For fans of the animated adventures of the Caped Crusader living in Fresno and all over the world, the last four month have been a long wait. With last September's release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1, fans were at treated to something that they had longed to see for 26 years, a feature-length adaptation of Frank Miller's now classic story of an aged Batman coming out of a ten year retirement to purge Gotham City of evil once again.
Sure, ever since the book first came out in 1986 it has served as an inspiration on some level for virtually every incarnation of the character since, ranging from the comics themselves, to Tim Burton's first Batman film from 1989, to Batman: The Animated Series and the animated universe that spawned out of it, and most recently Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, particularly the final installment, The Dark Knight Rises. But this time fans were finally going to be treated to the real thing, a full adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel itself...at least he first half.
When Part 1 was released on September 25, 2012, reception both from fans and critics were enthusiastic; in fact, as of this writing, Part 1 currently holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In this examiner's review of Part 1, I he praised director Jay Oliva and producer Bruce Timm's attention to detail to capture every nuance possible of the original work, passion than Timm and his crew have previously shown on previous DC Universe Animated Original Movies such as Justice League: The New Frontier and especially on another Frank Miller Batman story, Batman: Year One. This film marks the first time in the history of this direct-to-DVD franchise that a single story was split into two films, and if there was any story worth warranting it, thank goodness it was this one.
But this week, after four month of waiting, we are finally able to see the animated conclusion of the story in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2.
The story picks up where Part 1 left off as Batman (voiced by Peter Weller), with the aid of the new Robin, Carrie Kelley (voiced by Ariel Winter), has come out of retirement to bring hope back to a hopeless Gotham City, starting by his brutal defeat of the leader of the notorious Mutant Gang. In the wake of this, members of the Mutants have split off into various other gangs, including a ruthless vigilante group called the Sons of Batman, young people who fight in our hero's name but without his actual approval. But Batman's return has also attracted the attention of a long-lost enemy, the Joker (voiced by Michael Emerson), who has come out of a years-long catatonic state. Joker is able to convince his psychiatrist, Dr. Wolper (voiced by Michael McKean) to book him an appearance on a late night talk show so he can have his chance to tell his side of things and show the world what a changed man he is. But of course this is all a ruse to hide what will be the Clown Prince of Crime's most homicidal episode ever, unless Batman can put a stop to him once and for all.
But before Batman can do anything, he and Robin will first have to contend with Ellen Yindel, new Commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department following the retirement of Batman's former ally James Gordon (voiced by David Selby). Yindel launches a manhunt to bring Batman to justice no matter the cost, which she and her forces pursue with ruthless efficiency. And yet, Yindel is the least of his problems as the United States government, embarrassed by Batman's blatant disregard of a ten-year old ban against all costumed heroes, calls upon the aid of a former friend, Superman (voiced by Mark Valley). Now working merely as the government's superhuman pawn, the Man of Steel has been given orders to bring in the Dark Knight at all costs. It all builds up to a final showdown between the two greatest superheroes of all time, and former friends, for Batman's fate and the ending of his legacy.
On the one hand this film is very much a sequel to the first film that is, obviously, meant to be watched back-to-back as one big story, this second film is also very different from it's predecessor. In the original graphic novel, besides telling a great Batman story and dealing with an older, extremely dark translation of the character and his universe, it also offered social commentary on the politics and culture of the time. We saw plenty of that in Part 1 with the frequent news beats seen throughout, but here that idea is even more pronounced as it delves into the Cold War-era politics. Some fans of the book have actually criticized this aspect of the story for getting away from being a actual Batman story and instead become a platform for Miller's at-the-time politics. In regards to the film, this examiner has seen some people criticize the adaptation of this subplot for being too unrelatable for a modern audience.
After this project was announced, this examiner has to admit that he too was concerned about how the Cold War subtext would play. Ultimately, this examiner is proud of the producers for not shying away form it, allowing it to continue to be a significant part of the story instead of rewriting toe plot to be a modern day commentary on the war on terrorism and a commentary on the Bush or Obama administration. That would have been just as bad as if the makers of the Watchmen movie had set the film in today's world instead of the Cold War of the 1980s; it would have been interesting, but it just wouldn't have been the same thing people know and love. Like in Watchmen, the culture, politics and atmosphere of the times were an instrumental part of the identity of The Dark Knight Returns and, even though the political stuff may confuse or go over the heads of younger viewers, this examiner feels that maintaining it for the film version was the right decision.
