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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: A DVD Review

Updated on May 21, 2013

It's hard to see exactly where writer-artist Frank Miller started to lose his mind, because there are so many points in his career that you could honestly point to and say, "Yeah, what the hell happened here?" Is it The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a comic with deep ties to 9/11 that depicts Dick Grayson as some type of love-sick mutant wherein Batman is (maybe) a pedophile and (definitely) homophobic? Is it All-Star Batman and Robin, where Black Canary is a mental-case, Green Lantern is dumber than a sack of hammers, and Batman refers to himself in the third person as the "god-damn Batman," murders police, and calls a grieving child a retard? Maybe it's Holy Terror, a story that was originally about Batman killing members of Al Qaeda before someone at DC realized that maybe associating Batman that was a really, really bad idea? I mean, are we talking a slippery slope here or is this a case where any of them could easily be argued as the point of no return?

It's even entirely possible that you could look further back and say Batman: The Dark Knight was one of those points along the road. The comic is almost 30 years old at this point so I'm not going to take a whole lot of time going into a synopsis here. We'll make it simple: after the second Robin was killed, Batman retired. Ten years later, he comes out of retirement to find himself in a world where he no longer has any real allies, new enemies half his age that he doesn't quite understand, and old enemies are coming out of the woodwork along with him. In the story, which is filled with political commentary that could only have occurred in the 80's, Batman is no nice guy. There's no walking down the streets in the daylight, actually all chummy with Robin and having baseball games with Superman, no acting as an "unofficial deputy" for the Gotham Police Department here; Batman is portrayed as a crazy old man who has to resort to severe violence instead of the more nuanced tactics he used in his prime, a man who has no qualms about being a criminal so long as he gets the job done and protects people from the truly evil people out there.

For some people, that sounds awful and, when you consider the fallout that occurred from the story (The Dark Knight and Watchmen were the two big comics that helped to usher in the Dark Age of Comics and, well, that sure sucked), I can kind of see their point. They don't want to see Batman breaking people's spines or riding around in a Batmobile the size of a small building or waging a war on the police. I'm on the other side of the fence, the one that considers The Dark Knight Returns (as it is now traditionally labelled) to be one of the character's seminal works. The story is an absolutely fascinating look at how people view a middle-aged man who dresses up like a Batman and fights crime. It can be seen as a natural extension of what would happen if Batman was actually allowed to age, how Batman would be warped by an arch-enemy who killed six hundred people under his watch because he refused to take that final step, how a man considered to be a criminal by Ronald friggin' Reagan himself might actually come to embrace the more criminalistic aspects of his vocation in order to do what he thought was right. Now, this isn't a Batman I would want to see every day, which is frankly part of the problem with later interpretations of Batman and The Dark Age of comics itself. The Dark Knight Returns is about a crazy old man for four issues. It's a possible interpretation but it's a clear story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Grim and gritty works on the small scale (also note that Watchmen was twelve issues and that's it; it didn't continue in perpetuity). It's when you decide that the only good superhero is a murderous psycopath or that the only effective Batman is a dick that you run into problems.

It's necessary for you to understand how I feel about the original to understand the lens I am viewing the animated adaptation through. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a deeply, deeply flawed movie, and while I think the original is an amazing piece of work, I didn't care for the movie at all. It's not because I thought the animation was poor, although it is, feeling incredibly stilted even during the action sequences and just leaving so much to be desired, and it's not because I thought the vocal talent was incredibly miscast, and they were, with no one sounding even remotely like they should. If those were the only two things wrong with the movies, which I'm reviewing in tandem here, I'd be able to look past that. But the real issue with the animated version is simply that it fails as a story.

I'm not going to spend time going over everything that was changed in the course of adaptation. I'm a nerd (and incredibly big nerd you might say, and I'm not going it argue you on the that point for even a second) but I'm not the kind of guy who takes issue with every single change. I mean, yeah, I did make a list of every change that I could find, because I do notice stuff like that, but it's not worth arguing over. I could tell you that in the original comics, Gordon doesn't quit smoking until he retires at the halfway point of the story, yet in the animated version he's chewing nicotine gum from the jump. Or I could point to the fact that the animated version has changed Martha Wayne from a brunette to a blonde for no reason. I could definitely do that. But neither of those changes actually affects anything in the plot or the tone of the story and I am fine with that. I don't care that the X-Men wore leather in their big screen adventures and while the organic webshooters from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films were an unfortunate choice, I was still down with that. Those are nitpicks and they are the worst kind of nitpicks. What I will go into detail, however, is the stuff that does have an affect on the work itself, the stuff that actually made these films a chore to sit through.

