Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Part One Blu-ray ReviewSeptember 29, 2012
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Part One, DC Animated's adaptation of the classic Frank Miller graphic novel that redefined the Caped Crusader in 1986, is note-perfect.
And that is its biggest problem.
The story is almost word-for-word, scene-for-scene, pulled directly from the pages of the original comic book, and it's an enjoyable movie to be sure, but it begs one very big question: What's the point?
In the film, the Batman has been retired for the past 10 years, and in his absence, crime has run amok in Gotham City. A new breed of criminals, a gang calling themselves the Mutants, is running roughshod throughout the city, murdering innocents with no motive other than simply to spread fear and chaos.
Ultimately, the deterioration of his city becomes too much for Bruce Wayne (RoboCop's Peter Weller) to bear, and he succumbs to his dark side, once again donning the cape and cowl as Batman.
However, as anyone who's read the graphic novel can attest, this isn't your father's Batman. The Dark Knight Returns was, in essence, the birthplace of the violent, gritty take on the character that has dominated the last 26 years of the character's life.
As a huge fan of the source material, I was surprised and gratified to find that many of my favorite moments from the book remained in the film, particularly a scene between the soon-to-retire Commissioner Gordon (voiced by David Selby) and his incoming replacement, Captain Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals).
When Yindel asks how Gordon can condone the actions of a vigilante, the elder cop tells the story of his reaction to a newspaper article that claimed FDR might have known about Pearl Harbor and allowed it to happen.
"Finally, I realized it was too big for me to judge. He was too big."
Other fantastic scenes from the book have been brought to equally fantastic life in this animated film, including the climactic battle between the Batman and the Mutant Leader that takes place in a giant mudhole, surrounded by an audience of captivated Mutants.
The roles have been brilliantly cast and are played extremely well by the actors. Weller is great as Batman, and Selby delivers an incredible performance as Gordon. But the real highlight of the cast is young Ariel Winter, who voices Carrie Kelly, a young girl saved by Batman who is inspired to become the new Robin.
Weller and Selby provide the gravitas required for such a monumentally-epic production (even if there are moments when it sounds as though Weller is bored with the material), but it's Winter's enthusiasm and relatability that steals the show as well as an audience's heart and imagination.
There are plenty of praises to sing about this movie's faithfulness to the graphic novel. But, as I said, that faithfulness winds up being the film's greatest flaw.
Director Jay Olivia and screenwriter Bob Goodman have clearly taken great pains to bring the graphic novel to life precisely as Miller envisioned it. In doing so, however, an audience has to ask itself, "What do I get here that I couldn't get from the book?"
Perhaps viewers who aren't intimately familiar with the graphic novel will find this to be an inventive take on Batman, but for someone like me who's been a fan of the book for so many years, I found myself impressed but also underwhelmed - as happy as I was to see so many things left intact, I was disappointed to see so few chances taken.
One of the driving forces of the graphic novel was the way that the individual characters' internal monologue really drove the narrative forward. While this technique proved disastrous in DC's last animated Batman film, Year One, I found that it would have been a useful tool in this instance, particularly in terms of exposition.
At the end of the day, though, the lack of chances taken can't change the fact that this is an engaging, well-made, and well-acted piece, and if you've never read the graphic novel it might be a real eye-opener for you.
Warner Premiere brings Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Part One to Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode that looks marvelous. Miller's distinctive color palate of grays and blacks is kept intact, and it looks gorgeous. The image detail is sharp, and the black levels ensure brilliant definition and depth. The aforementioned battle in the mudhole was a particular visual treat - here, our main characters are purposely obscured, and yet the detail of the image allows us to maintain a sense of where we are and who we're watching.
The sound is also up to the challenge, as the 5.1 DTS-Master Audio mix is phenomenal. There are plenty of big hits and big explosions to go around, and the audio mix brings them all to brilliant life. Of particular note is a scene shortly after Batman's return. The Caped Crusader is stalking a gang of thugs through a rundown tenement. Every crack in the wood and every clang against the pipes is incredibly lifelike and subtle, only to be broken up by the incredibly powerful sound of gunfire. A truly immersive experience and a credit to the sound engineers who made it a reality.
Beyond the Feature
In addition to a stunning audio and visual presentation, Warner has packed this film with a plethora of bonus features.
The highlight is the featurette 'Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story,' a 38-minute 2008 documentary about the life of Batman's creator. Featuring interviews with Stan Lee, Mark Hamill, Kane's widow Elizabeth Sanders, and the late Jerry Robinson (as well as archival footage of Kane himself), the film presents a fascinating look at the man who created arguably the most popular and enduring comic book character of all time.
Fans of Batman: The Animated Series will enjoy two episodes of the acclaimed 90's cartoon focusing on Two-Face. The cartoon episodes as well as the Kane documentary are presented in standard definition.
The Blu-ray also features a sneak peak at The Dark Knight Returns - Part Two, a short presentation featuring rough animatics and interviews with the cast, including Michael Emmerson (Lost) who will play a prominent role in the second feature as the Joker.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the short featurette 'Her Name is Carrie... Her Role is Robin,' a look at how Miller's decision to include a female Robin influenced a generation of superheroines, and a digital excerpt from the graphic novel itself.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Part One is a fine film and a faithful adaptation. It may not necessarily be a bad thing to keep everything precisely as Miller envisioned it.
Having said that, though, even Beethoven's music is tweaked when conducted by modern symphonies.
- Jason Jarman
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