But while we are speaking about younger viewers, it should be addressed that, just like Part 1, this is absolutely not a kids movie. Both the book and the film are extremely violent, especially in all of the scenes with the Joker. Sure we have seen the character kill people before, but not usually this manically or this indiscriminately, especially not in animation. Not only does this Joker poison an entire TV studio full of people with his Joker gas (which leaves everyone with that hideous grin on their faces as the laugh themselves to death), but later on he is shown running through a carnival shooting down every single patron he comes across. No G.I. Joe lasers, no clever cutaways, actual putting innocent people down in cold blood with a simple pistol. The final battle between Batman and the Joker is epic and equally vicious; shots are fired, Batman is stabbed repeatedly, Joker has a batarang thrown in his eye and worst of all is the way Joker is finally put to rest. This story's version of the Joker is the one upon which all later versions are inspired, a ruthless, irredeemable, totally insane mass murderer who thrives on his never-ending dance with Batman (which in this case takes on some subtle homoerotic subtext). It is a heck of a legacy to live up to and I think these filmmakers did a great job at it.
Interestingly, the film no-holds bard approach to the violence also led to two of the most noticeable changes to the original book. The Joker's psychiatrist, Dr. Wolper, and his henchman, Humpty Dumpty, both meet deaths that are different from what Miller originally staged and are, in this examiner's opinion, far more graphic. But besides that, just like in the first film, little bits had to be omitted here and there for the sake of the film, mainly more man-on-the-street interviews and the order in which some events occur. The entire Reagan-Superman subplot was pushed back entirely into the second film, while the Joker's reawakening, which we saw begin throughout the first two chapters of the book even before his big TV debut, was only teased at in the first film, namely at the ending. Both of these decision this examiner agrees worked better for the film the stand on it's own. There were a few incidental things too like the loss of a Dr. Ruth caricature that was originally on the same talk show as Joker, and the talk show host who originally resembled David Letterman now resembled his voice actor, Conan O'Brien.
Like the first film, Part 2 does away with the large amount of internal monologues made by each of the characters, often turning those words into spoken dialogue. The downside to this is that sometimes the actions of some characters may confuse those who don't already know the story. A prime example of this is in the scene where Superman is unable to prevent a nuclear missile from striking and throwing up enough dust to block out the sun, which causes him to weaken into a creepy, zombie-like form. after crashing to Earth, Superman has an internal monologue where he pleas to Mother Earth to lend him her strength as he absorbs the solar rays from the plant life around him, thus restoring to, almost, full strength. In the film, this scene still happens and the visuals a profound, but without the internal monologue and without understanding of how Superman's powers work, this examiner can see that scene confusing some people.
What this examiner appreciated this film for is how it managed to, perhaps even stronger than the book, create sympathy over Superman's dilemma. Even though the book forever redefined the nature of Batman and Superman's relationship, factoring in natural tension in spite of their friendship do to their conflicting ideologies, there are still a number of Superman fans who do not like the role he is given in this story and for fair reason. Miller essentially takes the Earth's greatest champion and turns him into nothing more than a superpowered puppet who the government tells who allows the government to tell him who the bad guys are instead of being allowed to follow his own moral authority to make those decisions himself; effectively, Superman is made into the last major villain of the story. Yes, reading the book you do understand that Superman does not really want to be doing this but has to because of an agreement he needed to make ten years before. He still sees Batman as a friend (sort of) and doesn't want this to get difficult, but Batman's continued actions force him to intervene on Reagan's orders, which they give him with no other motivation but to deal with the embarrassment that comes form Batman succeeding where the administration fails. What helps this, I feel, is Mark Valley's acting in the role and the dialogue he is given, namely his sympathetic plea of "We don't need to do this" before the fight begins.
