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Shot for Shot: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 Review

Batman fans can be forgiven for feeling jaded about another animated Batman direct to DVD movie. The track record is certainly hit or miss. For every Batman: Under the Red Hood there’s a Batman: Year One. It doesn’t help when each Christopher Nolan Batman film raises the bar a little bit more for the Batman franchise. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 hits store shelves September 25 and has additional expectations to uphold due to it being an adaptation of one of the greatest Batman graphic novels of all time. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is fantastic; with so many unforgettable scenes, how could the animated film fail?

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This is a review of the animated film, but also a comparison to its source material shot for shot. And that’s the crux of any adaptation, to either live up to its source material and mimic it completely or create a new version that’s as good or even better. Either way it’s going to upset fans because it’s not exactly the same or it’s not good enough. So with impossible expectations aside, let’s dig in!

Everything below will of course involve some spoilers, but any spoilers will be for the sake of comparison between the animated film and comic book and won’t detail plot or story elements. This is your final warning.

From the very beginning you’re going to ask yourself, “how could a film open with such an extremely plain and conventional looking race scene,”

…and not even come close to capturing the energy from the comic. “The comic book is a flat image for crying out loud” you might say to yourself, but Frank Miller has a lot more creative flair than the animation ever does.

This is something you’ll notice throughout the one hour and 15 minute Dark Knight Returns Part 1 animated film. Frankly the style in the animation pales in comparison. The animators would probably agree as the style is a lot more cartoony and a lot less detailed throughout. Sequences play out in a much more straightforward way without as many artistic flourishes as Frank Miller could get away with. This leaves the viewer wanting more, but maybe this animation isn’t for the hardcore comic reader but a newer audience. An audience who hears Christian Bale’s voice every time Batman opens his mouth be it a comic or a commercial.

Speaking of sound, the film sounds incredible as Warner Brothers has thrown some impeccable voice actors, sound effects and music at this animated film. The selection of Peter Weller (AKA Robocop) as Batman was a wise choice as his voice imbues an aged and stern personality yet it maintains a calmness a great general should carry. You get the sense the guy has taken his shots, but he’s still just as confident and strong as he ever was. Then you have Ariel Winter, a 14 year old actress who’s been in the business since the age of seven, who does the voice of Robin and she does a good job being energetic and naive.

I know everyone is waiting to see Michael Emerson’s take on Joker, but sit back down, because Joker doesn’t get much activity, as Joker is basically catatonic throughout this film (and equally so in the comic up to this point), but there are two words he utters: “Batman… darling”. Judging by those two words it’s going to be maniacal and gorgeously crazy. Here’s hoping it works.

This film does a good job establishing everything just as the comic does, but since some of the bigger moments won’t occur until Part 2 expect to be a little disappointed. Much of the action that is done in a minimalist way, which to some extent dulls the emotional resonance the comic book had. Being as this is moving pictures the audience expects more. Copying the comic panel for panel is great, but it’s the stuff in between the panels the animated film could have done better. When reading a comic the reader fills those parts in with their imagination, but with a film that shouldn’t be left to the viewer. It doesn’t deliver the story and action with more oomph than the comic, but it does deliver as far as recreating the larger moments. in a lot of ways this animated film plays it safe in that regard.

For better or worse there aren’t too many differences between the comic book and the animated film. It’s pretty clear the creators were trying to capture the comic book shot for shot. Nearly every panel will appear on screen from the first two issues of The Dark Knight Returns. There are a couple of additions that stick out, especially to a comic nerd like me that holds the book up with so much esteem.

A good example of how they diverge is the mud battle between the Mutant leader and Batman. In the comic, Batman articulates his moves in the monologue, whereas in the animation he speaks them aloud to let the villain know he’s “operating” on him. I have to say Batman speaking the words aloud is a lot more dramatic and one of the few instances where I felt the animation was superior to the comic book.

There’s also no trace of Superman, even though in book 2 Superman foreshadows his affiliation with the White House. Supes will most likely be saved for Part 2 of the film but it was sorely missed considering the Batman/Superman fight is what we’re all salivating over. The animators give the viewer a bit more Robin during the Bat-Tank vs. Mutants scene as well. Robin is established a lot sooner. It’s not like they’re rewriting anything here though; she’s an important component in the comic, just appears a bit later there than the cartoon introduces her.

The strongest example of the animation improving on the comic is the deactivation of Harvey Dent’s bomb. In the comic book Batman takes out the henchmen in three small panels at the bottom of the page. In the animation however, there’s a whole fight scene amongst smoke and Scarecrow’s nerve gas.

The use of smoke, and Batman’s borrowing Scarecrow’s toxin to mess with the bad guys are the best additions to the cartoon that aren’t seen in the comic. This is largely because the animators pretty much made this stuff up for the movie. It’s a good way to show Batman still has what it takes to fight crime and the smoke effects are used cleverly. These elements certainly weren’t in the comic book.

