Make no mistake – THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: PART 1 is a powerful film that is sure to thrill in its faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s masterpiece. If you’ve never read THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – stop. Go get a copy and read at least the first half, which serves as the basis for the film, before viewing. It’s not mandatory reading in terms of understanding the plot (Batman’s a 10-year retiree, and in the interim Gotham’s gone to hell…well, y’know, more so than usual, I guess), but it makes for an interesting comparison.
One of the most engrossing aspects of the production is finally getting to see Gotham’s nightly news footage in motion. I’m a sucker for the type of world-building that allows me to escape the four walls of my living room, becoming one of Gotham’s own, learning various plot points as they unfold along with everyone else in the fictional world. Having the local Gotham terrorist in the form of the Mutant Leader infiltrate your own TV – and the grainy, distorted effect given to those scenes – feels a bit haunting.
The movie does away with much of the poetry of Bruce’s internal monologue and, as a result, some of the characterization. That’s not to say it’s all vanished. Many ideas and notes Bruce shares with us through the narration in the book are shared through alternative routes. We watch Bruce, for example, from afar, needing to use all four limbs to climb a rope – a moment he openly laments to us via narration in the graphic novel. Of course, eliminating most of the narration also means you miss some shorter scenes that, while not necessary to the overall tale, reveal depth to this older Batman’s character. In another brief scene absent in the movie, Batman checks and re-checks his utility belt – a small detail for sure – but it adds to that idea that Bruce is an old war horse, settling back into a decades old routine. Note, I say that not as a negative critique; smart choices were made in what to keep and what to restructure, even if slightly. I’d simply be remiss if I didn’t point out that one shouldn’t replace Miller’s graphic novel with this movie.
On the flip side, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: PART 1 conveys a fierce power only possible outside the constraints of pages and panels. Take Batman’s lightning-filled return montage, for instance. Once Bruce succumbs to the call of the cape and cowl once more, he takes his fight to a local pimp, muscling through a cab’s metal frame, pulling him out onto the roof. Rapid tempo percussion heightens the tension, as each punch he lands echoes, like a small cannons, signaling his return to Gotham’s streets. It resonates with how you’d imagine Bruce must feel – the frustration that things got this bad while he stood idly by, the intensity of unleashing this part of himself he tried burying so long ago. It’s a small, but powerful moment. My favorite scene in the whole movie, however, shows a broken, battered Bruce Wayne retreating into the Batcave’s depths to as Alfred says, “find his strength.” The soundtrack here is insane – I sat straight up from the initial hum of strings. The music continues to build, adding layers of sound that ebb and flow: an eerie repeating melody, an electric guitar, and finally brass. The texture of the music adds to the potency of the scene – reliving the tragedy of losing his parents through a series of flashbacks, this is Bruce’s second crime-fighting baptism. Bruce’s admission that, “I’m not finished with you. And you’re not finished with me – You’re never finished with me” upon confronting the beast that is his namesake sends chills.
The Joker plays a slightly smaller role in film than the graphic novel. His awakening from a malaise in Arkham Asylum after Batman’s resurgence is saved until the very end. It’s another smart choice in pacing out his story and serves as a better cliffhanger leading into Part 2.
Highlights from the special features include a short entitled, “HER NAME IS CARRIE. HER ROLE IS ROBIN,” which is an interesting look at the role of women characters in DC’s history as well as the decision to include a female Robin in the original story. I might’ve enjoyed this even more so if it had been a part of a larger commentary track, playable with the film. Feeling nostalgic? The Blu Ray also includes the two-part “TWO-FACE” saga from the 90s’ BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. The sneak peak for Part 2 is sure to whet your appetite for the next installment if you weren’t jacked enough from the film’s conclusion (There’s also a sneak peak for Batman/Superman: Public Enemies, which is bizarre as it’s three years old). The Bob Kane feature, though, is the undisputed king of the special features.
When I go to a comic convention, I traverse artist’s alley for nearly the entire con. It’s always the personable, excited, maybe even a little eccentric creators that get me to pause, laugh, and buy in completely into whatever they’re selling. With that in mind – I may be a bigger Batman fan after seeing the special feature documentary, BATMAN AND ME: THE BOB KANE STORY. I’ll admit – I wasn’t sure what to expect here. I’m not a comic historian, and my background knowledge of Kane, himself, is somewhat limited, but I knew I wasn’t in the mood just to watch straight interviews about the man himself. To my surprise, they begin the feature with a short homage – a newsreel that looks like it’s straight out of CITIZEN KANE. The film-nerd in me was absolutely giddy. It’s a fascinating comparison as Bob Kane appears in several interviews, laughing, confident, and as vibrant as the young, fictional Charles Foster Kane (though without the tragic downfall). The pictures of his early life, clips from televised appearances, and heart-felt interviews by the likes of his wife, Elizabeth Kane, Stan Lee, and many others really make it one part slice of Americana and one part send off to one of comics’ greatest contributors. It’s fun and inspiring watching Kane revel in his creation, living life like a real-life Bruce Wayne. If you watch only one special feature – make it this one.
Bottom line: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: PART 1 is the perfect companion to Miller’s epic. Buy the graphic novel, buy the movie, and settle in for a one-two punch of awesome as one of the greatest Batman stories ever told unfolds in equally satisfying ways.