Should I Bats or should I go?
A decade after retiring, Batman has returned to Gotham. So has The Joker. A new police commissioner wants Batman arrested. And the president wants Batman dead – enlisting the aid of Superman.
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – PART 2 concludes the epic journey of Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Peter Weller) in his quest to find a meaning for the death of his parents and his life’s vocation. From the 1986 Frank Miller graphic novel, this animated movie is a dynamic societal commentary disguised as superhero blammo.
It’s not a simple Batman-takes-down-villain story, rather diving deep into the moral ambiguity of nihilism (Joker), vigilantism (Batman), cowardice (politicians), hypocrisy (police), altruism (Robin), satire (The Sons of Batman), anarchy (Green Arrow) and bitchboy (Superman).
DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was made as one epic movie, and split into two parts for consumer reasons (read as Warner Bros conniving, “We can squeeze more money out of ‘em this way!”), Part 1 released September 2012, Part 2 released January 2013 (both direct-to-video, both 1 hr, 16 mins each; combined into a single DVD release October 2013). Thus, it’s the same team on both “parts” – Jay Oliva’s direction is stellar, cinematic angles and creative camera movements, Oliva doing the honorable and sensible thing in not straying from the excellent panels of Frank Miller as storyboard; writer Bob Goodman screenplays, also smartly adhering to Miller’s somber storyline and morally questionable themes; the cartooning is at a high frame-rate, pleasing to the eye, and the style is authentic to Miller’s characters in the comicbook – muscular-beefy with days of chin.
Part 2 opens with Joker (voiced by Michael Emerson) incited by Batman’s return, and craving his own comeback, asking his doctor (Michael McKean) to arrange a TV appearance. Long before Phoenix killed on a talk show in 2019’s JOKER, this animated clown prince does it more gruesomely. On the Dave Endocrine Show (voiced by none other than Conan O’Brien), Joker states his mission: “I want people to ‘get’ me. That’s why I’m going to kill everyone in this room.”
It may be PG-13, but the violence is brutal, as Joker smashes a mug and slashes his own doctor’s throat. Via his flying drones (resembling cabbage patch dolls), he gases the studio, killing hundreds, including Endocrine, leaving them with rictus grins. His doctor advocated for both Joker and Harvey Dent as victims of Batman. By mercilessly killing his doctor, we realize Joker is nihilism personified.
Before this movie, Mark Hamill came to own The Joker as “his” voiceover character for over two decades of DC animated media, with character-defining guffaws and rollercoaster inflections (and he would return to the role in 2016’s BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE), but it seems like the few years this mighty production was underway, Hamill was off the grid, so Emerson steps up with a completely different take. For the first time, we see Joker’s white foundation and red lipstick as – feminine! He’s funny, he’s fruity, he’s flambo; I’m not saying he’s gay, just don’t give him a jar to open, because he probably won’t be able to.
The level of violence makes me wonder at the PG-13 rating: a batarang buried deep in Joker’s eye, as he remains conscious, callously shooting down adults and children at an amusement park; Batman resorts to breaking Joker’s neck to quell the rampage, paralyzing Joker, stopping just short of killing him – showing us Batman has not stooped to the depths of nihilism that Joker is wallowing in. This only prompts Joker to taunt Batman as a coward and – to illustrate Joker’s unfathomable depth – he breaks his own neck to frame Batman for murder! What the–?! Jesus Harriet Christ!
The eternal question swirls around Bruce’s psyche: “Why does he Batman?” Is it something in him, or something in society? In Part 1, Bruce pretty much established Batman’s existence due to the shocking death of his parents; and the writers over the decades who promulgated his credo never to murder, proved something stable about the Batman – that it was never about revenge. Yet that paradox remains: for a man bent on ensuring law is upheld, he sure breaks a lotta laws to do so.
Back in the Golden Age, no one questioned a masked vigilante taking justice into his own hands. It was a different class of crook, a different class of simplistic crime. By the 80’s Bronze Age, the Greed-Is-Good upper class yups made it apparent they were committing much heftier crimes with their white collars than the poor could ever perpetrate by holding up a 7-11 or mugging a tourist – crimes committed not for greed but for subsistence. It started to look mighty unfair for Batman to beat a purse-snatcher who nabbed $10.50, while passing over the yup who stole $10,500,000 by embezzling funding for the housing project where the muggers live.
This is the bristling societal framework DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is set in. Class warfare bleeds over Gotham; while businessmen chide the Batman for beating muggers, they yet won’t do anything policy-wise or funding-wise to curb the poverty that creates the muggers; while Commissioner Yindel (Maria Canals-Barrera) wants to arrest Batman for using excessive force against the terrorism of Joker, she does nothing to curb the terrorist Joker himself.