It’s clear the team that put together this animated film love and admire Frank Miller’s work. More often than not the animation mimics the imagery as closely as possible and in many cases changes a panel or two simply to create motion. A good example of this is a scene taking place in the opening minutes to convey the status of Commissioner Gordon. The Gotham skyline, bathed in yellow light, slowly pans downwards from the sunrise to the cityscape.

These images are startlingly close to the page in the comic book.

Instead of using small, oldschool TV shaped images to show the newscasters however, it then cuts to a full screen image of Gordon and then the newscaster.

It’s safe to say the comic shows the news taking place in a much more interesting way. Using smaller images Frank Miller allowed the viewer to see multiple facial expressions to hit the beats of the news that is written over their heads. The animation can’t, and probably shouldn’t, do something similar, and instead shows the newscaster simply speaking. It makes sense since it’s a moving image, but somehow it loses the energy Frank Miller presented in the comic book. It’s interesting to consider what this animated film could have been like had they taken a more stylistic approach; perhaps the smaller television boxes, more Miller-esque art, and close-ups to better mimic the actual set up of the panels may have translated better stylistically to the animation.

However, she still closes the announcement in a similar way.

Frank Miller obviously had a lot to say and only so many pages and panels so it makes sense he wouldn’t have an establishing shot like this:

And you have to admit it’s a startling good representation of the panels below.

Since this film takes a very straightforward approach in adapting the material the cinematography is downright boring in comparison to the comic book. One of the joys that comes with reading The Dark Knight Returns is seeing how Frank Miller assembled the pages and panels. The book takes the reader on a ride with every image, but even more so with the composition of the page. For instance, after Bruce enters the Bat cave and wakes up Alfred, Frank Miller used a four panel wide page to play up the emotional nature of the moment. Bruce remembers Jason, the long dead Robin, and eventually walks up the stairs to meet Alfred who is bathed in light.

The animated film however, uses extreme close ups of Bruce and a much less dramatic shot of the doorway as he closes in on Alfred.

It might have something to do with the use of blue instead of yellow or the fact that the steps aren’t visible at all, whatever the difference the emotional resonance is lost.

Another example of the art blowing the animated film away is Batman’s sprint across a high wire between two buildings. This is one of many examples of the sound effects on the page creating a much more dramatic effect than hearing them.

It doesn’t help that the animated version drowns Batman out as seen here,

Give the animation credit though, it tries very hard to create it’s own look and feel and at the same time hearkens back to the comic book. A good example of this is Bruce watching the news. In the animation he’s in a giant room alone with the addition of lightning and glow from the TV which enhances the appearance of him being all alone.

One could argue removing Alfred is a huge change, but you’d have to admit the panes of the windows and statues outside still exhibit a similar feel.

Later in the same scene the Bat that crashes through the window is changed quite a bit. In Frank Miller’s version the bat is very realistic:

…whereas in the animation above the bat is demon-like with its fire red eyes. This is a theme used throughout the animation, to cull up the demon in Batman which is his motivator and driving force so it makes sense to make it more of a phantom.

There are other instances where the animation goes out of its way to mimic the comic. One example of it being almost hilariously identical is a scene where some Mutants have kidnapped a child.

Which is nearly identical to a 1 inch by 1 inch panel:

Save for the bullets draping the yellow coated Mutant, the dutch angle and the shadow on the door that’s a near identical representation from the comic!

And of course, what is The Dark Knight Returns without the iconic cover image showing up?

One of the worst examples of the animation failing to mimic the comic book is a dramatic shot showing Batman holding a sniper weapon. It’s sad, considering the source material is so strong, that they could fail so badly. It doesn’t happen often, but in some cases, as it does below, it’s just awful. Here’s the original shot:

Batman looks extremely silly below, albeit this image isn’t in motion which makes it lose some of the energy, but that’s about as good as it gets as far as an homage to the original material.

Other instances where the imagery in the animation is nearly identical:

Sure the animation actually inserts the sound, but without the “brmbllllkkkkrrrrraakkkk” is it as good?

One scene that I felt was a lot weaker in the animation was Batman’s first take down of some criminals. In the comic the cape covers the windshield and his hands hold onto the hood, images so visually stunning I remember ogling the page nearly a hundred times and still having it blow me away every single time. Do yourself a favor and turn to this page. The sense of movement and action is unparalleled. This is also a good example of the sound effect being more powerful visually than audibly.

Whereas in the animated film Batman is washed out and it’s not as clear how his cape is blinding the driver.

Later in the same sequence, while Batman is interrogating a criminal, Frank Miller casts the police in shadow, lit from a single doorway. Batman’s hulking form over the criminal creates an impressively heavy and authoritative weight to the panel.

