In 1986, at the height of American comics shifting to more mature and complex themes, Frank Miller set out to build a different kind of Batman. A Batman in a dystopian Gotham who realizes he can’t deny what he is and must wear the cowl again, even though he’s entering his twilight years.
Last September I wrote an article comparing the animated film with the comic and scrutinized just how closely the animators held to nearly every single panel in the comic book. Released in late January, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 completes the film adaptation of the comic series that changed Batman forever, and while we know it’ll continue to mimic the comic as closely as possible, is it good?
In many ways the animated adaptation of the comic book is unfair. For starters, both parts are only 75 minutes long, which begs the question, did this really need to be split into two parts? Considering the comic was only 4 issues it seems a bit much to split the animated film like this and water down the final product. Unfortunately for the film this splitting severely hinders the dramatic power of The Dark Knight Returns. Part 1 is a setup of Bruce’s change back to Batman and his much more Dirty Harry view of the world. He’s no longer an optimist. Part 2 continues this thinking, but contains more emotional resonance, mostly due to the crescendo of the final two issues. It creates an artificial gap which hurts the story.
At least the film made her face less disgusting.
Part 2 starts exactly where issue #3 begins, right down to the Nazi with the swastika pasties. It’s surprising this flick got a PG-13 when considering these pasty covered ta-ta’s, but strangely the animators give her breasts a lady bodybuilder pec sort of look. They are hard and unmovable.
Be that as it may, the action in the opening sequence is actually a lot better in the film than in the comic. While the film isn’t as detailed as the comic is drawn, the action makes more sense, is more fluid and packs a bit more punch. This is largely due to the comic holding to a very tight panel to panel composition. Frank Miller gave himself 10 panels to do what the film does in a full 3 minutes. One might argue the extra time spent on action isn’t important, but pound for pound it actually makes things clearer.
Which do you prefer?
Even though the action is clearer, sequences play out in a much more straightforward way without as many artistic flourishes as Frank Miller could get away with. That leaves some of the character of the comic on the cutting room floor and in most cases its replaced with extended fight scenes and an overall duller product. The action ends up making more sense but sacrifices the artistic integrity.
Speaking of clearer, Miller introduces Superman as if he’s some kind of ghost in the opening pages. The character isn’t even seen clearly, but shown as a bolt of energy or off panel. This gave him an otherworldly presence. The film does away with that and instead gives Supes straight up shots. He also gets some additional scenes which help visualize the power discrepancy Supes holds over Batman. One could argue the comic is being more subtle, but I’d wager personal preference would decide peoples’ opinion on this one.
Not the most important change, but I just have to point out the TV host in the comic is clearly David Letterman. In fact, in the film and comic Joker calls him David, but it’s clearly Conan O’Brien that’s voicing the host and they changed the look of the host to get away from the Letterman reference as you can see below. It’s an interesting little difference, at least to me anyways.
That isn’t to say the animation doesn’t do anything better however. For instance, when Batman and Joker face each other in the tunnel of love, the color palette is much more interesting in the film, which helps exemplify the love story between Batman and Joker. Yes, I said love story, which is something I didn’t really think about when originally reading the Dark Knight Returns, but considering Scott Snyder’s latest Joker story in “Death of the Family,” I can’t help but think this sequence inspired his “love story.” At the very least Miller intended a bit of a tongue in cheek moment to have their final duel in this location.
Love is in the air!
Michael Emerson’s Joker is quite good when he gets air time. Uttering only a word or two in Part 1 he gets much more time this go around. His maniacal laugh works great and he gives the character a sense of manic energy that hasn’t been put on film yet. I’m talking Nicholson, Ledger and Hamill, none of them delivered Joker in quite the same way as Emerson. Which makes it unfortunate his performance is so short lived. My only gripe with his voice acting in Part 2 would be the use of music in parts of the Tunnel of Love sequence. For some odd reason the music gets much too loud which drowns out Emerson’s performance, but I suppose dramatic license takes precedence.
Small moments like this are missed in the film.
And then we come to the conclusion, the fourth issue in the comic and the Superman portion of the film. Overall the battle between Superman and Batman is done well and the inclusion of Robin manning the tank improves on the comic. Given nearly only 3 panels in the comic she’s much more involved in the film. That helps give her more purpose to the overarching story.
Surprisingly absent in the comic.
The battle is also well done and choreographed. That’s saying something when the comic’s tight panels reads in a very chaotic way. Do we need a well choreographed Superman vs. Batman battle? Probably not, but it’s fun and well done.
The film takes out a huge chunk of content from issue #4, in this case interviews with the people involved with the riots. Essentially Miller dipped into the mob mentality by letting them speak for three or so pages, but the film decided to excise that in order to focus more on the action aspect of the chaos. Stylistically it makes sense, especially considering the film takes out most of the political and social commentary anyway.
An incredibly creepy panel not adapted in the film.
The conclusion also seems more realistic in the film, however impossible it may seem, partly because the film ties Green Arrow into the building of the Batman gang. The comic only had one page to express Bruce’s goal to build the Batman gang whereas the film had a good three minutes. The film does the right thing and makes the final moments all the more clear. The inclusion of Green Arrow also makes sense and makes one wonder why he wasn’t there on the last page of the comic.
Dark Knight Returns was one of many comics that brought a new edge to American Comics. The Watchmen, Judge Dredd, The Killing Joke and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were changing the comic book landscape. Adapting one of the strongest comics from that decade into an animated film was no small task especially considering how unique and trailblazing Miller’s artwork was.
Sadly President Reagan’s tank-Segway doesn’t make it into the film.
- Action scenes are more clear
- Michael Emerson rules as Joker
- Artistic integrity is lost
- Splitting the comic up hurts the overall story
Part 2 caps off the series and solidifies the animated film as a good representation of the groundbreaking work. It rarely improves on the source material and in most cases pales in comparison, but for the most part it’s entertaining and good enough. The film should turn people on to the comic and thankfully there’s enough additional content in the comic to make it a worthwhile read whether you’ve seen the film or not.