07 April 2013

A Brunch Movie Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 and 2.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
A very brief history

Just marvel at that cover for a moment if you will.
The year was 1984. Frank Miller had not gone crazy (though to be honest, there were probably hints even back then) and he was at the height of his powers.  Every book he touched, Klaus Janson's precise inks brought the Millers pencils depth. DC execs asked Miller if he would like to do a Batman story.  He could do what ever he wanted.  That is the short version.  It probably doesn't matter.  What does matter is that Frank Miller produced an industry changing four issue mini-series that was not only one of the best Batman stories ever told but, as Stephen King said, "one of the finest pieces of art ever published in a popular format."

The original work itself probably deserves a considered review of its own here at Brunch.  Until then though, what you need to know about what Miller did with The Dark Knight Returns was cause comic books to grow up. It was a process that had been happening in fits and starts all over the industry (probably beginning with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the crew at Marvel 30 years earlier). Miller demonstrated, in a profound way, that comic books, even comic books about larger than life super-heroes could be made compelling, that they could say things important about human nature, about politics, and just about the heroes themselves. He helped to make comic books hard to ignore as a creative force.  I don't want to overstate the matter, but after The Dark Knight Returns, and perhaps Alan Moore's Watchmen, comic books became literature. Comic books became the best kind of mythology. In The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller creates the end of the Batman myth, while at the same time explaining the character in a visceral way. He gave us a Batman in old age, who cannot resist his, costly, obsessions. Miller also gave us the coolest Robin ever.

It was only a matter of time before the ambitious DC Animated Studios tried to tackle The Dark Knight Returns. They have hinted at it ever since Batman: The Animated Series. One has to admire them for trying to adapt Miller's material. Not difficult because the material is excessively hard to adapt, Miller more than most comic book writers of his era wrote and structured his panels as if he was producing storyboards. He was ever the most cinematic of comic book writers. The difficulty lies in the length, and its iconic status.  Adapting long and beloved works to the big or small screen is a difficult task judging by the low success rate of the endeavor.  Did DC Animated succeed? Told in two parts, they tried, they really tried.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 (clicking the title there will take you to the IMDB page for cast details etc)

Obsession is a Cruel Master

Without including spoilers, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part One, introduces us to a Bruce Wayne much different than what we are used to.  To start, he is much older.  In many ways he has become the playboy he only pretended to be as a young man.  No longer does he spend his nights beating criminals, preventing/solving crimes, and hunting for justice. He has retired.  And he isn't alone.  It seems like all the heroes have hung up their spandex and kevlar. Batman hasn't been seen in Gotham in ten years.  Sociologists, talking heads, pundits debate the morality of his actions on TV on the anniversary of his last sighting. Some people doubt that he even existed.

Crime in Gotham is at an all time high. There is a new gang, calling themselves the Mutants, terrorizing the city.  Also, Harvey Dent,  apparently healed (inside and out), by humanitarian psychiatrists and plastic surgeons is released from Arkham Asylum. It is into this turbulent mix that Bruce Wayne finds he can no longer stave off his internal demons, and almost as if he has no choice in the matter, The Batman returns to Gotham.

Choosing the right material to adapt is only the first part of the battle.  The Dark Knight Returns is the right material.  But after that comes the task of actually adapting (creating a script), casting and producing it.

Starting with the last point first, production is typically sharp.  DC Animated is an established company, with an army of animators, methods and infrastructure. The movie looks crisp.  The action is amazing, and well choreographed. Even though Batman operates at night, the movie manages to make the action set pieces and the fights, logical (within the closed frame of reference that is the superhero movie). Only a very good animated movie can make you wince. Batman the fighter should certainly make you wince.  Part One brings the fright and the crunch to Batman that is necessary to establish why he is so intimidating to the Gotham underworld.  Even at fifty, the Batman is a force with which to be reckoned. This is to be expected, after all he is a ninja, built like a linebacker with gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. Also to be expected is the production excellence.

But the awesomeness of any movie isn't built on fisticuffs alone, unless that movie is Ong Bak 2. Nor is it built on production value. The quality of the storytelling is also crucial.  The Dark Knight Returns falters a little to a lot here.  The editing is uneven, and the pace, often, too slow.

