The Dark Knight Returns: Part One
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is an all time classic – ask any creator in the comic industry to name the top ten books out there and that will be one of them – so adapting it to the big screen is a big task indeed. The daunting nature of it exacerbated by just what kind of story it is and just want kind of movie that Paul Dini and co are making: Returns is one of the Darkest of the Knight’s stories, it is set in a science fiction future, it thus features an elderly protagonist, it is dense, blatantly conservative ( not the hippest of ideologies), brutally violent, intentionally unsatisfying, in other words very adult and they wanted to make it into an animated film, a part of the “children’s medium”. The result is similarly schizoid, both a success and a failure in equal parts, split quite neatly down the middle like a certain villain once was.
Before you rise up and hate on me for denouncing animation know that the name I gave it is not my own perspective, but that of the public. Animation is still seen for kids and the animated Batman movie’s as the less mature, less artistic and less valid by most who would stroll past them on the shelf. The thing is though that comics themselves are still seen in a very similar light by some, an opinion that was the clear majority before Miller and Moore hit with their seminal books back in the eighties, of which this was one. So with their version of Returns DC could finally bring the medium the credibility some credibility by pushing serious boundaries, only the fences that they are kicking over are now thirty years old and crumbling of their own accord.
For instance when Miller first implemented them the TV news interruptions were an amazing addition to the story; punctuating the plot, fleshing out the politics and lending an extra layer of grit to proceedings. Here however they simply weaken things; since what is a brisk point in single, non-sequiter panels becomes blunt and tedious here as it stands solo, eating up precious seconds of time. Then there is also the fact that this approach is now almost common place, the meta-nature of the narrative technique gone from bold, through old news and into outdated; full on found footage is now the new way of telling stories. The messages that they convey also seem far less complex and far more coarse here than they did in the original comic.
Miller’s scripts have always been blunt and brutal but the comic form softened their edges somewhat; here though the story hits with full force, hits too hard for its own good, it is brutish in that way. So while the set-up of the televised sections may make it seem like the film is making fun of fascists and liberals equally, this simply isn’t the case. One side is given justification and the other some funny lines that we can laugh at; it’s almost what an inverse Daily Show might look like were the right smart enough to make one. On top of that the Mutants that besiege Gotham and force the titular return of Bats are just that, so inhuman that we couldn’t possibly side with them or worry about their rights when the knight is cracking their skulls, even if we would normally be against excessive force.
The way that these fights are depicted essentially does away with the no killing rule (though it is still upheld in name) and really we have no problem with that in their case. So when the hippie’s come on screen to say how cruel he is being to break an arm or how we should all forgive Harvey Dent (who replaces the Joker here, in the scripts one major change) there is no way that we are going to listen. Miller makes his point too well. The new Robin is a female though and this is perhaps the stories one salvation. Miller is a liberal where he needs to be, where it works, unlike those who now lead the side he follows the facts and I can respect him for that. He also makes fun of this twist by having the Mayor’s choosing of a new female commissioner displayed as a PC cop-out.
Maybe I’m just more aware nowadays but in seems like this ideological material held nowhere near as much importance in the original; the plot is abridged but even this doesn’t equate for it all, some of it is in the execution. What does still work though is whats on the other side of the coin: the visceral, very adult action. Though Batman is now very old he hasn’t lost his fitness, just his patience; goon’s aren’t given much of a chance to surrender, or any second chance for crimes after this. Wayne’s methods most resemble those of another character Voice Actor Peter Weller once played, a certain cybernetic police officer. This brutality is what makes the action work; this Batman is bad-ass and his vengeance bloody, his battle scenes awesome to bear witness to.
Visually there are a lot of stunning images within the film, the blood and pearls of the origin flashes for one, but for each of these there is a dropping of the scotch glass in slo-mo that just feel trite and melodramatic; older even than the source material. Even the simple scenes can go either way; Wayne and Gordon chatting at a bar is directed wonderfully -cutting to different distances and using foreground distractions – but then in comparison the opening race just looks cheap, repeating footage and messing up the motion blur. The films animated format is ironically technically best at the more mature, still scenes but falters when things need to actually be animated, like in action. The main reason that the fight scenes work is because Miller’s ideas for them were so strong that the work was mostly done for them.
So the book is a classic and to some a masterpiece, what then of the movie? For me it was only ok, but then for me the book was only barely better so the makers shouldn’t be too disappointed. The Book is praised because it felt so brave and so new whereas this adaptation is neither, it’s authentic to a now ancient text. The team behind it have tried so valiantly to be accurate to the original that they have brought with them both the book’s brilliance and its bullshit; it would have angered fanboys but a slightly bolder and more modern take could have paid off big time. Perhaps that will come with the second half of the story, which is the one that worked best for me in the first place, though it is also the one based more on the bigger action set-pieces and more traditional characters. So we’ll see. Either way I liked this more than I did a certain other Dark Knight film that saw screens this year…