Friday, September 28, 2012

"Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part I" (2012)

Starring Peter Weller, David Selby, and Ariel Winter
Written by Bob Goodman
Directed by Jay Oliva
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 77 Minutes

It has been ten years since the Batman was last seen in Gotham City.  Bruce Wayne (Peter Weller) is a tired old shell of a man, a drinker, and might even be suicidal.  He hangs out with his old friend, Police Commissioner James Gordon (David Selby), and laments his retirement.

A new gang has arisen in Gotham, the Mutants.  They are vicious, inhuman thugs who commit crimes merely for the enjoyment of violence, rather than for any kind of goal such as money.  The Mutants have threatened Gordon's life, repeatedly, as he nears his retirement.

At the same time, Harvey Dent (Wade Williams) is deemed reformed, and plastic surgery erases all traces of the scars that turned him into the villainous Two-Face.  But as soon as he's released, Two-Face disappears and goes back to his life of crime.  Feeling guilty and responsible for leaving his city to rot, Bruce once again dons the cowl of the Batman.

But the world has changed.  And so has Batman.  The populace is divided.  Batman's brutal methods scare some, enrage others.  He seems to be getting the job done, but at what price?  What about the rights of the crooks he's brutalizing?  And what personal cost will Batman pay himself, pushing his aged body to its limits?

"The Dark Knight Returns" is a milestone comic book written and illustrated by Frank Miller, with excellent watercolors by Lynn Varley, that was released in the 1980s.  It forever changed the Batman, presenting the character in a dark, brutal fashion.  Miller's Batman is one who has been scarred by a lifetime of violence, one who is willing to be more vicious and go further than ever before to achieve his goals.  He has no patience, and almost no mercy.  Miller's Batman has been subject to a great deal of criticism over the years, some of it valid, some of it hyperbole.  But this is one among many interpretations of the character, and no less valid.

The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the comic, bringing the panels to life by using the comic itself as storyboards.  The art style is fashioned after Miller's, albeit simplified for animation.  Anyone who has read the comic will recognize specific lines and images in this film.  Even Miller's frequent use of newscasts interspersed with the drama are replicated here, giving us a look at Gotham's reaction to Batman's deeds.  The newscasts often present opposing views of the Batman, some who feel he's a hero saving lives and others a sick fascist destroying democracy.

The action sequences are well staged, and the animation is more competent than some of these DC Universe films I've watched.  In particular, Batman's siege on the Mutants' junkyard hideout with a tank-like Batmobile is impressive and cool.  The script covers the first two chapters of the four-part comic mini-series, which means that the film feels both slightly episodic and also unfinished.  This works against it only because I want to watch the entire thing.

"The Dark Knight Returns" as a whole is dark and moody, with a chilling and minimal musical score.  The color palette doesn't feature many bold colors, with Robin's costume probably being some of the brightest and most saturated you'll see.  The red sunglasses of the Mutants and on the eyes of bats are pretty bright.

If there's a weak point to the film, it's some of the casting. David Selby's Gordon isn't particularly impressive, and his inflection on some of his lines feels wrong.  He redeems himself in a few key moments, but overall I didn't care for the performance. The Mutants, with their choppy, unique speech patterns, also suffer.  The actors don't seem comfortable talking with such mannerisms.  On the other end of the spectrum, Ariel Winter is great as Carrie Kelley, a young girl who takes up the mantle of Robin. Also excellent is Gary Anthony Williams as the Mutant Leader and Wade Williams as Harvey Dent.

The pin that holds the whole thing together is Batman.  Peter Weller, y'know, Robocop, does better than Selby, but not by much.  There are many times where Weller manages the right intensity, the right mixture of growl and dark without sounding monotone.  But there are also times where Weller just sounds... bored.  Still, he's a solid choice, and he does have the deep voice and gravitas for the role.  He succeeds more often than not, but those scenes where he doesn't stand out like sore thumbs.

If you enjoyed Miller's seminal graphic novel, chances are you'll like this film.  It's very close to the source material.  Aside from some issues with the casting, the story and the artwork are intact.  But keep in mind that this is only part one - the second half is due to be released sometime in early 2013, so this film ends on a cliffhanger.  Still, the producers have done it right, and I'm eager for part two.