For me, a person who has read the source material dozens of times over the years, the worst problem was the adaptation.  This came as a shock, because the team at DC Animated has actually done a splendid job of adapting material elsewhere.  Their work on Justice League: New Frontier was brilliant. So to, was their work on Superman/Batman: Public EnemiesSuperman: Doomsday, and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse to name just a few.  On this outing though they have produced maybe their worst adaptation of a previously published work to date. Its probably true this will only rankle if the viewer is sufficiently acquainted with Miller's masterwork. If the viewer isn't that familiar with the source material, this version of the sstory will probably seem quite good.  However, the adaptive work just seems lazy to me. The writers, just ignored, or didn't properly know what to do with, too much of Miller's Dark Knight. The team at DC Animated, ignored almost completely Miller's text boxes, and by ignoring these, the film loses much of the depth of the original work. Text boxes in comic book can serve many narrative purposes. Miller used them as a way to explore the events of the story from the point of view of each into each of the key characters in The Dark Knight Returns. In Miller's hands these text boxes allow us to view the events of the story from the perspectives of all the key players in the story.  We are also privy to a series of unspoken conversations between key characters (notably between Clark and Bruce, and as well as the Joker and The Batman).  I would imagine, though I haven't measured them, that these text boxes wouldn't take up a printed page, but neglecting them bleeds away much of the character, conflict and drama. It was through these narrative devices that we learn what the characters think of each other.  They are shrewd observers, and while they may not understand themselves perfectly, they do understand each other.  It would have been nice to have used this content more effectively.

For reasons I don't understand the writers opted to change key dialogue, or omit certain conversations all together.  Again, this will probably only rankle people well acquainted with Miller's work. Still, it sheds depth, and spares viewers some pointed questions we might ask of our hero.

The voice acting, especially in the lead, Peter Weller voices the Bat,  is often very, very flat throughout.  Peter Weller, on paper anyway, seemed like an ideal choice.  His voice has a deep quality that, in another actor, might have lent gravitas to the aged Batman. Generally though he seems like he is just reading the lines and maybe a little bored. Rarely does he inflect, or emote,  change tone, or any of the things you might expect a human being to do while speaking in a wide array of fraught circumstances. As you watch, it becomes clear why Weller's best performance remains that of a cyborg. In Part One, Weller is largely the only person guilty of playing it monotone.  This doesn't hurt the Part One nearly as much as it hurts Part Two, but it does hurt. The rest of the cast takes their work more seriously.  To be fair, Weller may also take it seriously, he may just be incapable of playing any role differently. 

Overall Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: Part One works as a film.  I can't recommend it as highly as I can some of the other DC Animated films mentioned above but I can certainly recommend it.  The animation is very good, and imitates the book well enough.  The action is well plotted and the fights make sense.  8/10 Stars

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part Two 

Triumph defeats the Batman

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part Two is story told in two parts.  The first describes another long delayed return to Gotham. The second half is the denouement of the Batman.  With the return of Batman, Gotham's twenty four hour news cycle is abuzz with tales about the Dark Knight. An assortment of talking heads weigh the pros and cons of a brutal vigilante dispensing justice without due process. Opinions, as you might imagine, vary. Gotham's pundits and anchormen and women were some of Miller's most brilliant and trenchant creations, and it is good to see that they are preserved and faithfully rendered on the small screen. From the famed Arkham Asylum the Joker, upon seeing the news of Batman's return, emerges from several years in a docile catatonic state. He hasn't returned to turn over a new leaf. The first half of the film deals with the terror of Joker's return, and the Batman's pursuit, and attempt to end the threat of the Joker once and for all. Wending its way through this half of the The Dark Knight Returns is a second tale.  The Batman is simply too big an entity to escape political fallout. He is in violation of a murky agreement with the US government and superheroes to hang it up.  Retire. Something, the President of the United States confides to Clark Kent, will have to be done.  And that something will have to be done by Superman (the only superhero who is permitted to work by the US government).