Movie opens with Batman downing a maximum neo-Nazi chick with swastikas covering her big brüste (inspiration for Mother Russia from KICK-ASS 2?). Superman (Mark Valley) interrupts this collar to warn Batman that the U.S. government is breathing down his neck. He’s embarrassing the government by being too effective, proving the “law” is no match for his version of “justice.”
After a magnetic pulse brings Gotham to a standstill, Batman mounts up on a big-assed steed and quells the citywide riot by uniting all the street gangs and citizens and Sons of Batman with a BRAVEHEART speech (Batheart? Bravebat?). It’s exactly how people DON’T come together in real life – but then we’ve never had a fearful Batman in real life. Yindel realizes all her authority will never take Batman down: “He’s too big.” (I’m dying to say ‘That’s what SHE said,’ but I won’t.)
What annoys us is that Superman takes the government’s side – a government he could crush in one Kryptonian hand. But we are forced to ask ourselves, Does Superman agree with Batman’s methods just a little bit, which is why he doesn’t try too hard to stop Batman? Is the old Kal-El in there somewhere aching to aid his pal? I mean, one blammo to Bruce’s unprotected mouth, that’s all she wrote. More on this later…
Batman gets shot more than once in this tale… The fact that a later sequence in this very movie features Batman wearing armor that matches him against Superman — Why not armor always??
In the final frames, a poignant redemption: “I spent ten years looking for a good death. This? This’ll be a good life.”
Excellent portrayal of politicians passing the buck, from president to governor, from governor to mayor – no one wants responsibility for Batman’s wild ride. Ronald Reagan (Jim Meskimen) squirms when asked about the “arrangement” made with superheroes (- we piece together that it was some kind of prohibition which drove supers off-Earth or off the grid. It is implied Batman tacitly accepted the arrangement also, after the death of Jason Todd).
Reagan hides behind the Man of Steel’s strength, to quell a military strike on the fictional island of Corto Maltese (really, what country would threaten America’s allies when they know Superman is American?), and using gangster-speech, implies Superman needs to put a stop to Batman embarrassing the feds.
This story was written just before Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal broke; the movie is released well after, yet the filmmakers opt not to color Reagan’s characterization with his criminality, but just represent him as a vacant leader-figure, as he was in the original comic.
Yindel, who is so adherent to “the law” sure does a lot of shooting point blank at Batman without any kind of due process. Hypocrisy wrapped in irony.
When Yindel comes after Batman with everything she’s got, Batman tears through her cadre of police to get to the Joker (most of whom are reluctant to pursue the crimefighter their previous Commissioner endorsed). Many cops are injured and there is excessive collateral damage. What is wrong with this picture?
YouTube – Daniel Wood: “so do the police deem Batman a criminal after thinking he killed the Joker? If so then they must have missed the river of bodies they had to push past to get to Joker.”
Carrie (Ariel Winter) is a pure character. I like her, her unbounded joy at fulfilling the legendary role of Robin, and the respect she gives her mentor. Is it only the young who can be altruistic? Who have no demons to exorcise?
She arcs to acceptance in Batman’s eyes. When she saved his life, he accepted her advances as a trainee sidekick; in this installment, she would earn the mantle of Robin… in a scene that surprises us for its poignancy, especially as it does not involve sacrifice or battle, but stoicism…
Bruce regarded Jason Todd a “good soldier” who gave his life for the cause… In a later scene, Batman and Carrie are escaping on the batwing glider, flying high above the city while police fire on them. Carrie’s handhold breaks – she falls – he catches her glove-on-glove – her hand slips out of her glove, and she falls again – wordlessly; a grip on his billowing cape – she crawls up his body – he embraces her tight – whispers to her, “Good soldier. Good soldier.” She hugs him close… One of the most emotional (non-sexual) moments in any film. We can feel their connection, a proud mentor, a trusting ward.
However, we can read that either way: Does Batman now consider Carrie irreplaceable, as fully ROBIN as any person can be? OR – will Carrie be exploited by Batman as an expendable “good soldier” to the cause?
Very sad when we see her stone expression in the end, as Batman steps to Superman, asking, “Boss, you gonna die tonight or what?” He says, “Figure I will.”
satire (the sons of batman)
Satire is perceived best when it is digested in its era. Having read the 1986 graphic novel over a decade after its release, I perceived the shotgun newscasts built around sensationalism as realistic representations of the cloying social climate I live in NOW. But they were intended as dire warning, to a society headed toward nervous breakdown. And in 2020, no one is gonna read it as satire, because society has shot well past your high water mark for insanity, Frank!
