decade. A startling rise in crime prompts him to consider dusting off the cowl and cape. But at this advanced age, is he even capable of being Gotham’s protector? This existential crisis dominates the graphic novel, in the form of Batman’s narration; in the movie, the narration has been removed, so there is a slight skewing of perception. The filmmakers – screenwriter Bob Goodman (JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, 2005) and director Jay Oliva (THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, 2007) have gone to great lengths to reproduce the artwork authentically (we spot so many actual frames from the comic in moving form!) and voice the dialogue and emotion faithfully, yet without the inner voice narration, it loses focus. Slightly.
You see, Miller’s layered story is not about the triumphant return of the Batman – it’s about Batman facing his demons on whether he can actually do the job. Another layer to this conundrum is why he feels the NEED to put himself in mortal danger at an age when most men are retiring (expressed constantly through the sassy needling of Alfred his butler, voiced by a guy named Michael Jackson – a name that is more of a hassle than a boon in this age. A guy named Michael James Jackson was producer on a few KISS albums in the 80s, and I imagine he inserted his middle name for the same identifying reason).
The character design honors Frank Miller’s stylized comics art – chunky bodies with small heads and massive chins, which works well for this disturbing ‘alternate future vision’ of the dark knight. (Miller’s comic was instrumental in the epithet “dark knight” being applied to Batman. Many writers up to that point had termed Bats “the darknight detective” in passing – this was a solidification of the term in this two-word format!)
The comic art (with author Miller penciling, Klaus Janson inking and Lynn Varley coloring) shows Batman not so much “muscled” as “frumpy” – the suit doesn’t fit him as sensually as it did when Jim Aparo or Dick Giordano were drawing him in smooth action lines in the 70s (matter of fact, Giordano was originally connected to the initial stages of the project). Except for a few feature panels where Miller goes all out with the classic V-shaped taut superhero, the suit hangs on a bulkier frame most of the time, muscle gone to flab.
The animated movie, on the other hand, shows Bats as a stocky wrestler-type, weighty but powerful, resembling The Thing; the colors are muted, the movement is kinetic, carrying force, with a high frame-rate, so it’s smoothly enjoyable on the eyes and adds weight to the dramatic story. And for those who can’t get your fix of the Brutal Batman from the live action movies, this is your bag!
Does the movie uphold the comic’s breakneck, dense storytelling? Yes. It is so faithful to the comic, in style and pace, I almost felt like I didn’t need to watch it. Kudos to the director, who faithfully follows Miller’s comics panels, which are basically storyboards. Great choice not to try to bring his own vision into what is already a celebrated artist’s lauded vision.
Besides the rise of a gang of “Mutants” (cyberpunks with visors), Two-Face/Harvey Dent (voiced by Wade Williams) has been released back into society with a reconstructed face. Michael McKean voices Two-Face’s doctor. In his 50s, thought to be rehabilitated, Two-Face embarks on a terror spree, his head swathed in bandages! Lamenting that the doctors couldn’t really fix him, he is self-aware that he is damaged inside and outside completely! So his wail, “Now both sides match!” has a double meaning!
Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) is retiring at 70, having a quiet drink with Bruce Wayne, whom Gordon knows is The Batman. In this universe (as with DC canon), Bruce is estranged from Dick Grayson, and Jason Todd’s Robin met his gruesome end at the hands of Joker, so there is much sadness and regret in their reminiscing. Gordon’s replacement is Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals-Barrera), polar opposite to Gordon, who would regard the return of Batman as illegal vigilantism, and fight to arrest him and/or outright kill him. Gordon would appear throughout the tale, proving himself a badass time and again, in a great rendering, illustrating why he was the type of person who welcomed the Batman’s illegal-yet-justifiable assistance.
In the institution now called “The Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled” (heh!), a Joker cameo, sitting catatonic, watching the TV reports of the rise in crime with a wry grin on his face…
The final straw that spurs Bruce’s return to crime-fighting is his walk through Crime Alley, where his parents were killed. It gives the storytellers the opportunity to once again for the younguns re-tell the grim double-murder that created Bruce’s alter ego.
Miller’s comic is prescient in that it represented news programs as ENTERTAINMENT FIRST, with “news” only peeping through the gaps of divisive opposing viewpoints and fear-mongering. Dark Knight Returns was published the same year as Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986) and reflected a trend to present superheroes as more gritty and down-to-Earth, not so lofty. Miller correctly foresaw that in that atmosphere, society would be a snarling, fractured beast, and media would follow suit, to cater to the stupid populace.
when good and bad are both ugly
Batman starts small. I can understand he wants to test his powers. And there is also an inherent dramatic element with the visual of a woman being attacked and a gloved hand shooting out from the dark of an alley to grab the mugger. Yeh, I get it. But yet, there’s a frustration when I see Batman beating muggers – yes, muggers need to be stopped, and the lower class needs to be represented… but it should be done by attacking “crime” from the TOP (in the higher classes), where all the actual anti-social policies emanate, that rob people of benefits, rights, income, making it all flow upwards (the trickle-UP economy!) to corporations and billionaires. Stop THAT societal dysfunction and you curb poverty-based crimes. Trouble is, greed in lower classes is called just that – while greed in upper classes is euphemized as capitalism, which is not regarded as a crime – yet it is that very elemental nature of humankind gone unchecked in suited assholes that causes the trickle-down of lower class necessity-crime.
