In 1986, DC Comics unleashed two of the most important series in comics history, broaching the possibility of mainstream superhero comics as literature. The stories are packed with all the accoutrements of what supposedly makes for good books: symbolism, philosophy, thought-provoking commentary on the human condition. One of those two series, Watchmen, has recently been made into a movie, attempting to take 12 issues and condense the images and words into something like a feature length movie. Audiences who didn’t know the story were put off by the storytelling, in part because of the denseness that faithfulness to the original required. They were also put off by its darkness: people with power are not any better than those without, they just have more ability to do the things they want to do. This is not the stereotypical view of superheroes, supposed paragons of virtue.
While Watchmen has garnered acclaim from mainstream audiences, it actually was the second of the seminal series to come out in 1986. The first, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was also groundbreaking and arguably had more impact on the comic industry than even Watchmen. I’m not aware that there has ever been any conversation about making a live action movie out the series, but DC has been quietly animating their best storylines of the past 30 years or so, and their latest project is an adaptation of this story of a retired Batman coming back to the service of his city.
Part of what makes The Dark Knight Returns so innovative is its setting; superheroes generally seem to live in the eternal now, always youthful and in fighting trim. But Frank Miller and this adaptation posits a time when Batman has been retired for a decade and the effect this has both on Gotham City and the people who interacted with him. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement, Harvey Dent (Two Face) has been rehabilitated and is returning to society, and the Joker sits wordlessly and catatonically in a ward in Arkham Asylum, destitute with no Batman to fight. But Gotham City is not at peace—a new gang called the Mutants has risen, and their only interests seem to be anarchy and mayhem. Batman himself is merely a legend, and the criminals in Gotham City have very few fears. Bruce Wayne really is the idle rich now, a powerful figure in the community, gray-haired but still possessing a presence, racing cars for sport in his leisure time.
After the Mutants murder the parents of a young boy in the streets and their leader openly targets Gordon for assassination before his retirement, Wayne feels the urge to put on the Batman costume again, to return to his city and fulfill the promise he made when he first put it on, “Never again.” The narrative dances along a tenuously thin line here: does Batman exist because of some altruistic desire to serve his city or is he ill, emotionally crippled when not in the costume and compelled by delusions into taking on the role of a messiah? The story also does not answer the question; instead it hangs there as a backdrop as a ruthless Batman sets about saving the things he cares about. The story also plays with the question of the violence that Batman uses to fight crime; while he doesn’t kill, he is not beyond a little torture or temporary maiming to get what he wants.
To fully bring these questions into the foreground, the story uses the device of interspersing news reports from television as segues into scenes. Those reports tend to focus on the average citizens’ response to what is taking place in the city with some people calling Batman a hero for his actions while others think he exacerbates and perhaps causes any problems that may occur. The TV segments come to a sharp focus with an ongoing debate between Bartholomew Wolper, a psychologist who believes that anyone can be rehabilitated but that the Batman is sick and provokes sick responses from his villains, and Lana Lang, a reporter who praises Batman’s efforts to clean up the city, arguing that the hero is a symbol to the people, that anyone can rise up against those who oppress them. It’s important to note that Miller’s original story is decidedly a product of its time, an exploration of the attitudes of the Reagan years in American history and of the idea that certain moral positions demand to be acted upon no matter the cost, and its corollary that might makes right. But these topics do not feel dated at all and have just as much potency as they did when Miller first brought them up.
Peter Weller’s voice jars in Batman’s mouth, especially for animated fans who have had years of Kevin Conroy playing the Dark Knight. But Weller is able to add a tone of weariness to Wayne and Batman, a note that is generally missing from Conroy’s portrayal. To be honest, the other voice actors are okay (even though the talent used is generally of the highest quality), but they are meant to be more complementary to Weller’s Batman and they serve that role well. The animation is a fine dance between the highly stylized artwork of Frank Miller’s original, and the more mainstream animation style that DC Entertainment has developed over the years, based on a mixture of anime sensibilities with Western lines. So, while there is nothing so dramatic as Miller’s figures, there are echoes of his lines in everything. And of course, the animators know their source material, so famous panels are used to send chills up the spines of longtime fans.
Of particular note is the soundtrack by Christopher Drake. The work is at least as compelling as Hans Zimmer’s work on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and I pine for the soundtrack much as I do for those of Hans Zimmer. Even after the movie is over and your mind works over the implications and questions raised by the movie, the soundtrack remains in the background, an integral part of the story that this movie tells.
Quite frankly, this is the best Batman movie of the year, multi-layered and complex, with ideas that are impactful after the movie is over. It is much closer to the power of the brilliant The Dark Knight than the actual sequel from this summer, The Dark Knight Rises. It is also the best of DC Entertainment’s animated movies, which is also saying a great deal since the quality of those has generally been excellent. Unfortunately, the storytelling is so lush and dense that the full adaptation has been broken in two, and fans will have to wait a few months to get Part 2. I don’t know if there are any plans to eventually make it into a single package, but if so I don’t know if I can recommend waiting that long to see the brilliant work that DC has done.