REVIEW: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2
The second part of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns demonstrates how the world has changed since the graphic novel source material was published in 1986. Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman was also his personal reaction to the conservative, jingoistic United States of America of the decade. President Ronald Reagan was a folksy president, good with a quip, and saw the world in stark black and white terms, which was feeling wrong in the final years of the Cold War. Miller also questioned all authority figures from know-it-all doctors who loved to hear themselves on the growing number of vapid talk shows to the unformed law-enforcement representatives who fired first and then questioned orders. While some of this was evident in part one, which was released last fall, this installment, out on Tuesday, really shines a spotlight on the themes.
A visual tour-de-force, Miller’s four-part The Dark Knight took the storytelling techniques he developed for Daredevil and applied them to DC’s two biggest icons. Readers had seen nothing like it before and heralded the work an instant classic. Here we are, more than twenty years later being given a two-part adaptation of this story and suddenly it feels dated. Here’s no question screenwriter Bob Goodman and director Jay Oliva honored the source material and its satisfying as an adaptation.
But the notion that Superman, the ultimate authority figure, was blindly taking orders from the President, and allowed himself to take lives in an international conflict feels wrongheaded. That Batman and the other costumed heroes and villains would all willingly vanish into the shadows that spawned them feels wrong, as well. Much as it felt wrong for Batman to vanish for eight years in the Christopher Nolan films, it also now feels like Bruce Wayne would never stop fighting crime in his city.
But he’s back, pushing fifty, and feeling the effects of time on his bulky form. He’s dealing with a city that needs him but an administration that does not want him, especially as Commissioner James Gordon steps down, turning the police over to Ellen Yindel, who immediately wants Batman shot on sight. Where Oliva’s action sequences totally fail is that the criminals and police alike fire endless streams of bullets with little consideration of the collateral damage being inflict or civilian lives being endangered. Thousands of bullets are fired, but none strike Batman or Robin, which is stunning incompetence (and bad storytelling).
The conflict on the island of Corto Maltese is the backdrop as the Joker talks his idiot doctor into bringing him to a talk show to tell his side of the story. Michael Emerson’s clown prince of crime is cold and maniacal but depicted, he is a homicidal figure, nothing funny about his actions or methods at all. The character design may be Miller inspired but he’s too normal looking, just a muscular specimen in makeup which feels wrong. The criminal madman is free and after Batman after making a stop to humiliate a gone-to-pot Selina Kyle, now a Madame. The Joker and Batman face off one final time and this is when the Dark Knight finally gets hurt, in the Tunnel of Love of all places, a subtle nod to the homoerotic subtext Miller added to their relationship.
All the episodic explosive action leads up to the inevitable conflict between the symbol of conformity and the agent of justice. Their climactic battle is nicely handled as is the denouement, bringing the 76 minute story to a fine ending.
Peter Weller’s Batman is okay but nothing special while Mark Valley’s Superman works much better. Ariel Winter’s Robin doesn’t get nearly enough to say but plenty to do in the film. The rich voice cast blends well together, aided by a good score from Christopher Drake.
The combo pack contains the Blu-ray, DVD, and Ultraviolet versions of the film. Special features include a too-short 9:24 Superman vs. Batman: When Heroes Collide, as the usual suspects talk about why these two fight and who should win. The longer, 14:07, The Joker: Laughing in the Face of Death nicely uses archival material so his creator, Jerry Robinson gets his say. While it’s good to have Emerson’s take on the character, Mark Hamill’s absence is missed as are his current handlers such as writer Scott Snyder. Oliva takes us through numerous sequences in the 43 minute From Sketch to Screen and he gives kudos to those who took Miller’s work and brought it the screen. Oliva is well-spoken and some of the information provided is interesting to hear and see.
Three episodes from Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Brave & the Bold are included on the Blu-ray disc. On the other hand, the promised preview of Superman: Unbound is curiously absence from the disc. Instead, there is another digital excerpt from the graphic novel.