Inconsistent yet still undeniably entertaining, the second part of Warner Brothers’ The Dark Knight Returns (DKR) adaptation is a big film that wrestles admirably with its complex source material. “He can fly!” exclaims an awestruck cop (while observing a temporarily aerial Batman) during one of the film’s many well-done action sequences. The same thing can occasionally be said for this film. It’s a deeply flawed piece of work, but occasionally the proceedings really soar.
The Dark Knight Returns is an iconic “What If?” storyline, which originally appeared as a four issue series in 1986, written and drawn by Frank Miller. Depicting an aging, borderline alcoholic Batman being launched out of his self-imposed retirement, the story presented a bleak, dystopian world overrun with crime and corruption. The story also functioned as a disturbing alternate history where the two global superpowers of the 1980s, the United States and Russia, are still at the brink of a nuclear war due to conflicts over the fictional island of Corto Maltese. Upon its release, The Dark Knight Returns changed the face of the superhero graphic novel. It ushered in a wave of enhanced thematic complexity, more layered characterization, in addition to shocking and brutal depictions of violence. The industry would never be the same.
The Dark Knight Returns – Part I adapted the first two issues of the graphic novel series. It covered the circumstances leading to Batman’s resurgence and subsequent battles to take back Gotham from the clawed grasp of the vicious Mutant gang. Part II picks up a couple of months following the events of the first film. That film culminated with Batman delivering a savage and ignominious beating to the Mutant Leader and reclaiming his rightful place as the city’s most influential and dominant symbol.
This time around the odds are squarely stacked against the Caped Crusader’s weathered arms and dusty batarangs. Despite having acquired a new sidekick in the form of Carrie Kelly‘s Robin, the Dark Knight’s activities have drawn the ire of Commissioner Yindel, the young buck who replaces the ancient Commissioner Gordon during the film’s opening. Even worse, the reemergence of the Joker (prompted by Batman’s return to crime fighting) threatens to unleash a wave of violence that not even the Dark Knight can contain. Finally, the Man of Steel, who has now been reduced to a thuggish puppet by the U.S Government, is ordered by the U.S. President (a clear satirical variation of Ronald Reagan) to put an end to Batman’s vigilantism once and for all.
DKR – Part II succeeds and fails in the same ways that its predecessor did. The film is powerfully animated, competently acted and carries a muscular sound design and thrilling score. However, the film’s treatment of its source material’s themes and characterization is superficial at best. Additionally, DKR – Part II proves once again that Frank Miller’s hard-boiled prose is much better read than heard.
The acting in DKR Part II is uniformly fine but unspectacular. Weller’s arid delivery seems to encapsulate the crustiness of Bats yet still comes off as bland and disinterested. It is probably unfair to make comparisons to the dark richness of Kevin Conroy‘s inimitable vocals. His work has become synonymous with images of the idea of an animated Batman and has been solidified over the past 20 years. That being said Weller doesn’t help himself in voicing the role, and unfavorable comparisons to Conroy are inevitable. Many of the film’s most dramatic pieces of dialogue just feel stunted due to his delivery.
Michael Emerson’s work as the Joker resembles more of a batty old uncle than the vicious, sadistic showman that we have come to know through past incarnations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this version of Joker is also in his mid-50′s and still projects a cackling, mean-spirited personality. Yet you never really get a sense of the relationship between Bats and the Joker until their final scene together, which contains one of the most violent, bloody fights ever seen in mainstream, American animation.
This fight scene forms the center of one of the film’s most accomplished sequences, where Batman’s pursuit of the Joker culminates in a pitched battle between the two men and involves Yindel’s attempt to capture both of them. The scene is intensely loyal to the comic yet also amazingly manages to enhance everything that makes the original material so captivating. Batman’s fragility, the Joker’s madness and the tension brought out by Yindel’s approaching SWAT team is palpable and engaging. The action is even more involving than the original work, and subtle changes allow for the scene to become even more coherent.
Far less successful is how the film treats some of the larger themes of the story. One of the major plot points of DKR is the anxiety that the nuclear tensions between the U.S and Russia provoke. The problem is that the perpetual feeling of dread – which hung over the entirety of the comic – never seems present in the adaptation. Another thing that made Miller’s work so riveting is that while the story’s main focus is Batman and his tormented psyche, DKR is also very much about the people of Gotham. The comic includes a lot of small, anecdotal stories of common people living in a world gone insane. These are largely absent from the adaptation, which leaves Gotham feeling considerably less alive than in the original text.
Even more glaring is the omission of the book’s moral ambiguity and narrative unpredictability. Near the end of the film, Gotham is plunged into chaos following a shocking act of aggression, which inevitably leads to frenzied looting that Batman and Commissioner Gordon must quell. The problem with this scene is that the film eliminates Miller’s use of TV interviews where Gothamites reflect upon their own behavior and the behavior of their neighbors. What is so brilliant in Miller’s book is how he uses this time-fragmenting device to expose the discrepancies in the Gothamites’ reflections. He cross-cuts between the interviews and the actual events as they transpired in reality.
The film completely eliminates this technique and thus also erases the riveting complexity of the sequence. Instead we get a scene of excruciating moralizing where, with just a little urging, the inhabitants of Gotham fuse together as a communal force to be reckoned with.
DKR – Part II is quite electrifying to watch – especially if one is a fan of the original text. The film stages Miller’s epic with an appropriate level of muscular energy, yet it falls short in transferring some of the story’s more complex themes. But perhaps the greatest casualty of this project is how the creators, from director Jay Olivia to writer Bob Goodman, never figure out how to properly convey Miller’s intricate dialogue scheme, where each major player gets a color-coded inner-monologue. One familiar with the story will certainly feel the painful absence of certain pieces of pulpy dialogue or shudder with how awkward certain lines sound when they are spoken instead of read. In short, the film is flawed but still more than worthy of a viewing. It may not be great but, just as Batman comments at the end of the film, it’s, “Good enough.”