Settle in for a long read, faithful TAM readers. This is not going to be your average review, and there will be several plot points discussed…
The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR) pulls its story from the groundbreaking mini-series created by Frank Miller in 1986. 1986 was an interesting time for the world and the United States. It was the height of the Cold War, and groups of Americans still had distrust for the government after the handling of Vietnam. The wide-eyed, “Leave it to Beaver” innocence of the 50’s no longer existed as more and more people grew cynical about everything. That cynicism started to bleed over into television, movies, music, and books. Comics seemed to be the last refuge for those that wanted to believe that heroes would always do the right thing and were above reproach.
Then DC Comics did the unexpected by allowing Frank Miller and Alan Moore to publish dark tales of heroes. Alan Moore presented The Watchmen, using characters that seemed to be clones of DC icons. Since it did not contain any of the mainstream heroes, The Watchmen was seen as its own universe, one that did not mirror the current US, and seemed a bit extreme.
Frank Miller’s tale caught everyone off-guard for several reasons. Most people my age grew up on the live-action TV show and the cheesy Saturday morning cartoons. These formats gave us a Batman that was as much a Boy Scout as Superman is often referred to as being. A dark and sinister Batman that could intimidate everyone was something new that reminded us of how much we liked another dark-caped fictional character, Darth Vader. TDKR also gave us a different view of Superman, one of someone who is physically impressive, but may not be as strong as Bats in the brains department. We were also unsure as to how to react to the fact that Bats was hated by the police and the US government. Finally, we were not prepared for the amount of real violence depicted in Miller’s tale, perpetuated by both heroes and villains.
What followed after publication was the inevitable maturing of Batman as an icon. The regular series took the reception of the mini-series as an indicator that the reading audience wanted a darker, grittier Batman. Tim Burton used the dark, brooding icon as the basis for his vision of Batman on film. He even references Miller’s book by mentioning a conflict in Corto Maltese, a significant location in TDKR. The Batman most people love today has his roots more in Frank Miller’s creation than in Bob Kane’s original ideas.
Ok, enough about the comic book – this is supposed to be a movie review.
DC and Warner Brothers made the smart decision to split the story into 2 movies. Normally, I hate this; however, by doing so, Warner’s was able to give us the entire story on-screen with little left out. The comic mini-series was 4 issues; the movies were set up to do two issues per movie. The overall animation is good and Andrea Romano does well with voice-casting. She does not rely on her usual go-to Batman/Joker team of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Instead she uses Peter Weller of Robocop (nice 80’s pop culture nod) and Michael Emerson.
Part 1 shows us a Gotham City without Batman. He has been “retired” for 10 years, leaving matters in Commissioner Gordon’s hands. Most of Bats’s Rogues Gallery are locked up and show no sign of wanting to escape. The first story arc deals with Harvey Dent going through plastic surgery to repair his mangled face and being released. Soon a crime wave hits, Bats comes out of retirement, and it is soon discovered that there is no plastic surgery that can heal mental scarring. Meanwhile, an undercurrent of unrest is flowing through Gotham thanks to a gang called the Mutants. It also does not help things that the Joker’s shrink is going on TV and blaming Batman for creating all of the whackos. One person who believes in Batman and wants to help is young Carrie Kelley.
Let’s pause for a moment and delve back into comics history. In what seems like a throwaway scene in TDKR, one of the reasons given for Batman’s retirement is the death of Jason Todd, the vilified second Robin. This scene is complete with a view of a memorial case with Jason’s uniform. TDKR came out in 1986; does everyone remember what happened in 1988? That’s right – DC killed off Jason Todd (oops, I mean “the public killed off Jason Todd by calling the phone number that said kill him”). Given the unpopularity of Jason Todd, one can easily surmise that DC noted the public’s acceptance of Jason’s death in TDKR as clearance to kill him off in the main continuity.
Now back to the movie. Carrie Kelley convinces Batman into keeping her as Robin after she helps him in escaping from his failed first encounter with the Mutants. Even though he knows the risk of introducing another Robin, Batman also realizes he needs her help. With that, he is able to defeat the Mutant leader and reestablish dominance over Gotham City.
That brings us to the end of Part 1. On to Part 2…..
This is the part of Miller’s story that took everything we believed about Batman and turned it upside down. Creating a story of this magnitude and not including the Joker would be like planning a Super Bowl party and not including the Super Bowl. It just doesn’t happen. While Joker’s homicidal tendencies had always been referenced, previous incarnations of Batman had always stopped the plans before anyone died. Not true here – with every life Joker takes in TDKR, Batman relives the horror of his parents’ own deaths at the hands of a robber. We don’t just see someone die – we see multiple people suffocate or carelessly shot by Joker as he walks along. However, the most terrifying part is seeing how close Batman comes to breaking his one unbreakable rule of not killing. Even then, it is questionable regarding Joker’s demise. While Joker does the final act, it is Batman who makes it possible with little effort from anyone else. What is not focused on, is how Robin ends up taking a life while trying to save hers. All of this leads up to final story arc of Superman versus Batman.
If you saw Pulp Fiction, then you might remember the scene where Mia Wallace asks Johnny Vega if he is a Beatles man or an Elvis man. She goes on to explain how you can appreciate both, but deep down you like one or the other more. The same is true for comics. More than any two other heroes from any publishing company, people most identify themselves as a Superman fan or a Batman fan. In case you could not tell, I am in Bats’s cave. Given the popularity of both, it has been a constant debate as to who would win in a fight between the two. Miller makes every fan-boy happy by giving us that fight. Neither hero survives unscathed, with the strengths and weaknesses of each one on full display.
One aspect I had not given much thought to was that of the obvious dating of the material. I am so used to DC’s animated movies taking place at any point in time that I was not expecting obvious 80’s references. The most jarring of these was the inclusion of Ronald Reagan in several scenes. That made me look closer and realize that everything had an 80’s look to it. The other notable reference was the use of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union and the public’s fear of nuclear war. It also makes you really appreciate a Batman story nearly 30 years old that still captivates the audience.
Both Blu-rays include the standard mini-documentaries on Batman, Superman, and Joker. They also include select episodes from the animated series and digital copies of both movies.
My advice: A must-buy for devoted Batman fans; for everyone else, definitely get it from Netflix or RedBox….