Thursday, June 15, 2017

Animated 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' movie captures original graphic novel

The animated movie "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" is an accurate adaptation of the original, four-issue graphic novel. 

That's a massive Captain Obvious fanboy comment.

So why am I re-reviewing a several-year-old animated flick? Two reasons: 1) The full reviews of Parts 1 and 2 are lost to Internet purgatory since the original CCC website died a long and painful death, but more importantly 2) I'm fresh off ranting about the loss of "My Batman" — and its possible return in DC Comics' recent Rebirth issues — an especially the death of Adam West, my in-depth introduction to the Batman world -- so it was time to give "Returns" another look, especially in one sitting.

Nearly every scene is taken from the source material. And those that aren't seem like they should be, as they are written as organic expansions of what is in the comic books. Unlike so many other DC Universe Original Movies that are adaptations of published stories, there is nothing added or changed here from the comics.

The character designs are so spot-on they could have walked out of the pages drawn by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.

Released several months apart in 2012 and 2013, "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" reflects the gritty tone Miller sets and his and Janson's artistic style. The Micheline Man-sized Dark Knight — right down to his Jay Leno-esque chin — is a perfect imitation. Carrie Kelley/Robin's hairdo and the hulking mutant leader also are ripped out of the pages.

The voice casting seals the deal — as if they were ever any margin for error on the inspired style of the animation. The voices are what I hear in my head when I read THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. (Wait! I have voices in my head …?! LOL)

Peter Weller's deep baritone gives Batman/Bruce Wayne the right edge to someone who has seen too much and is afraid to see any more. His delivery, while somewhat monotone at times, nicely embodies Wayne as the bitter and beleaguered, yet matter-of-fact, grumpy old man he is in Miller's story.

Ariel Winter gives Kelley and Robin the right kind of teenage enthusiasm. Gary Anthony Williams' mutant leader sounds as grumbly, creepy and dangerous as he should.

Michael Emerson's Joker is oh-so-creepy — in ways fans have never heard from the Clown Prince of Crime. There's no highly energetic, over-the-top performance and hysterical laughing done to convince us this guy is A-1, bats*** crazy (pardon the pun).

Instead, Emerson goes understated. His breathy, slightly feminine voice complements the Joker's controlled insanity.

This is an extremely dangerous villain who has been comatose at Arkham Asylum for the last ten-plus years — possibly from being overmedicated or even a self-imposed, coma -like existence. The Joker only comes to life when he hears that Batman has returned to take back Gotham City in ways that are just as extreme as the lowlifes who have terrorized its citizens.

Miller and Emerson's Joker is chilled, yet extremely chilling. The Joker is ready for his close-up and the minimalist lipstick he dons captures the craziness he has controlled for too long.

Unlike the animated adaptation of BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, "Returns" screenwriter Bob Goodman adds no new material. As I said, there are no new scenes — only necessary expansions of what is in the limited series.

The Batman-Superman battle reveals just how much each punch takes out of the Man of Steel (reluctantly recruited by President Ronald Reagan to handle the Dark Knight) and the abuse Wayne endures, despite his shock-resistant armor that amplifies his strength. Transforming this fight to the finish into fleshed-out movie scenes gives readers the proper perspective into how Wayne uses Robin and a one-armed Oliver Queen to ensure he's victorious over Superman and reveal how truly far-sighted of a tactician he is.

The first half of "Returns" focuses on Batman handling "the mutant problem" and the media and city's response to the Dark Knight's return to his war on crime.

The big baddie in Part 1 is the mutant leader and the first installment ends after Batman's final battle with the Joker. In each showdown, the Dark Knight understands what he needs to do to come out of it alive — even if it means taking a life.

Quick aside: This is when Miller's Dark Knight isn't my Batman; he's just too cold and brutal for my taste. And that goes double when he leaves the Army general alone in a room with a gun, basically pushing him to commit suicide.

Superman is characterized as the pompous hero you're not supposed to like. Miller obviously has no respect for the Man of Steel, so why should his fans? Who can cheer for the ultra-powerful Boy Scout when he has been manipulated into doing the federal government's dirty work?

It's this bastardization of Superman that led directly to Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck)'s contempt for him in the live-action "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

To put it simply, in both Miller's and Zack Snyder's universes, Batman rules and Superman drools.

"BvS" and each version of RETURNS are Batman-biased. Both men are such fans of the Dark Knight that that each of their projects, especially "BvS," is slanted toward being a Batman story, NOT one equally featuring Batman and Superman. This forces fans to root FOR the morally shady Dark Knight and AGAINST the morally upright and much more powerful Man of Steel.

The winner-take-all fight in "Returns"/RETURNS becomes one that reaches each superhero on many levels. On the surface it's about the independent maverick (Batman) daring to take on the company man who walks the company line.

Miller simply doesn't contrast dark vs. light, he casts the Man of Steel as the loyal yet misguided good guy who has lost his way. The Dark Knight, as Reagan tells Superman, is the reckless, wild colt that needs to be saddled.

Their fight isn't just between DC's Big Two; it represents so much more: Moral right and wrong, dark and light, the underdog and heavy favorite, small business and big corporation, independent thinker and moral majority and certainly, brains and brawn.

And when it comes down to choosing between Batman and Superman, Miller's story gives us no choice but to root for the Dark Knight.

Grade: A

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