The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2
Available January 29th from WHV on all the usual home-viewing outlets.
Note: My review of The Dark Knight Returns part 1 can be found HERE.
One of the dangers of being too literal of an adaptation is that you start to realize, when seen in a different format, what doesn't quite hold up. Such is the case with the second part of The Dark Knight Returns, which dramatizes the third and fourth books in the 1986 graphic novel. At least in animated form, it is clear that Mr. Miller bit off just a bit more than he could chew, with a final chapter that expands the playing field far beyond Gotham's borders. It doesn't quite work, taking us out of the intended story and using it as a way for Miller to discuss a broader commentary on 1980s American foreign policy (the original story was, of course, written in the mid-'80s).
Nonetheless, those wanting a faithful adaptation of the iconic comic book will get their money's worth. As a filmed adaptation, it is stymied only by a curious bit of miscasting and material that just-plain doesn't work as well on the screen as it did on the page.
For the eight of you reading this who don't know the story, this is the second half of the story, which contains two distinct halves. The first half, which was always my favorite portion of the story, concerns the Joker's reemergence in Gotham following the return of his arch rival while the finale concerns Batman's proverbial end game and a conflict with Superman. The idea of Superman being a tool of an oppressive American government, a devil's bargain so that he could still function as a life-saving hero, is an interesting one, and it was certainly a groundbreaking narrative concept at the time. But this is just one of many instances in the story where the perhaps necessary loss of the running first-person narration hampers the film and removes some of the character depth. The film's final moments do pack the requisite emotional punch, but it still feels just a bit like Miller merely wanted to answer the age-old "who would win in a Batman/Superman fight?'
More disconcerting is the out-and-out miscasting of The Joker. Never mind that the role of the aged Harlequin of Hate is tailor-made for Tim Curry (who was first cast as The Joker 20 years ago on Batman: The Animated Series only to be quickly replaced in preproduction by Mark Hamill), Michael Emerson doesn't sound the least bit old. Oh sure he's 58 years old, but he looks and sounds like a spry youngster barely pushing 40. This is the same miscalculation that had Angie Harmon replacing Stockard Channing in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. The performances are fine in both cases, but the fact that the vocals sound younger than they should is a constant distraction. There are some surprising changes to the Joker showdown (spoilers I suppose), moments where violence in the book is trimmed (no dead boy scouts at the carnival that I saw) and increased elsewhere (the escape scene is onscreen and Joker shoots lots of people in the 'tunnel of love').
We frankly lose the idea that Batman is tracking down the Joker for the express purpose of finally killing him, which lessens the impact of their final moments together. It's still a kick to see the Joker doing what he does best, but it lacks the pathos of its source material.
Also frustrating is the sheer amount of time spent on two truly pointless action sequences. The opening set piece, involving an interrupted robbery that goes on *forever* and the first real confrontation between Batman and the new commissioner, seem to have no narrative purpose. The latter rooftop smack-down is egregious especially as Batman seems to attack for no reason even as he should be keeping his ears tuned towards whatever the Joker is up to just inside the building. And considering that we're dealing with two 75 minute cartoons, there was no reason not to do a little judicious editing and release the whole thing as one 135 minute The Dark Knight Returns, aside from getting twice the money from consumers.
Peter Weller makes an OK aged Batman, but sounds oddly like Olan Soule (i.e. Batman on Superfriends) during his climactic speeches. Still, if all you want is a straight-ahead adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, then you'll probably walk away happy save for a few nitpicks here and there. The film is splendidly animated and both parts have enough iconic comic panels replicated onscreen to give hard cores the goosebumps. The more character-driven first half gives way to a more visceral and action-packed final half. While arguably a necessary evil, the loss of the voice over narration also resulted in the sacrifice of much of the character depth in the process. Now that we have both parts, I imagine part 2 may-well play better as the second half of one 2.5 hour film, but that's a discovery for another day. For fans of the source material and general DCAU junkies, this is a worthwhile purchase. I've never thought that The Dark Knight Returns was the be-all/end-all of Batman stories and I still don't. But it's a damn good elseworld and these two Blu Ray releases mostly bear that out.
Part 1: B+
Part 2: B-
The extras: The DVD only has the trailers, which includes a preview of the next DCAU feature. But even the blu ray bonus material is surprisingly slim this time around. We get the usual ten-minute preview of the next DCAU movie (Superman: Unbound, based on Geoff John's "Superman: Braniac" arc) and three somewhat related DCAU cartoon episodes ("The Last Laugh", "The Man Who Killed Batman", and Superman vs. Batman Brave and the Bold episode), and a brief motion comic sampling. The only meaty stuff we get is a 15 minute featurette on The Joker, memorable only for a snippets from Joker creator Jerry Robinson himself and a 15 minute piece on the whole Superman Vs. Batman debate. The big extra is merely a 43-minute storyboard commentary by director Jay Oliva. It's fine and a bit different from the norm, but it feels like a lesser trade-off for either a full audio commentary or some kind of picture-in-picture feature.
Anyway, the movie is a mixed bag and the extras are sparse. You know the drill by now about whether this is worth your time (probably) or your money (up to you). Until Superman: Unbound, that's all for now.