In terms of when comics started getting taken seriously and became ‘Graphic Novels’ there seems to be two examples of what shifted general thinking over to this mind-set in the late 80s. One was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal and celebrated Watchmen and the other was Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman with The Dark Knight Returns.
Miller’s version of Batman changed the perception of the character forever. No longer was the character borderline camp but instead became a swarthy, brooding and violent borderline psychopath, always teetering on the edge of being just as bad as the villains he was battling. The Dark Knight Returns was a big influence on the first Tim Burton directed Batman film and elements of the story have appeared in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Finally someone has had the balls to adapt the story to the screen and they have done it right.
The Dark Knight Returns is set in Gotham City in the future where Batman has not been seen for ten years. Bruce Wayne spends his time risking his life in car races and reminiscing with a close to retirement Jim Gordon. Wayne is clearly bored out of his mind but things change when a gang known as the Mutants becomes public enemy number one and commits violence for the sake of it. Wayne is urged back into action and his aged frame dons the cowl once again when Harvey Dent now rehabilitated and cured goes back to his old ways. His return brings him to the attention of the leader of the mutant gang and he is branded a criminal by the authorities. Along the way he also meets young Carrie Kelley who decides to take up the mantle of Robin and help Batman out after he saves her life.
Interestingly enough when I first read The Dark Knight Returns, it was during a period when I was obsessed with the seminal anime Akira and I was subsequently thinking how good the story would be when animated. I wasn’t wrong, if they were handing out prizes for most faithful page to screen adaptations, The Dark Knight Rises even beats Watchmen. The story in all its brutal, satirical and exhilarating glory is all up there on the screen and though the decision to adapt this into two parts and release it separately may be a frustrating one, it actually works and this still feels like a complete piece.
One of the concerns that people may have had about this is that because it is a straight to DVD DC Universe animated title, they may scrimp on the animation. Several of the animated DC titles released over the last couple of years have suffered from being not much above something you would see on a Saturday morning around the time this original comic was being released. Not so here, the animation is beautifully smooth and detailed and really brings the oppressive, sweaty atmosphere of future Gotham to life. It’s also surprising because the violence in the original book is not diluted at all, bones are broken, faces are pounded in and people are shot and die often bloodily. Kudos to Warner Bros for taking a risk with an animated title aimed at an older audience.
Peter Weller voices Bruce Wayne and Batman perfectly, bringing out the world-weary tone of the suffering hero and ironic considering that because of this graphic novel, Frank Miller got the job of scripting Robocop 2 which starred Weller. This leads to one of the complaints with regards to the story if there is a complaint, there are one too many newscasts, which may have worked well on the page to tell the story and set the scene but here they feel intrusive once the setting and motivations have all been established. Really only three or so were needed but they pop up what seems like every ten minutes or so.
If you have been a fan since the start then this is going to be a must buy for you. If you have no familiarity with the source then this is still a worthy purchase and a take on the Batman mythos that those who only know the character from the screen should see. Roll on part two!