Frank Miller’s 1986 mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns (DKR), is set in a dystopian future. Featuring an aging, alcoholic Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to combat a rising tide of criminality, the series set off shock waves that are still being felt over two decades later. Often imitated yet rarely equaled, possible adaptations of DKR have been discussed for years now, with studios and filmmakers never taking any serious steps. However, that wait is finally over. 2012 will now be remembered as not only the year when the Dark Knight “rose” but when he returned as well.
Any adaptation of a beloved piece of work has the tendency to provoke anxiety and critical questions. Does this adaptation live up to fans’ relationship and respect for the novel? Does it strike a balance between reverence for its source material yet still distinguish itself enough to justify its existence on-screen?
Thankfully, this particular adaption is reverent and enjoyable to watch. The film captures dozens of the novel’s classic panels, even throwaway images such as a random bystander narrowly missing the gargantuan wheels of Batman’s unstoppable Batmobile. The style of the animation isn’t really similar to Miller’s inimitable mixture of minimalism and exaggeration, but it still channels its essence. One example of this is the way the film captures the great contrast between Batman’s hulking frame and Cary Kelly’s small bundle of acrobatic energy – an iconic juxtaposition from Miller’s text.
The film transfers a majority of Miller’s pulpy dialogue from page to screen, which produces mixed results. As we have seen in the past with films such as Sin City and 300, Miller’s dialogue arguably works better when written than spoken. Still, this is often dependent on which actor is speaking the words. The dialogue can ring with a mournful sense of world-weary poignancy (see Bruce Willis or Mickey Rourke in Sin City). Conversely, it can come off as forced and over-the-top.
Peter Weller (of Robocop and Naked Lunch fame) falls more into the second camp, with his dry, laconic speech patterns failing to capture the savagery of a Caped Crusader pushed to the limits of his sanity. Iconic moments from the original text, such as where Batman muses about the fate of his fallen former sidekick, Jason Todd, and remarks that the war against crime “goes on,” fall completely flat. The other voice actors are also inconsistent. Ariel Winter is fine as the new Robin, but someone like David Selby (playing the now ancient Commissioner Gordon) is less convincing.
The film almost completely omits the inner-monologue that runs throughout Miller’s comic. This is a choice by scripter Bob Goodman and director Jay Oliva that both adds and detracts from the film. On one hand, it would be wildly impractical for the film to include all of Batman’s inner-monologues. Moments from the text where he describes his tactics in each fight, for instance, just wouldn’t work if they were spoken.
Still, there are more contemplative moments in DKR that could have retained their power in the adaptation through the inclusion of inner-dialogue. One of these issues is Batman’s recurring reference to finding a death that’s “good enough.” Also, Commissioner Gordon’s character resonates in a much stronger and more beautiful way through his own inner-dialogue. His musings continually refer to how his wife Sarah gives him strength to do what needs to be done. In these scenes the absence of the voice-over narration makes the action feel less involving and more hollow.
In the sound department, the film is very effective, offering a layered design scheme which really amplifies the impact of many sequences. This is especially apparent during the two different fights between Batman and Mutant Leader, where the punches seem to have the force of thunder-claps. The score is also fitting and enhances the drama of the story; although, it may be too reminiscent of Hans Zimmer‘s pulsating work for Chris Nolan.
Adapting such a prolific piece of pop culture would be a daunting endeavor for just about anyone. Luckily, DC Animation has managed to produce a pretty good film that occasionally reaches greatness. The film offers excellent animation, with a sound design and score which really amps up the intensity of its kinetic action. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t entirely figure out how to successfully transfer all the facets of Miller’s story to a different medium nor is the voice talent truly up to the task of giving life to Miller’s dialogue. But despite these complaints, DKR deserves to be seen by any fan of the novel. And next year, when Part II is released and the Dark Knight returns again, he should be welcomed by all fans with open arms.