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February 19, 2013

Semi-Review: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 and 2

Did you know this was out? Did you know they did two hour-plus animated films (each about 70 minutes) which faithfully retell Frank Miller's 1986 The Dark Knight Returns?

I didn't. I only saw this on Amazon searching for something completely different, not even about Batman or superheroes. I think what happened was... the Colorado Batman Shooter. Because The Dark Knight Returns is a gory story asking all sorts of questions about power, force, anarchy, and one man's (possibly fascist) determination to make a difference, I think they might have sort of buried this.

(In fact, I think the Colorado Shooter got his kill-everyone-in-the-theater fantasy from this book, which does in fact have the Joker killing everyone in the theater at a David Letterman-like host's show.)

Short review: The animation is somewhere between the character modeling in the comic and, I think, Aeon Flux, if you remember the look of that. The shadowing, I mean, mostly. Not the ultra-thin character models.

Actually, that's the dominant look in most of DC's animated stuff.

As far as story: It's almost all in here. One major change was they cut Batman's voice-over "narration" (actually his journal entries) and a great number of good lines ("Rubber bullets... Promise") were contained in that, as well as Frank Miller's attempt at a Chandler-like noir poetry. So that stuff's gone.

That narration really sold it early on that Batman had lost a step. He was always commenting "Stupid old man" about his mistakes, or "This would be a good way to die... but not good enough." Without that narration, though, Batman just seems to come out of retirement without having lost a step at all -- thus sort of losing the main thrust of the story (Batman dealing with his faded power). In the comic book, Batman didn't really become Batman again until he defeated the Mutant Leader; in the animated version, he's Batman from Moment One. (See what I did there? And by the way, "the Mutants" aren't really mutants; they're a street gang which has decided to embrace the idea of devolution.)

If you're a casual comic book fan, I don't know if I'd recommend this. Be on alert, it is extremely gory and grim (the PG13 rating is a bit misleading, because you can't rate a "dark and ugly tone" of things). A few changes have been made -- wasn't it suggested the Joker raped and beat Selina Kyle into submission? Well, here it's some stupid "hypnotic drug" in Joker's make-up.

That said, despite some things being toned down a little, I was actually surprised how brutal it all still was. Things really kick up a level in Part 2, which features the Joker (portrayed here as something of a soft-spoken ambisexual) casually gunning people down at a fair, randomly. There's something chilling about that -- no Big Bomb that's going to "turn everyone's DNA into mutant DNA," no huge McGuffin... just a psychotic shooting teenagers in the back at a fair.

For fans of the work: Although there are some changes in it, most not for the better, it's pretty darn close to the comic. Barely anything has been taken out (except for the narration).

What is striking about this story is that it's so pure id. Frank Miller turned off all his internal editors. He didn't care that he was, for example, drawing some imagery that would strike bien pensant critics as overtly pro-fascist. He didn't care that he had Commissioner Gordon embrace the old Bircher-ish conspiracy theory that FDR permitted Pearl Harbor to be bombed. He didn't care that he'd annoy feminists by portraying aging Selina Kyle and Lana Lang as overweight and unattractive, nor that Batman's new Robin is a Hot Young Thing. And he didn't care that the possibly sado-homoerotic relationship between the Joker and the Batman climaxed in a pink... Tunnel of Love.

Really Frank Miller? Really?

He didn't care about any of that, what this meant, what that meant, what this implied, what this suggested. He just seemed to write from the id, and conjured up some sort of deranged nightmare version of Batman and his ugly world.

It was bracing then. It's still bracing.

But if you don't already know the story: Be aware, this is an attempt to do a sort of revisionist Batman story. So many elements will strike you as "Not Batman at all." Which is True. DC has officially clarified that this story is not part of the continuity of the Batman we know, but in fact takes place on an alternate earth casually called "The Dark Knight Universe."

But it is a surprisingly weird little tale. Definitely not your cookie-cutter standard Hollywood project, where everything is calculatedly inoffensive. It's interesting, because when a writer seems like he's willing to go anywhere, he seems dangerous, and that's kind of interesting for a change.

And the final fight between Batman and his true Arch-Nemesis -- Superman -- is great.

Oh Crap I Forgot: The book is set in 1986. So is the animated version. That means Reagan is the president, and he is depicted as... not a quite a dullard, but a sort of darn-tootin' damn-the-torpedoes addled old man.

I completely forgot this, until steevy pointed out Miller wrote this "while still a lefty."

So there is that "bias," if you want to call it that. I don't even think that it's bias-- this book has the sort of juvenile piss-on-everything tone of the angry teenaged semi-man. So everything gets pissed on, except Batman and his main allies.

Miller actually wrote the book as a reaction to his early midlife crisis-- when he turned 30, he realized he was now almost older than Batman, and apparently this made him confront the fact that he was no longer a younger man... I think that sort of Rage Against the Dying of the Light thing comes through, not just in the obvious plot of the thing, but in the feel of it. It feels like a lot of young-man's rage is being channeled.

Trailers... below. Remember, they did it two parts, to get that extra $4 out of you.

digg this
posted by Ace at 06:41 PM

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