Frank Miller‘s groundbreaking and pivotal Batman story, The Dark Knight Returns brought an interest and darkness to Batman that was desperately needed in the late 80s. I remember reading it in the summer of 1989 and thought to myself it was the greatest comic story I had ever read. To this day it still ranks high on my list of all-time favorite stories.
Then news began to break about voice casting for the film and my expectations began to lower somewhat. The choice of Peter Weller (RoboCop) for Bruce Wayne/Batman on the surface sounded like a fair to good idea at the time. After seeing the it, I have to say that Weller is quite literally the Achilles heel of the film. More on this later though.
Ariel Winter (Modern Family) as Carrie Kelley/Robin was promising. She was already a DC animated film veteran having done the Green Arrow short. Based on her limited involvement in the first of the two-part film series, I think she pulled it off nicely.
Most of the other voice actors worked for the most part, but compared to the poor performance of Peter Weller, it could be easily dismissed. My first bout of disappointment with The Dark Knight Returns Pt. 1 was Weller himself. In my opinion the perfect actor to voice Batman would have been Michael Ironside (Top Gun). He voiced the character in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series in a scene taken directly from The Dark Knight Rises. He was absolutely spot on and my feeling is that he was overlooked to reprise the role. Ironside voiced Darkseid in Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
On to the film itself…animation wasn’t the gritty styling from the original Frank Miller piece, but that could be easily overlooked (at least by me). The Dark Knight Returns takes place in the not too distant future, ten years after Bruce Wayne hangs up the cape and cowl. Miller’s graphic novel portrayed a somewhat futuristic Gotham City not on the scale of the Gotham in Batman Beyond, but slightly ahead of the city we’re use to. That was completely ignored in the film and I felt it took away from the nuance of Miller’s story.
There were also slight changes in the story and dialogue that I felt were significant to capturing the feel of Miller’s original story. One thing in particular that caught my attention was Commissioner Gordon and his nicotine gum. The political correctness machine was churning on this for sure and it omitted Gordon’s cigar smoking and the effects of it on him.
One of the most memorable aspects of The Dark Knight Returns novel were the inner monologues of the characters. It helped tell a great deal of the story and gave it more than just the spoken dialogue and images on the page. Batman’s inner thoughts especially were significant and were also left out of the film, leaving the action on the screen to tell those subtle little pieces. It wasn’t a good choice by director Jay Oliva to leave out those (in my opinion) crucial bits.
Batman’s last fight with Harvey Dent/Two Face was completely off base compared to the same scenes from the graphic novel. Those missing pieces of inner dialogue is what made the story move along the way Miller meant it to. With that aspect missing from the film, I almost felt as if the story wasn’t being told, at least not the way it was intended.
That brings me to Peter Weller and his portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Weller delivered a completely cold and emotionless performance. His monotone voice made it sound as if he were simply reading the dialogue off the page and contained no heart or soul. The Batman character was empty and void of passion that should have been called for.
A few things saved this film for me. One was Ariel Winter and her performance of Carrie Kelley/Robin. Not that she was given a lot to do to begin with, her performance was what I was expecting and compared to Weller’s, she was stellar. Another saving grace was the voice talent of Michael Jackson as Alfred. The blend of concern and sarcasm was dead on and was probably the most noteworthy performance in the film.
The third and probably the most important thing that saved this film for me was the fact that it is only the first of two parts. There was no way that I could see how they could have crammed all of Miller’s story into one 90 minute film. So we will be treated to part two of the story sometime next year. And really the second installment is when all the really juicy stuff will happen. The Joker will have a bigger role, Bruce’s dealings with Selina Kyle, Oliver Queen and of course Superman.
Let’s hope that it’s not too late for Jay Oliva and company to take fan criticism to heart and redeem themselves by giving The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 the attention it needs. We’re stuck with Peter Weller at this point so we will have to suffer through another film of his emotionless performance, but I am willing (as a fan) to watch the final installment with an open mind.
To sum up everything I have said about The Dark Knight Returns Part 1…this wasn’t the movie we as fans deserved. Although I didn’t out right hate it, I was very sadly disappointed in it and feel it had much room for improvement. This is definitely a major let down after so much anticipation. This film is far from perfect and won’t top my list of favorite DC animated movies.