As I have already made clear, the action sequences are incredibly violent, bu they are also spectacular. The shootouts between Batman and the police, the final battle with the Joker, the mobs of people ransacking Gotham during the blackout, and of course the Superman fight are all awesome to behold and also very personal in their own ways. Jay Oliva and his fellow storyboard artists did great work here to make sure it gave fans exactly what they wanted to see. In fact, the final battle is made even more elaborate than the book both to satisfy viewers and to distance themselves from a similar scene from Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
The animation, like in the first film, is very crisp and clean, doing the best it can to translate Miller's art style to animated form, a feat which is admittedly very difficult to do (though, personally, I feel the "Legends of the Dark Knight" episode of The New Batman Adventures does it more accurately).
Finally, like with any film, the real strength of this piece is in the performances. Peter Weller continues to deliver a solid performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman, bringing an age and sternness to the character that projects experience, world weariness, and uncompromising strength. Ariel Winter remains energetic and optimistic as Carrie Kelley, providing youth and humor to contrast with her mentor's dark demeanor, but this time with added sense of worry over her mentor's well-being, especially in the second half. Michael Emerson returns from his brief appearance in Part 1 as the voice of the Joker and this examiner feels that he was an inspired choice. Already known for his villainous role on Lost, Emerson brings a hardcore psychotic edge to the role mixed with a disturbingly effeminate texture, very much reflecting Miller's original take on the character. While Mark Hamill will always remain the greatest animated Joker of all, Emerson brings an excellent quality that this specific version of the character called for. David Selby returns as James Gordon and while he is not as directly active as in Part 1, he still finds plenty to do, including a great scene where he motivates his neighborhood to doing their part to help the city during it's most chaotic hour. New to the cast this time is Mark Valley as Clark Kent and Superman, who as this examiner said previously succeeds in creating sympathy for this character's situation, perhaps more so than even the original book was able to. His voice sounds a little bit young perhaps, but it has a good sense of strength and regret to it. Michael McKean returns as Dr. Wolper who does not have nearly as much to do this time, but while last time he mainly projected arrogance and naivety, here he gets to showcase all of that and incompetence as well. Maria Canals Barrera returns for a larger role this time as Commissioner Ellen Yindel, and she gives the character a profound determination and professionalism that has can be admired despite her being at odds with Batman, and her character's final realization, first set up in Part 1, is one of the film's strongest moments. Other voices include Michael Jackson (the radio commentator) as Alfred, Robin Atkin Downes as Oliver Queen, Tress MacNeille as Selina Kyle, Jim Meskimen as President Reagan, Brewster as Lana Lang, Grey DeLisle as Anchorwoman Carla, Sam McMurray as Anchorman Ted, Carlos Alazraqui as Congressman Noches, Tara Strong as Michelle, Frank Welker as Mayor Stevenson, Yuri Lowenthal as Son of Batman, Townsend Coleman as Morrie, Greg Eagles as Ben Derrick, Dee Bradley Baker as Don, Rob Paulson as Rob, Gary Anthony Williams as Anchorman Bill, Gwendoline Yeo as Lola Chong, and Conan O'Brien as David Endochrine.
One of the biggest complaints about Part 1 was the lackluster special features, which Part 2 mildly improves upon. There are tow short documentaries--the first, "Superman vs. Batman: When Heroes Collie," discusses the conflict the two characters come to in this story and how it influenced the comics ever since, while the second, "The Joker: Laughing in the Face of Death," delves into this story's depiction of Batman's arch nemesis, including an interview with creator Jerry Robinson, and how it helped shape the character's identity from then onward. There is now audio commentary on the film, but there is a feature called "From sketch to screen: Exploring the Adaptation Process with Jay Oliva," in which the director commentates over storyboards over some of the film's key sequences. It is a nice, surprisingly lengthy and detailed alternative to a full commentary that offers great insight into the process it too to make the film. The Blu-ray version comes with an exclusive digital comics excerpt from the final chapter of the graphic novel, The Dark Knight Falls. There are also three bonus cartoons included from Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, as well as a preview for the next DC Universe animated Original Movie, Superman: Unbound.
Overall, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 is an excellent conclusion to what is easily one of the best films in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line. Like the first part, it will surely satisfy the fans of the graphic novel and grab the attention of anyone who hasn't read it before. This examiner can say that he enjoyed it, and looks forward to seeing how it will raise the bar for other films to come in the DC Universe animated film series.