When Batman unites the rioters with the proclamation, “Tonight, I am the Law!” the irony is not lost on us. Not only because he is a vigilante who has no regard for society’s laws, but because all those Mutants and Sons of Batman are also vigilantes following their own moral codes; in uniting them, he clarified their moral ambiguity into a hammer of strength to be wielded against any kind of injustice. But how do you bring order when your order is another form of chaos?
anarchy (green arrow)
Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (Robert Atkin Downes) is now an agent of chaos. From his contempt of the government and their “big blue boy scout,” we get that he was culled in the great superhero cleansing. Batman would use Oliver as a wild card in the Superman battle.
For all its anarchy, I’m disappointed this movie is not R-rated. It is so damn gruesome and bloody, but for a city drowning in muck, its denizens are pretty civil to one another in the language department (because the Gutless MPAA are still a bunch of rosary-clutching hypocritical morons).
Now we come to the hardest aspect to accept in this grand tale – Superman as house nigger. He’s at the beck and call of the U.S. government, helmed by supercriminal Reagan. And we can only ask “Why?” What could the government hold against Superman? Even that gambit of his enemies coming at him through his loved ones is negated, because Lois Lane must be either dead or too old to matter. And due to humans aging, and Clark staying young, his “secret identity” is no more. So – why?
My favorite superhero since childhood, our aspirations of manhood stem from this big blue wonderboy. But Frank Miller chose to subvert all our steel-colored memories.
Don’t get me wrong – Superman’s first appearance in this movie is epic, as all his first appearances are. It was so cool to see him as surprise guest star. In a hot war with Russian artillery, he pretty much kills them by the hundreds, in the name of U.S.A. He’s allowed to because it’s war. Games Adults Play. His powers are, as always, inspiring…
There is a scene where Clark Kent poses like a Grecian statue, one leg up on a boulder, jodhpurs, boots, shirt unbuttoned to belt buckle, slab chest; a bald eagle screeches and lands on his outstretched arm. (In the comic, it’s a falcon; but the cheese level here knows no bounds.) Miller made him Mr. ‘Murrica. He tells Bruce to stand down, adding that Bruce is acting like a criminal. To which Bruce replies, “Clark, we’re all criminals.”
Superman diverts a Russian nuke that explodes in his face, discharging an EMP that knocks out Gotham. (In the ’86 comic, as a result of the total power outage, a plane goes into a skyscraper. This movie, just one year after 9/11, omits that scene.) Nuclear winter, as the fallout blocks the sun’s radiation from reaching Earth… the horrific shot of emaciated Superman, who needs the yellow sun for his strength—
Hang on! Earth’s sun is not yellow. It’s white. The sun only appears yellow, because our atmosphere scatters yellow light. Obviously those young kids Siegel and Shuster didn’t know that. Sorry, Supes, your dad miscalculated – he wanted to send you to a YELLOW sun system; he shoulda tried Polaris Aa, the yellow supergiant– Heeeey, how are you so strong under a white sun anyway?
Superman regains some of his potency by extracting the sun’s energy from sunflowers. (But if sunflowers can store the energy, why can’t Superman? Does this mean he can’t function on cloudy days? But he’s not a creature of direct sunlight, like a reptile; we must assume he draws his power from the fact the Earth is in the sun’s heliosphere, a constant source of energy– Can we get a Kryptonian scientist up in here to explain this anomaly?)… This sequence – as authentic (and essential) as it is to Miller’s story – making Superman weak enough for Batman to battle – opens up more questions than it answers.
The feature piece is Batman V Superman, Batman in an armored suit that is enclosed everywhere except around his mouth, because – fashion? This meeting would inspire the 2016 movie. They mitigate the wildly unfair power disparity by reminding us Superman has not fully recovered from his brush with sunflowers. Yet from the outset, each man’s actions tells us all we need to know about who’s stronger: Batman attacks Superman maliciously, trying to kill him, while Superman just defends and tries to talk Bruce down. He’s invulnerable. He’s not going anywhere. I mean, all Supes has to do is heat-ray Bats in the mouth, right? (And with that massive chin, how could he miss?) The fact that he doesn’t – tells us everything.
In a touching aside, as the titans battle, Alfred looks through an old photo album of Bruce as a boy. Everything would end tonight. All traces of Bruce Wayne and Wayne Manor and the Batcave would be excised from Gotham, in a grand plan that ensures the “big blue boy scout” would no longer meddle in the affairs of vigilante justice, in Bruce Wayne’s ongoing quest for a “good life.”
I will say, in his final scene, we get the impression we were right in thinking Superman didn’t sell his balls completely to politicians. He redeems himself — with one little wink…
There is sadness, yet a continuance. In this one-off story, the fates of characters can take any direction Frank Miller pleases. In an epilogue, we are left with the message that vigilantism is good, that we have to look past the “law” to the “justice” behind the illegality. Either you agree with the dark knight. Or you’re a government bitchboy.