The most glaring change from the source material is that characters don't have internal monologues anymore. The source material didn't have thought bubbles but it did have captions that served to constitute what the character was thinking. Batman, Gordon, Carrie Kelly, Joker, Superman, it's impossible to argue that you don't know what is going through people's minds in the comics. The animated version has eliminated this entirely and while that may sound like one of the teeny-tiny nitpicks I just derided above, that is not the case at all. Some of the internal monologues are gone entirely, but a lot of them have been turned into spoken dialogue, suddenly turning quiet characters into Chatty Cathy's and not only is the mystique gone, it most cases it makes everyone seem dumber. Take Batman's second fight with the Mutant Leader: in the source material, Batman inflicts a series of injuries to incapacitate an opponent that has him bested physically and he tells the reader what he is doing. In the animated version, Batman hits the Mutant Leader with a chop across the face. The Leader asks "What was that supposed to be?" and Batman responds "I just gave you the right kind of cut above the eyes. The kind that bleeds." That's bad. This is then followed up with Batman hitting the Mutant in a nerve cluster, rendering his arm useless for the fight. The Mutant Leader asks "What was that supposed to do?" and Batman responds "No force on Earth could help you move that arm now." That's worse than bad, that's atrocious. The Mutant Leader is supposed to be dumb, but he's not supposed to be an imbecile that repeatedly asks what Batman's strikes are doing to him. Worse still is that a lot of the monologues turned to dialogue are things that no human being, not even a character in a comic book, would say out loud to themselves when they were alone. Why would Selina Kyle be talking to Bruce when she is alone in her apartment? Why would Batman be chiding himself for missing a shot verbally when opening his mouth is just going to draw the police to him even sooner? The lack of narration is a critical misstep.

That isn't the movie's only problems, though. In both versions of the story, Batman is an old man. In the original source material, this is a big plot point. He's still in amazing shape for a man his age, but all throughout the comic we're reminded that he is not in his prime. Batman has trouble doing things that, when he was in his twenties, used to be easy. He isn't quite so stealthy as he used to be, his first battle with the Mutant Leader ends horribly for him, and he is constantly portrayed as someone who is much slower than he used to be, someone who is relying on luck constantly to not just defeat his opponents but to even make it through some circumstances alive. In the film, everyone is reminding Batman that he's old, but he very rarely acts on it. There's a scene early on where Batman has trouble climbing a rope, and there's a scene later in the film where he has trouble aiming, but that's about it. Yes, the Mutant Leader outclasses him in their first first and nearly kills him, but Batman lasts much longer than he should before he falls. His fight with Superman in the last act has been expanded upon but it's kind of a joke; Superman may have been weakened by an atomic bomb and Batman may be wearing a suit of mechanical armor, but in the source material it's firmly established that the only reason Batman stands a chance is because of all his toys. In the movie, he utilizes all the same toys that he does in the original, but he also goes toe to toe with Superman, hoping around like Yoda does in Attack of the Clones and even using pieces of machinery like boxing gloves, ala Hulk with his car boxing gloves in Incredible Hulk! If Batman is supposed to be an old man in this animated version, you could have fooled me.

The final problem I had with the animated version is quite possibly the worst, so far as I am concerned. Your mileage may vary here, depending on how you interpreted the original, but my interpretation of the original comics has always been that Bruce is out of his mind. This is a version of Batman who has seen his sidekick killed, Superman become a pawn of the government, and all of the other superheroes retire rather than face persecution. This is an old man who can't dodge bullets as a matter of common practice, the kind of guy who is willing to kick someone so hard that he shatters their spine rather than simply tie then up with his Batline. This is the kind of guy who drives around in a tank that fires bullets and then jokes (internally, of course) "Rubber bullets. Honest." Someone who takes Carrie Kelley, a 13 year old girl with no training, in as Robin, revealing his identity to her within minutes of their first meeting. The kind of Batman who breaks peoples bones and laughs as he does so. Frank Miller's Batman is not as bad as the people he is fighting, but he's not Adam West. You kind of get the sense that Batman is not really the good guy here.

The animated version tries to capture this and fails spectacularly. I will give it credit for being one of the most violent takes on Batman I've seen in film or animation; Batman cripples Joker in a brutal fashion and he nearly blows a mutant's hand off to save a hostage. But the film doesn't take the necessary steps of pushing things too far, which is kind of the point of the original material. Batman may state that he is using rubber bullets in the original, and he probably is, but I always got the sense that he was not the most reliable narrator, and it times it was hard to tell just how far he was taking things. In the animated version, it is 100% rubber bullets, no doubt even remotely possible. Batman's actions spur copycats in both versions, but most of the horrific things his copycats do in the comics have been removed from the animated version so that we aren't meant to question anything he is doing. Both versions show us that after nuclear winter occurs, only Batman and his vigilantes in Gotham have been able to hold order while the rest of the country riots, but in the original source material, things have aligned so that we are meant to ask "Do the ends justify all his sociopathic means?" In the animated version, this question isn't meant to be asked, but if it was, the answer would be undoubtedly yes.

The biggest problem with the animated version is that Batman is the good guy. In the original, you're not supposed to be sure.


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