Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel by the same name (actually four books, starting with The Dark Knight Returns), which is set in the same version of Gotham as Frank Miller's Batman: Year One.
As you may recall, the book also served as a major inspiration for Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. As Batman: Year One tells the story of Batman’s first year on the job, The Dark Knight Returns is essentially the story of his last year on the job (it really only covers about 4-5 months).
If you’re not familiar with the story, it sees a long-retired Batman brought back into the fray when Gotham is being overrun with a new group of villains. A gang of young-men calling themselves the Mutants have vowed to kill about-to-retire Commissioner Gordon, and take over the city by force. This is exacerbated by the return of Harvey Dent, recently having undergone surgery, and with plans to cause havoc.
The story also sees the return of Joker, the induction of a new - and final - Robin, and a direct conflict with the Man of Steel himself, who has become far too reliant on the US government to tell him where he is needed.
The graphic novel tells a great Batman story in a way that only a graphic novel can: in the greater context of the DC comics world, with elements from many other DC stories making an appearance along the way.
This is a Batman who has learned much from a long career of vigilantism, but is still so vulnerable emotionally. He’s much more dimensioned and interesting than any possible Hollywood Batman could ever be. Miller, as usual, gets to the emotional and psychological core of the idea of Batman, and forces you to look at it from the inside. Of course, if you read the book, you already know all that.
Though the novel is four interconnected arcs, for the film, the story was broken into two, roughly feature-length parts, with a cliffhanger at the end of the first, hinting at the first arc of the second part.
As an adaptation, it’s nearly perfect. It’s not a frame-for-frame reproduction of the graphic novel, but that wouldn’t have worked anyway. The art style here is more uniform, and more suited to motion. The dialog is nearly word-for word, however, and the story definitely touches on the precise themes and at the perfect measured pace of the masterwork novel. Despite being animated, it is at once more vivid and more powerful than the recent Nolan films. Even already knowing the plot in advance, the emotional moments of the work take my breath away, and the rousing finale is one of the best moments in super hero story-telling made better by the clear visualization.
The vocal casting is the place where the whole thing could really have been ruined, but the cast was nearly perfect. Peter Weller and Ariel Winter are great as Batman and Robin, respectively. Mark Valley takes this version of Superman exactly where he needs to be: Out of the jovial boy from Smallville and into the arrogant government sponsored super-agent. Other support roles were equally well cast.
In fact, the only part I had trouble with personally was The Joker. I like Michael Emerson. He’s a great character actor, and he does well here, but he’s not my Joker. Mark Hamill is the only animated Joker for me, and hearing anyone else try to pull off the character is distracting.
In the end, the folks over at Warner Bros. animation studio were able to create what may be the best animated Batman story, and certainly, an excellent way to enjoy this novel, especially if you’ve missed reading it in the past. I don’t typically say things like this, but this is an acceptable substitute even for reading the novel itself. It’s all here, and in an easier to consume, more naturally evocative form.
Both parts of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming video.