Saturday, January 17, 2015

Movie - The Dark Knight Returns (parts 1 and 2)

Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns often places near the top on any best graphic novel list.

I read Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns years ago, around the first time I read Watchmen.  I don't know why - perhaps Miller's story moved too quickly for me to grasp, as it zipped along in just four issues - but it's a testament to Jay Oliva's direction that the story never struck a chord in me, until I saw his animated version of the twenty-year-old arc last night.

I was in bed with Atelier Ayesha on my Vita, and I turned on Netflix to watch something - anything - just like I always do.  Often, these background noises will end up being a DC animated movie, because those are just cool enough to look up at once in a while, and just boring enough to ignore most of the time.

Within forty-five seconds of The Dark Knight Returns: Part 1, I had put my Vita aside for the night.  I would not take it up again 'till morning.

The film is slavish in its adherence to Miller's plot, but I'm not kidding when I say director Jay Oliva has told Miller's story better than Miller did.

Countless stills from the original comic are reproduced in the frame, and Oliva shows a supreme grasp of Miller's interweaving political, psychological and classically heroic themes - themes that Miller himself was not able to so eloquently get across to his audience (or at least, to me) with that four-issue serial in 1986, whose pages were buzzing, packed tight with so much text and detail that it was nearly impossible to follow.  Oliva's films are permitted time to stretch their legs, with a combined length of two and a half hours, and the story he tells is patient - invested with shots that are always just-too-long, always permitting the viewer an extra second or ten to reflect on the characters, and the abject weirdness and mental state of a man a bit past middle age in black tights who brutally beating down punks when the Sun sets.

The film is excellent at reminding the audience that while Batman is an everlasting symbol of the judgement that awaits evildoers, he's also a tired old man in spandex, pushing himself beyond any reasonable limit because he's compelled by a combination of pure mental illness and altuism.  This almost pathetic humanity grounds us in the absurd reality of the film, and it means when the shit goes down - when a punk turns his gun on the ageing Bats and Batman dodges bullets, when the Joker comes alive and does what Joker do, when Robin nearly falls to her death - it feels like so much was at stake, and has a huge impact.

"Good soldier."

It's incredibly accurate - not just to Miller's work, but to the fantasy of Batman as a whole - and when a punk turns his gun on the ageing Bats and the bullet-dodging commences, we're aware that we're not witnessing Batman: The Unstoppable Force of Nature get out of the way, we're watching a thick-bodied old man who let himself get really, really good at kung-fu rely on his training to survive what no one else could.

Special mention, I think, is deserved for this version of the Joker, who's simultaneously the most effeminate interpretation of the character I've ever seen and the most terrifying.  We're aware, the first time we meet him, that something terrible is coming beneath those catatonic eyes.  When he's let out into the world and starts making little jokes that go over the heads of his handlers - "all those faces and so few smiles" - we laugh along with him, a bit.  We get his sense of humor.

But The Dark Knights' world is not the old WB Batman cartoons' world.  It's not the more-recent DC comics animations' world where the Joker tries something and Batman just stops him.  This is a Joker we understand to be explosively violent, and absolutely lethal.

It cuts away, when he delivers the blow, but it's more effective than Heath Ledger's disappearing pencil trick.  Here, in this humble little cartoon, is a Joker who feels like one of the greatest interpretations of the role.  Michael Emerson's Joker is, purely, a maniac killer with a smile on his face, who does it just for the lulz.

The Tunnel of Love scene - the whole thing, from beginning to end - is both one of the most effective Joker scenes (thanks largely to the impact of its sound design, unflinching violence and grounded, empathetic terror) and one of the greatest Batman scenes of all time.

And there's more.  There's too much to talk about, with this story. There's Carrie Kelly's Robin, there's the Batmobile as a tank, there's freedom-as-fascism versus fascism-as-freedom, Superman deconstructed to the degree of Dr. Manhattan, culminating in what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object in the guise of Batman Vs. Superman.

*not Stephen Colbert.

The discussion on whether or not Batman is just a nutcase doesn't feel like lip-service, here - it's at the core of the story.   Oliva's movie is so careful to present Bruce Wayne as a flawed, tired, heavy-set man well past his prime - so careful to humanize him - that it makes the fact that he can dodge bullets so spectacular.

The Dark Knight Returns parts 1 and 2 combine to form what may be the best Batman movie of all time.

It certainly has the best fight choreography.

Not kidding.

It also contains a middle-aged Batman kissing a middle-aged Catwoman who's dressed up like Wonder Woman.

[update] And Target had the deluxe edition for fifteen bucks!  Score. [/update]


  1. I will need to watch this. It will be difficult for it to surpass Mask of the Phantasm for me, but that it because Mark Hamill's Joker is my go to definition.

    1. I think in my Arkham Origins review I said something like I wish Baker had struck out in his own direction with Joker, instead of keeping so close to what Hamill did - this Joker goes in a completely different direction, and it's fantastic for it.