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September 25, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (2012)


When confronted with the name Frank Miller most people associate it with the ultra-violent, terrifically edgy and stylized, black and white noir-like comic book series Sin City (and its terrific film adaptation). True, hardcore comic book fans would always associate the name with the 1986 masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a brilliant adaption of the first two books (out of four) in the 200+ page comic.

It showcases a Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller) who is 55 years old and Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) is 70; Batman had been in retirement for the past 10 years. A violent gang named The Mutants patrols the streets of Gotham and their actions are, frighteningly, entirely random. Gordon, who has a month left before he retires from the police force, detests how violent the streets have gotten throughout the past decade. He’s been wishing that Batman had never retired. Luckily it’s only a matter of time until Bruce Wayne, now old, mustachioed, and who likes to drink in order to forget, unpacks the cape and cowl and decides to continue to fight crime.

This film’s villain is Harvey Dent (Wade Williams). He’d just received the best plastic surgery that he could afford and his face looks perfect. But it’s not long until he grows a criminal organization that steals a couple of helicopters, a couple of large bombs, and decides to hold the city for ransom for $22 million.

Placing the general plot aside, and believe me there’s a lot more going on than just Dent, there are many reasons as to why this is an amazing film. First off, it’s terrifically, fluidly animated and the coloring resembles high-grade anime films and series; it’s not nearly as flat and uninspired as most American animations are nowadays. Second, the character development, which is consistent and even developing throughout, is equally present as the media’s role in the story. Just like in the original comics, many segments depict the pros and cons that the media has to say about The Mutants, the lack of Batman, the return of Batman, Harvey Dent, police corruption and also corruption at City Hall.

Now, my favorite aspect of the film is its “cinematography”. Its shot compositions resemble those of films; there is a nice slow and steady pace; and it’s just plain cool. It’s a pleasure to watch an animated film that pretends to be live-action (much like the brilliant Rango), and the characters become more relatable because they resemble people more than mere cartoon characters.

There’s a terrific moment when Batman’s on the scene for the first time in 10 years and he can barely climb a rope. He wills himself to do so because his muscles, almost atrophied, simply won’t work. And he’s heavy and wooden floorboards squeak under his weight. There’s another terrific sequence where Batman takes on the leader of the Mutants in a fist fight and almost dies, because he’s stubborn and wants to prove to himself that he’s still not too old for the job.

The screenplay is excellent, filled with little details that are lacking in most animated and even live-action films; the animation and coloring is top notch; the voice work is mostly excellent; and the action is very involving. It resembles Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, in which we forget that we’re watching a film about a man who dresses up as a bat to fight colorful villains.

I have one more point of praise and one major criticism to unload: The music, a mostly synthesized score that resembles a combination of Blade Runner and Nolan’s Batman films is fantastic, but the decision to employ Peter Weller as the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman was terrible. He just doesn’t sound like any iteration of Batman and doesn’t seem to be “really into it.” It’s a shame. But it’s minor quibble so I forgive the producers.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a terrific surprise because the previous animated Batman film, Batman Year One (2011), while also taking itself somewhat seriously and being very faithful to its original source material, was too slow paced and ultimately boring, and I stopped watching it after merely 35 minutes; it would have benefited from being shot as live-action. This film however, at a running time of 76 minutes, is never boring, always fascinating and intriguing, and somewhat of a complete package.

I dislike Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) because its first half is uninteresting, its characters are more cliched than they should be (except for Bane), and the cinematography (even though the lighting is really good) is mediocre at best. And the second half was just a long action sequence that contained little to no consequences and was terribly predictable. B:TDKR, P1 is exactly the opposite and for that it’s a huge recommendation. If you love the character of Batman and his universe, buy this film. If you just want a surprisingly really good animated film, then rent it. Either way, watch this film. It’s the best thing that’s coming out this week and is also one of the best films that’s come out this month.

It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray. As far as I could determine, the only DVD extra is a preview for part 2. The Blu-ray has that plus short features “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story” and “Her Name Is Carrie…Her Role is Robin,” two bonus cartoons “from the vault,” and a digital version of the comic.

Nir’s review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

Other new releases this week: The Avengers, Damsels in Distress

…and last: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Cabin in the Woods, Chico & Rita, Hysteria, Katy Perry: Part of Me