It’s clear when comparing the image to the animation below a lot of the drama is lost. In the animation Batman is facing the viewer, the cops are completely visible and even the criminal is less emotive.

In the example below, the comic book shows Batman bursting from the wall and snatching the villain in one arm and the gun in another. That detail of him grabbing the gun is actually pretty important.

Batman appears to be coming out of the side of the page. The tiny pieces of crumbled wall also enhance the energy at which he bursts. The animation however, has a straight on angle, with both arms grabbing the man and pulling him in.

I’ll admit it’s a forceful movement, but does it exhibit the same amount of energy? The fact that he doesn’t grab hold of the pistol also loses the care and detail in which Batman works.

Later, when Batman dangles the Mutant off the side of a building, the animators chose to have the Mutant fall out at the viewer. I’m sure this is a great choice to create a lot more movement and energy.

Kids will probably be jumping backwards, but is it as dramatic and exciting as the image Frank Miller used?

There’s so much more in the comic book and it’s a static image! Look at Batman’s left hand. He’s holding onto the gargoyle with with incredible ease which shows just how strong Batman still is at his age. Plus, using a longer panel focuses the viewer on the length of the building and the height at which they are dangling.

For the most part the animation solidly succeeds at showing our girl-wonder though. Her story is actually more clear than in the comic book, but that might be because she gets a bit more air time in the animation. Either way they nail her importance and character in the animation.

Give the animators credit, they’re dealing with some powerful source material and are in charge of adding movement and energy to static images. It’s just too bad said movement doesn’t improve upon or perfectly capture the energy in the source material.

Not that they aren’t trying. In the image below Batman’s hands are nearly identical in position. Now that’s care. Images like this one show just how close it follows the comic and how cool Batman can look when put into motion.

They don’t miss the mark on every iconic image either. One could argue the image below is improved by the widescreen by showing the weight and size a bit better than Miller did in a small panel. The sheer insanity of a man versus a giant tank comes off a bit better.

In many scenes there are pros and cons in the comparison. For instance, when Bruce is putting on a brace in the comic, the animation shows movement which adds to the care he needs to take to his broken body. They add logistical shots to prolong the sequence which allows the scene to linger longer than the comic book.

But losing the blueness of the cave does detract to some extent. Nitpicking I’m sure, but it’s noticeable.

A good example of the animation doing a better job than the comic book is when the Bat-Signal appears. The buildings are more realistic, and more properly lit.

In the comic book the buildings are so hulking and huge they’re practically temples. It’s not very realistic. Then again…maybe showcasing the bat symbol on a Gotham skyscraper is supposed to look like a temple. The Bat God is back! In which case the animation fails. But that could be left to the opinion of the viewer.

Essentially Frank Miller could be as detailed and graphic as he wanted to be, whereas the animation didn’t seem to have the same freedoms. There are many instances where the animation just isn’t up to snuff with the comic book. Given, Frank Miller had to draw a single panel to convey what the animation does in a full 30 seconds (and at 24 FPS, that’s 719 more pictures than the comic) so naturally the viewer is going to be hard pressed to choose the animation over the comic book.

A great example is a shot of Batman standing over the vanquished Mutant leader.

Note how the Mutant leader isn’t really in the mud, but right on top of it, as if the mud or puddle is only millimeters thick. There’s barely any mud on either figure, which is strange considering they were just fighting in 3 feet of it a minute ago. Hell the henchmen are standing in about a foot of mud, yet the leader is right on top of it! The henchmen surrounding Batman are also very monotone in color which is incredibly boring in comparison to the comic book.

In the comic book, the henchmen have a lot more emotion, the mud is caked on the combatants and they are all knee-deep in the stuff. This is a very clear example of the comic book being a lot stronger than the animation.

Part 1 ends at nearly identically as book 2, leaving a hell of a lot to cover in the next film: be it the Nazi badass chick, Superman and the conclusion with the Joker. If you do decide to watch the animation one thing will be evidently clear: The Dark Knight Returns is one of the strongest examples of a comic book delivering content, pacing and story in a satisfying package. In this single hour of animated film there are nearly an endless supply of unforgettable moments to cover. Be it the creative use of panels and organization, art or color, the storytelling on every page can’t be copied into a moving image adequately enough. Or, maybe with an titanic budget it could, but we’ll probably never know.

In Conclusion

It’s pretty clear they tried their damndest with great voice acting and an attempt to to nail the adaptation panel for panel. They just didn’t stick the landing.

I will say this though, this is far superior to the Batman: The Animated Series version which took place in the episode, “Legends of the Dark Knight.” Then again, that was also much shorter and done on what I’m assuming is a fraction of the budget.

Chime in with comments and let me know where you stand on this animated adaptation of arguably the greatest Batman story of all time. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 will be available on DVD, Blu-ray, or for direct download through Instant Video on September 25th.

Ready for The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 Review?


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