The Dark Knight Returns: Part Two
It was a rather strange move on the part of this movies makers to split the story of its Frank Miller adaptation in twain; certainly it’s something we are all too familiar with seeing occur in the cinema, but not so much when it comes to Direct-To-DVD animated titles like this. Still, there is something strangely fitting about it, especially given the parts of the comic that they have here attempted to adapt: in this version it is a dramatic tale of clashing dualities: of men and masks, of men and women, of dark and light, of real and unreal, of good and bad, of new and of old. Though if that sounds too heady for you then know that it is also, very much, a film about a guy in a bat-suit beating strangers; this binary of serious and silly yet another to add to that overlong list.
After immensely enjoying Part One I was skeptical and worried what my reaction would be to this sequel of sorts (since they’re almost never as good) but then the story starts with a three month time jump, one that almost exactly mirrors our wait between parts, and I was won back over. The political nattering and news program’s used to deliver this information, alongside some other thinly veiled ‘Previously On…’ plotlines, are another link between this world and that of our own, albeit the one of the eighties. Ronald Reagan is president – as he seems to be in all great comic stories – and as we see him whispering Western-witticisms about a small-island war with the communist’s into an ear with super-hearing I shuddered and thought that maybe it had lost me again; this Corto Maltese story seeming much more like a shallow watchmen rip off here than it ever did in the book itself (probably because the two book’s were written simultaneously, the satire only days behind the source).
Now I am all for serious commentary in comic books and movies, so too mature themes, but the adaptation process only served to exaggerate Miller’s egregious political views in the first part and so I was dreading where this was all going to go. I will say now that it’s nowhere good or meaningful, but neither is it as narcissistic or noxious as it could have been. Thankfully though this attempted philosophical maturity is paired with a phenomenological one, by which I mean the movie treats its action in as adult a way as it does everything else. Though it may star everyone’s favorite superhero this is not a family film; in fact I would go so far as to say that it is the vilest Batman movie ever made and I loved it for that: when characters fight criminals each punch hits as a real one would, breaking something, and each stab or slice of a blade draws blood, the wound then bleeding in a way cartoon wounds never do, after enough of this the victim dies and they look, traumatisingly dead. Then there is Bruno in his/her *ahem* provocative outfit; to, I guess, sex up the slaughter.
Unlike Part One though, which also brought some A-grade animated action, this film still feels like a cartoon and thus it also gets away with cartoony elements like the constant costumes that Bruce magics out of thin air and the crazy criminals and crazier compatriots that he has to deal with throughout the story. Having the first film focus on Batman’s fight with the Mutant gang made him seem more real and allowed us to buy into this unique take on his world; so by then re-introducing all of the famous Gotham characters in this film the world should be made to seem much more familiar, but because of what Miller did to them (the sado-masochist) the actual result is closer to the opposite. I don’t want to ruin the surprises for anyone unfamiliar with the story, but seeing the situations that Selina Kyle, Oliver Quinn and co. have gotten themselves into was shocking even to me. So too was Michael Emerson’s Joker, who takes some getting used to but brings more than enough crazy once he has warmed up (fitting given his arc I guess).
There is one character though that stood out above all others, Mark Valley’s Superman, and as much as I am a Valley fan it wasn’t because of the voicework. What the animators did for the Dark Knight in Part One (realizing his action potential) they do for the man of steel here and it’s great. Through putting us in Batman’s perspective, rather than his own the Superman character becomes something else entirely literally and by allowing him to move faster than light, faster than the camera can capture they convey this visually. It’s badass, builds perfectly for the climactic showdown and gives me faith in the character like I have never had before. Now I’m just hoping that Man of Steel does half as good a job of it.
Speaking of Nolan’s live-action films the story of this second part was reminiscent of Rises in a remarkable number of ways, but did nearly all of them better to my mind: the gangs, the grieving of Batman and the city-shaking event, among other things, all make an appearance here but they tie together in a way that they never did during Rises. I daresay that the later section and the resulting message of community spirit are as fitting today as they were in the eighties given the recent events in New York City, Gotham’s mirror. This though is the only uplifting part of an otherwise brutally pessimistic picture; I mean given what Batman becomes it now makes perfect sense that Peter Weller, the original Robocop, is doing the voice. The tragedy of his fall, which was missing in Miller’s work for me, is well shaded here; morally ambiguous as it should be.
Strangely while watching this movie it seemed to me that the story had to have been drastically altered – because things kept shocking me, kept surprising me, kept sitting me back – but in fact it wasn’t; the dialogue is almost line for line. It is just that the animation captures some of the comic’s scenes and concepts better than Klaus Jensen’s art did, or at least much more clearly. The action is smoother, but more than that the scenes flow together here in a way they never did during Miller’s jagged script ( sensational as it is). Though those bumps and edges are what made Miller’s work so meaningful and important as art, as entertainment the smoothing and simplification shown by the film is a drastic improvement and the result still captures the spirit of all his points, correct or incorrect. When adapting a ‘masterpiece’ that, I think, is all you can ask for and that is what The Dark Knight Returns does so I daresay it is a success.