Strangely, there is an obvious legal, and moral case to be made against the Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. The Batman is a vigilante, operating outside the law, with no chain of command, no due process.  If he were just a detective, a consultant, ala Sherlock Holmes, this probably wouldn't be a problem. But he isn't, he is at war, and while he doesn't kill people, he isn't above crippling people for life, or brutally beating them to acquire information, or simply to inflict fear. This is not the rationale used in The Dark Knight Returns (either in the movie version or in the comic book).  Miller was trying to make a political and moral point himself.  That however was a point for the 1980s, and a very specific cultural milieu.  The film fails to make Miller's point about apathy and cowardice, and fails to insert the rationalization above. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Every problem from the first half of The Dark Knight Returns is magnified in Part Two. The adaptation of Miller's last two issues seems lazier. The screen writers have left out more material from the comic book.  They have also altered several key scenes for reasons quite beyond me (largely by altering dialogue and/or excluding dialogue).  The writers didn't save time by cutting a scene, they simply altered the scene. Opting for a shallower approach to the story.  Of course these changes meant later character development would have to be scrapped. Though not in any way that would reduce running time. This meant that Miller's elucidation of the dark psychologies at work in the in Gotham would never make it to the screen. That is something of a minor tragedy.  The genius of Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, for me anyway, wasn't in the dystopian Gotham (Gotham has always been a place where the social contract is radically broken).  Rather what makes Miller's work stand out from much of the dark themed Batman comics that would follow in his wake, was the deep and plausible insight he had into the mind of not just Batman, but everyone in Batman's universe. These insights into the characters are priceless and serve to make these larger than life characters seem like people we could almost understand. All this psychological depth is lost, leaving only the skeleton of the story, and the film reduces to an exercise in punching and kicking and action.  In another film, there would be nothing wrong with that.

The flatness of the voice acting is much worse in Part Two. Peter Weller continues to eschew emotion, or changing the volume his voice. As bad as Weller is voicing the Batman, Michael Emerson's turn in the Joker will have you crying out for Cesar Romero. It is one of the worst voice acting jobs I've ever heard. Flat, soft, lacking the joy of an amoral anarchist. Emerson gives the Joker a timid voice. The Joker may be many things, but timid isn't one of them. Mark Valley's Superman? Flat, flat, flat, flat. His Clark was pretty nice actually. But no actor in the movie seems to understand that the tone of a human voice changes over the course of the day, and in response to various stimuli. Part Two almost seems like everyone is talking over a picnic table about nothing interesting at all.

There is a lot more I could say about these films but I think you get the point.  They have deeply disappointed me. Part Two more than Part One.  How could it not though.  They started with a flawed script and the hired actors apparently didn''t care. 6/10 Stars.

(Potential spoilers lie in wait below)

I feel like I should give an example of how Miller's unspoken conversations between characters, through text boxes and other comic book story telling devices to add depth and insight into the characters. I would like to juxtapose this with the way the film chose to ignore this potential avenue.

Early in issue 3, Batman and Robin are nearly killed in an explosion (a trap laid by the ever resourceful Joker). While the dynamic duo may have escaped the apartment building unharmed, the same cannot be said for many of its tenants.
Panel: Batman and Robin diving away from a firey explosion, a swirl of yellow and black capes.
Text box: I'll send Robin home
Text box: I'll help the emergency teams as best I can.
Panel: Close up: Batman and Carrie (her Robin mask gone) faces red from the light of the flames observe the carnage. Carrie is horrified, eyes wide with shock.
Text box: I'll count the dead, one by one.
Text box: I'll add them to the list, Joker.
Text box: ...the list of all the people I've murdered--
Panel: close up, batman's right eye
Text box: --by letting you live.

Shortly after this, Joker's therapist, impressed with both his own "success" with the Joker, and the Joker's need to have his side of the story told, arranges an appearance for them both on a talk show. While Dr Bartholomew Wolper may not see it, this is one episode of "The Dave Endocrine Show" (clearly David Letterman) that cannot possibly end well.

Like the real David Letterman, David Endocrine is capable of asking a pointed question or two.
"You're said to have killed about six hundred people Joker. Now don't take this the wrong way, but I think you've been holding out on us."

The Joker's therapist is immediately hurled into paroxysms. The Joker is not bothered, and almost seems to welcome the question.
"I don't keep count." He blows out smoke from a cigarette, and continues, "I'm going to kill everyone in this room."

"Now that's darn rude." Dave was ever a fan of understatement.

The Joker tolerates a brief, and goofy conversation between his doctor and Dave's other guest Dr. Ruth Westheimer before doing exactly what he says he was going to do.

Cut to the close of the issue:
Panel: Joker and his henchman passing out cotton candy to a troop of cub scouts at the Gotham Fair
Text Box: The could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like and endless June Taylor dancers routine
Text box:....and it would never be enough.
Text box: No, I don't keep count
Text box: --but you do.
Text box: And I love you for it.

This kind of thing would not, I don't think, have been too terribly difficult to have added to DC Animated's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  The film has almost all these scenes, but almost none of the dialogue from the text boxes at all. On top of this the screen writers crafted fairly weak dialogue to fill the same space. Why the trade? I'm not sure.

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