Jay Oliva | 76 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG-13
The two-part animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic, regularly voted among the top three stories ever told in the medium, concludes here. If you’ve not seen Part I, I recommend you start there — I imagine you could follow much of Part II without it, but why bother?
In the second half of Miller’s tale, the Joker is being released from incarceration to appear on a talk show, apparently reformed. Batman doesn’t believe a word of it, but the new police commissioner isn’t about to let Gotham’s vigilante have his own way. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., a President concerned about the ramifications of Batman’s return has a little chat with a red-and-blue-clad chum…
Miller’s original work is most often consumed as a graphic novel these days, but it was originally published as four individual parts and is consequently quite episodic. What screenwriter Bob Goodman has done with his adaptation is manage to make it feel like a story of two halves, with each movie being largely self contained — you could stop at the end of Part I and feel you’d had an entire tale, I think. Here, elements from Miller’s fourth chapter are introduced earlier (at least, that’s how I remember it, but note I’ve not read it for years), lending Part II the sense of being a whole movie, rather than two back-to-back shorter tales.
Nonetheless, a pair of big battles form the cruxes around which the story works: Batman vs the Joker, and Batman vs Superman. I won’t spoil the outcomes for those who’ve not read the book, but both are excellently realised on screen. Action can be tricky in comics — you’re stuck with a series of still images to convey fast-paced, often intricate movement. I also generally have the impression that action sequences are not 2D animation’s forte — too many frames need to be drawn, too many different angles to make it quick and exciting enough. The Dark Knight Returns is one of the exceptions, however, and the two big sequences in Part II — as well as a couple of smaller ones — outclass anything in Part I, which was good in the first place. I’d go so far as to say the Superman fight improves on the novel’s version, at least in a visceral sense — Miller delivers Batman’s internal monologue and a certain pleasing disregard of Supes, while Oliva wisely skips any kind of voice over and delivers the entire duel blow for blow. It’s a fantastic climax.
It’s also quite dark and brutal, particularly during those action scenes. Translate this shot-for-shot to live action and I don’t imagine they’d get away with a PG-13, even from the violence-friendly MPAA. Producer Bruce Timm revealed in one interview that they were concerned they’d get an R even for the animated version. The UK Part I classification of 15 is much more in step with the content.
The story may provide some déjà vu for those only acquainted with live-action Batman, because Christopher Nolan borrowed liberally from Miller’s TDKR for his TDKR, The Dark Knight Rises. This is even less obvious than the Batman Begins / Batman: Year One issue, though, because most of what Nolan used is in Part I, and most of the story he told wasn’t remotely similar. Still, you may spot one or two correlations.
As Batman, Peter Weller’s vocals are largely fine but sometimes lack heft. His rousing speech to a massed army sounds more like a weary chat than a bellowed rallying cry, which is just poor direction… or an uncooperative star, I don’t know which. Lost and Person of Interest star Michael Emerson makes a great Joker though, understated and calm but with a loony edge. He wouldn’t be right for every tale of the Clown Prince of Crime — sometimes you need Mark Hamill’s crazed cackle — but for Miller’s older, sneakier version, he’s bang on. Elsewhere, Ariel Winter’s shining moments came in Part I, and Mark Valley is a bit of a limp Superman — this is pretty much a piss-take of the Big Blue Boy Scout, but the voice doesn’t go OTT to match. Indeed, never mind over the top, it’s barely halfway up.
But these feel like niggles, because on the whole The Dark Knight Returns, Part II delivers exactly what you want from an action-packed Batman animated movie. There were many sceptics when DC first announced they were going to tackle such a sacred Bat-story, and not all were convinced by Part I. I don’t imagine Part II will change their minds, but for those of us who did enjoy the first animated interpretation of Miller’s seminal tale, this is even better. In fact, even without its first half, I’d say it joins the ranks of my very favourite Bat-films.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part II is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the US from Tuesday 29th January 2013. No UK release date has been announced.
It placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.