Animation Sidebar : “Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1”

Posted: April 12, 2013 in comics, movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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Quick, what was the best Batman flick of 2012?

If you’re like most, your answer to that is simple : “what are you talking about, dumbass? There was only one Batman flick in 2012, it was called The Dark Knight Rises, and even if you didn’t like it much, it wins ‘best’ of the year award by default!”

If you’re a hard-core comic geek, though, you know that’s just not true, because there was another Bat-movie that came out last year. It was an animated, straight-to-video feature called Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, part of Warner Brothers Animation’s “DC Universe” line, and it was a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises.

Or should I say — it was a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises provided you’re part of the admittedly-much-smaller audience it was aimed at. Not that “newbies” to this won’t find it a pretty sold thrill-ride, as well, but we’ll get to all that in due course.

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For those of you who don’t already have at least a passing knowledge of comic- nerd legend and lore, here’s a brief (and very specific) history lesson : in the mid-1980s, the tired old super-hero archetype was getting a bit stale, and a small handful of creators figured the time was right to do something about it by injecting a bit more realism and psychological complexity into the proceedings. For a brief moment there, these “revisionist” super-hero works became all the rage, even garnering the medium as a whole the kind of semi-respectable “mainstream” press attention that the art form’s partisans had always longed for given that, hard is may seem to believe now, up until that point comics weren’t even considered “cool,” much less potential springboards for billion-dollar Hollywood special effects boondoggles — err, epics.

Truth be told, this new “darker,” “more mature” take on crimefighters in tights got pretty old pretty fast, but that’s neither here nor there. The simple fact is that two standout works emerged from this revisionist craze that have pretty much hung over the superhero comics medium like a Sword of Damocles ever since : Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or, as it was more commonly referred to until a movie of the same title came along, simply The Dark Knight. Nearly three decades down the line, these works have been constantly imitated, but frankly still never equaled.

Watchmen and its various  cinematic adaptations, comic prequels, etc. is old hat by now for long-time or even casual readers of this blog, so we’ll just pass right over that and talk Dark Knight, shall we? Again with the history lesson for those not in the know : essentially, this is the story of an aging and bored Bruce Wayne, who decided to hang up the cowl when his teenage sidekick, Robin, was killed (an event that was later mimicked in the “proper” DC Universe itself a few years down the road — except for the retirement part — and has just taken place again in DC’s current “New 52” line, continuing their less-than-proud track record of having no new ideas whatsoever since their much-hyped relaunch).  As you’d no doubt expect, Brucie-Boy has a tough time adjusting  to “civilian” life,  and  eventually a city-wide crime wave perpetrated by a street gang known as “The Mutants,” coupled with a plastic-surgically-altered Harvey “Two-Face” Dent reverting to his former outlaw ways, prompts Wayne to get his costume out of mothballs and take to the streets again. He vanquishes foes both old and new, picks up a new, female Robin in the form of teenager Carrie Kelley, finally settles his long-standing score with The Joker, and eventually comes to blows with the Man of Steel himself, who is sent to put Batman down by no less than then-President Ronald Reagan himself.

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It’s all pretty heady, exciting stuff, and for those who were sick to death of comics being metaphorically ghetto-ized basically ever since their inception, it was a watershed moment. Here, we figured, was finally proof that our beloved medium wasn’t just stupid kids’ stuff. This was a story that was so damn good you could show it to anyone and they’d have to agree that comics had come a long way.

Little did we realize the far-reaching implications this book would have — in fact, it’s fair to say that Miller’s take on the Caped Crusader has informed everything that’s been done with him since. There certainly would have been no Tim Burton Batman film without it, and without Burton there would have been no Nolan reboot, etc., but concurrent with the ever-darker Dark Knight of the movies has been an increasingly more somber and humorless take on the character in the comics — a trend that still continues to this day. I generally enjoy the work of current “lead” Bat-writer Scott Snyder, for instance, but let’s face it — Batman’s such a far-gone, morose, obsessive head-case now that once in awhile it’s nice to watch a few reruns of the old Adam West series just to relieve the pressure from what’s now a quarter-century-old parade of grimness.

I’m not sure that’s the end result Miller necessarily had in mind for the character once his book was finished, but that’s what we’ve gotten, and because of that — because this was the point at which “the change” began — it’s sometimes easy to forget just how much fun this comic itself actually was. Sure, this is a a wracked-with-guilt, consumed-by-anger iteration of Batman we’re talking about here, but it’s also a story in which punks in multi-colored visors speak their own goofy lingo and The Joker gets invited onto a Letterman-esque late-night talk show.

Granted, he kills everyone in the audience, but still —

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Fortunately, this new two-part animated feature (we’ll take a look at the second installment either later today or tomorrow, time permitting) is here to remind us, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, what with the unrelentingly bleak Nolan film series having just wrapped up and the tragedy in Aurora still weighing heavily on the public consciousness. It’s a good time, in short, to make the Batman property as a whole fun again, and sometimes you gotta look backwards to move forwards.

Yeah, okay — Batman as voiced by Peter Weller is pretty gruff and humorless, David Selby doesn’t strike me as the most effective vocal choice for Commissioner Gordon, all the male characters in the film are drawn like steroid-enhanced freaks, and Frank Miller’s distinctive, immediate, and sometimes very raw art style has been replaced with a more typically “clean” animated look, so the film has its flaws (perhaps the most notable of which is the fact that for long-time fans of the book the script  essentially comes off as  a Cliff Notes version of the story we know so well), but it’s still hard not to be taken in by director Jay Oliva’s fast-paced, dynamic take on things, Ariel Winter’s spot-on work as Carrie Kelley, and the genuine reverence for the material that more or less everyone who had a hand in this project seems to bring to the table. This was the “dream job” for a number of the principles involved on the DC side of things, and it shows.

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I’m not sure how well the obviously-to-be-continued non-ending will play with a non-comics audience, this being a pretty literal interpretation of the first two parts of Miller’s four-issue series, centering on Batman’s conflicts with Two-Face and The Mutants, and it probably would have played out better to just do the whole thing  in one take, but comics fans are used to being fleeced at every turn by the “Big Two” publishers, so the decision to divvy it up into two parts is hardly surprising, and is more than made up for by the out-and-out coolness of seeing so many of the comic’s most iconic moments come to life on the screen (although am I the only one who’s a little bummed that we never get to hear Weller say “in my gut the creature writhes and snarls and tells me what I need? “) in a way that even folks who are not familiar with the story will find terrifically exciting and entertaining.

A lot of nerd-gasms were had when this project was first announced, and I’m pleased to say that it by and large delivers on all that we had been hoping for, while at the same time being a highly accessible work for newcomers to the material.  I wish the DVD had a few more extras than it does (essentially just promo spots for other “DC Universe” stuff), but the widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are both superb and anyway, I understand the Blu-Ray has more by way of bonus features for those interested. Personally, I can’t see shelling out an extra five or six bucks for an animated movie on Blu (and one barely over 70 minutes long at that), but maybe that’s just me.

I’ve watched Batman : The Dark Knight Returns at least a dozen times since it came out last September, and it leaves me smiling from ear to ear each time. Best Batman flick of 2012? That’s a no-brainer.

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