As an example of Batman slightly missing the point: a pimp attacks his hooker in a taxi; Taxi driver tells the pimp to take his business and violence elsewhere; Pimp hands Taxi wad of cash; Taxi takes it and shuts up – because he’s affected by the poverty brought about by upper class greed, so commits this crime of complicity out of necessity. The Batman intervenes – he bashes the pimp, the hooker runs off. And then he does something which might divide viewers (I still can’t figure which side of this morality I fall on) – Batman takes the wad of cash from Taxi and shreds it— Hey, waitamin—! Maybe that cash was going to feed Taxi’s starving family… A billionaire can afford to shred a wad of cash, a lower class dude so down on his luck that he would accept this blood money to allow a murder in his cab, well, don’t be too sure he can afford to lose it so flippantly. Did Batman, in effect, jog into existence a stream of seemingly unconnected events that ensures Taxi commits other crimes (complicit or overt) to make back that money he felt was his?
Nonetheless, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is one helluva Batman tale. The music (by Christopher Drake) is cinematic, the fights are savage, with excellent foley, and camerawork that shakes and shudders to accentuate the impact of those bulging bulky muscles.
I wish he had an armored costume, though. There’s too much machine-gunning at Batman for ZERO stray bullets to hit their mark, no matter how fast he can dodge or throw smoke bombs. Even the comic makes mention of an armored plate under his chest logo – but why only there? He snidely narrates it’s to draw the fire of assailants – but I think he’s overestimating their lack of marksmanship – one inch to the left, his aorta is buh-bye.
I think the reason Miller kept a cloth costume was to keep Batman grounded, not come off as too lofty and indestructible, forced to use his ninja skills to avoid death.
On the social media of the day – television – many talking heads hate Batman’s resurgence, calling it fascist, illegal, ignoring civil rights; while Lana Lang (portrayed as older, fatter, Managing Editor of the Daily Planet) and others champion Batman’s methods. Kudos to Miller and the moviemakers in portraying the shotgun news reports and crash-cut talking heads, which capture the cadence of today’s social media, long before it was this headless chickenshit running wild.
The action throughline in Part 1 is Batman disbanding the gang of Mutants, while Batman’s confrontation with the shirtless musclebound Mutant Leader (they got his pointed nipples from the comics just right!) would contribute to his metaphysical throughline, as Bruce Wayne comes to terms with his age and slowed reflexes, adapting physically and psychologically.
Batman attacks the Mutants with a Batmobile so armored and weaponized and big and black and fluffy, it makes Christian Bale’s hummer look like a My Little Pony. (Batman remarks it was named by Robin – “the name a child would give a car”; again, going for realism, arriving at boy-panty.) There is another disparity between the comic and the movie in this firefight, due to the missing narration. In the comic, as he’s cutting down the Mutants with massive artillery, Batman narrates “I’m using rubber bullets. Honestly…” And we are unsure whether this angrier, less-tolerant Batman is kidding or not. While in the movie, the Mutant Leader (Gary Anthony Williams) picks up a round, squeezes it and reveals contemptuously, “Hmph, rubber bullets!” then goes on to mock Batman for not being brave enough to use real hardware. See the subtle difference?
In the comic, the decision to fistfight the Leader tears at Batman (through his narration). He knows he has to humiliate the Leader in front of his followers to destroy the Leader’s cred. Batman exits the Batmobile reluctantly, knowing (and being reminded by Alfred) the Leader is more fit and ferocious than him. In the movie, it’s played like Batman gots to know if he’s still got the goods, like he’s doing it for pride, “It’s the only way out for me.”
It’s in keeping with Bruce Wayne’s slogan, adopted from Apache warriors, “Today is a good day to die” (expressed in both the comic and movie), but there’s something nuanced lost in translation.
As Leader beats Batman with a crowbar (oouf! We can feel every strike! Maybe today is that day…?), in steps – ROBIN!
Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter) contributes greatly to this cast, this story and Bruce’s development. Cute and spunky, we first meet this 13-year-old idolizing Batman, then buying a Robin costume and testing her acrobatic skills. (Writer/artist John Byrne, infamous for revamping Superman in the mid-80s, urged Miller to make Robin a girl.)
Carrie follows the Batmobile to the Leader’s battleground, and watches from afar until it becomes obvious she needs to step in. Batman rolls over, blurry-eyed, sees her in the dark, garbed exactly like the Robin costume memorialized in a glass case at the Batcave; his eyes widen, the ghosts of his past always haunting him… recognition that this is a stranger lending a helping hand…
He asks, “What’s your name?”
“Carrie.” She thinks twice: “Robin.”
I leaked a little.
Batman takes her under his batwing, to the chagrin of Alfred. She would prove her worth as Girl Wonder time and again, appealing to the younger set with her mondo lingo and youthful naiveté.
No matter his self-effacing view of his declining abilities, Batman is still a fearsome enough presence, so that when he recovers from his wounds and defeats the Leader publicly (through tactics rather than brute strength), Leader’s minions turn to being vigilantes in his honor, calling themselves The Sons of Batman. Another social commentary on the weak-minded, who will follow any leader as long he displays strength; Batman realizing he had to beat the Leader at his own game, because his minions only recognized simplistic muscle. In one sense, a benefit that the minions are now crimefighters (albeit vigilantes); a detriment that they remain the weak-minded tools that will bring a bad name to your cause.
Joker sneers at a TV report of Batman to end Part 1…