On Thursday, I went to the Paley Center for a screening of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 1. The film is an animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 comic. The story begins with an aging Bruce Wayne, who left the Batman behind a decade earlier. These days, Bruce drinks away the rage and the memories of times past, as he watches Gotham City tear itself to shreds. The violence escalates with the rise of the Mutant Gang, who wage war on the city and on Commissioner Gordon, who is days away from his retirement. Adding to the chaos and general unrest is the fact that Harvey Dent, who has spent years in Arkham, has been released after a face reconstruction.
Peter Weller gives Batman a weathered, weary voice. Ariel Winter (Modern Family) is perfectly determined as Carrie Kelly, the girl who would be Robin. Her voice sounds young enough to correspond to the character’s age, yet serious enough to convey Carrie’s seriousness about her self-imposed mission. David Selby gets some great scenes as Commissioner Gordon, particularly in his exchanges with Weller. Michael Jackson (not that one) is very wry and downright funny as Alfred, who seems to grow more sarcastic with age, and who now finds himself dealing with a new child in the Batcave. Michael McKean seems to be having a ball as Dr. Wolper, who has been working with some of the inmates at Arkham and blames Batman for their condition, as well as the city’s deterioration.
(Spoilers abound from here on!!!)
Director Jay Oliva made a film that is very faithful to its source material. Like the earlier Year One movie, The Dark Knight Returns does not change anything in Frank Miller’s story. Unlike Year One, however, Returns is a story of talking heads, a tale of how the city perceives Batman. We get reactions from various newspeople, politicians, doctors, gangmembers, and people on the street. Because of this cacophony of voices, Returns benefits more from a film treatment than Year One. The story is, inherently, more cinematic.
The film moves cinematically as well. Oliva knows how to make beats linger where they matter. For example, the sequences that delve into Bruce’s memories and hallucinations are particularly effective, moments in which Oliva stops the action to ask the question: Is Bruce Wayne a well man? These moments recognize that Batman sustains Bruce Wayne, but that he is also destructive to Bruce (this was one of my favorite questions posed by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, especially The Dark Knight Rises).
The film also clarifies and expands the action sequences from the comic. They are longer and obviously more fluid in a moving medium. I like that the film kept the look of Miller’s VERY distinctive Batman. My one complaint about the action is that some sequences are beyond Batman’s reach as an aging human being. They should have skipped altogether scenes in which Batman is punching through walls. The best moments (in any Batman story) are when Batman’s frailty puts the character in mortal danger. People like myself, those of us who prefer Batman to other superheroes, prefer him because he’s human, and therefore vulnerable. He is never more vulnerable than when he’s old, injured, or out of shape. There is a great moment in the film when Batman tries to climb a rope as he chases some Mutant gang members. He immediately tires and has to start again, struggling all the way up.
The aspect of the film that may prove more problematic for younger viewers, or those unfamiliar with the original comic, is the 80s stylization. The comic is set in a dystopian future, but it is very much an 80s dystopia. Even though the film (at least this first part) does away with Miller’s Reagan references, the glasses, the clothes and the slang are the 1980s with a twist. As the Comic Book website points out, the comic made fun of both conservatives and liberals, but removing the Reagan-like President leaves the hippies as the only butt of the joke. However, readers know that the President will almost certainly have to appear in the second half of the story.
David Selby, Andrea Romano, Jay Oliva, Gary Miereanu
The screening at the Paley Center was full. Gary Miereanu, who handles publicity for DC Comics, stated that he received over 2,500 requests for tickets to the screening. Only 200 were given out and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Also in attendance were David Selby (Gordon), Director Jay Oliva and Andrea Romano, voice director for Warner Brothers, which handles all the DC properties. Oliva spoke of how he first read The Dark Knight Returns when he was 11, and how he added little scenes into the film version, such as the moment when young Bruce Wayne attends his parents’ wake. He stated that he was always conscious of how the killing of Bruce and Martha Wayne, as drawn in the comics, always left little Bruce bathed in the light of the streetlamp, but that he felt the boy should be in darkness, for that moment represents the birth of Batman. He also explained the significance of casting Weller as Batman, since The Dark Knight Returns inspired Robocop, Peter Weller’s iconic role.
For her part, Andrea Romano revealed that she met the challenge of casting the myriad of speaking roles by calling her friends and asking them to take three roles each. By her “friends”, of course, she means the people who have populated the WB/DC animated series (which Romano cast) since the late 1980s, including Tiny Toon Adventures, Duck Tales, Animaniacs, and Batman: The Animated Series (the list goes on and on). People of a certain age, who watched cartoons in the 90s and beyond, may not realize it, but Andrea Romano crafted the soundscape of our childhoods. The crowd at the Paley Center knew it, and she was greeted like a rock star. There was loud cheering when she read each of the names on the cast list, names familiar only to fans of animation, including Rob Paulsen (Raphael in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Yakko in Animaniacs) and Maurice LaMarche (Chief Quimby in Inspector Gadget, Morbo in Futurama), or as Romano introduced them: Pinky and the Brain. When asked about the fact that Kevin Conroy, who has played Batman in the DC Animated Universe’s most celebrated titles, was not asked to play the role in Returns, Romano was quick to point out that he had played an older Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond, and that there were a lot of similarities between the two titles. Though Conroy would have done a great job in Returns, Romano stated, this doesn’t detract from Weller’s distinctive take on the role. I happen to think that since Returns doesn’t fall into continuity with The Animated Series/Justice League/Batman Beyond, then there can be room for a different Batman. It will be interesting to see if Michael Emerson (Lost) can own the role of the Joker, which has been played so memorably in the Animated Universe by Mark Hamill. Judging from his very brief- great- appearance in Part 1, I can say that I am looking forward to watching Emerson in Part 2.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt 1 will be available on DVD on September 25th. Part 2 will be released in 2013.