The new direct-to-DVD film, the 15th in the DC Animated Universe series, goes on-sale today and hurls the audience into the same sequence as the book. We find a 55 year-old Bruce Wayne (voiced by Robocop’s Peter Weller), having hung up the cowl a decade earlier, recklessly competing in an Formula One-style automobile race. In the comic book, Miller and Janson confine the competition to a single page, rendered almost entirely in tight close-ups of Bruce behind the wheel. The reader requires at least one reading to follow the rapid editing and skewed perspective on the action, which suggests the comic book equivalent of a contemporary Bourne movie.
The film, directed by Jay Olivia, offers all the conventional race images that you’d expect, with long shots and bird’s eye views of the road that emphasize bland visual clarity at the expense of the book’s off-kilter emotional intimacy. Even more strikingly, the film dispenses with Miller’s hard-boiled interior monologues, eliminating many of book’s most memorable lines and the uncomfortable implications about Bruce’s sadistic psyche. When the race ends with a fiery crash, on paper Bruce thinks, “This would be a good death... but not good enough.” The script confines itself almost entirely to the book’s spoken dialogue.
The premise finds middle-aged Bruce chafing at retirement at Gotham City’s crime rate turns worse than ever. (Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises borrows a little of this dynamic.) When he dons the costume to fight bank robbers and street thugs, the action feels reminiscent of the numerous other Batman adventures we’ve seen over the past 25 years, suggesting that the new film suffers a little from the book’s success. A subplot with Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face, allegedly cured and leaving Arkham Asylum, feels like an afterthought.
The film, like the original book, takes place in a 1980s’ version of the future, with news anchors wearing huge shoulder pads and street thugs favoring mohawks and narrow, wraparound sunglasses. A scene at a convenience store even takes pains to show comic books from the late 1980s, including V for Vendetta, Sandman and Watchman, but serves to underscore The Dark Knight Returns as a museum piece. The film’s features no shortage of liberal straw men eager to coddle psychotic murderers and blame Batman for their crimes.
DC Comics released the original graphic novel in four issues, with the first, The Dark Knight Returns, providing the title of the series collectively. The new film adapts the first two issues, with The Dark Knight Returns — Part 2, covering the rest, due in the spring of 2013. The second half of Part 1 proves more engrossing than the first, with warmer characterizations of Commissioner Gordon, on the verge of retirement, and high school gym prodigy Carrie Kelly (Ariel Winter), who appoints herself the new Robin. The latter section of Part 1 also explores Bruce’s war with a vicious gang called The Mutants, led by a bruiser with a Bane-like physique.
The film includes some appropriately painful fistfights between Batman and the Mutant’s leader, as well as some appropriately spooky, strobe-lit shots of Batman dispatching bad guys. Overall, however, the visually conventional film feels like a shadow to the book’s edgy, provocative artwork. Weller’s voice, though appropriately deep, comes across as slow and inexpressive, as if bubbling up through molasses. Readers in the mid-1980s would’ve cast Clint Eastwood, in aging Dirty Harry mode, to voice the role (although one imagines today’s Clint scolding an empty chair with an imaginary Two-Face).
The Dark Knight Returns faced a tall order to live up to the mystique of its source material, and lacks the dramatic cohesion of such previous DC Animated takes on the character as Batman Year One and Under the Red Hood. The film builds momentum as it goes along and leaves one eager for Part 2, which shifts focus to Batman’s conflicts with The Joker (voiced by “Lost’s” Michael Emerson) and Superman against a backdrop of Reagan-era theromonuclear war anxiety. There should be life left in the old bat yet.
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