Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 Blu-ray Review
Weller, Michael McKean, Ariel
Winter, Wade Williams
Director: Jay Oliva
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Release Date: September, 25 2012
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by writer/artist Frank Miller (also known for 300 and Sin City, both comic series were adapted into movies that double as works of digital art) was a 1986 four-issue comic mini-series. For its time, the series’ fresh look at The Batman as an embodiment of vigilante justice was a reboot for the character that had become more well-known for campiness since the 1960s TV show. The influence of the Dark Knight miniseries and subsequent graphic novel cannot be understated.
By revamping the Caped Crusader in Dark Knight Returns (DKR), Miller created the template for stories exploring dark, brooding anti-heroes that would reverberate through much of pop-culture in the 1990s and beyond. Without DKR, The Punisher remains a crazy-guy that pops up in the odd issue of Spiderman. Wolverine is just a fuzzy Canadian with a temper. Controversial vigilante “heroes“ unafraid of lethality may have been fertile territory for fringe movies like Charles Bronson’s Deathwish, but comics stayed well away – until after DKR.
In DKR Miller explores the psychological, social and political ramifications of vigilantism which strikes at the heart of our interpretation of good and evil. It’s a fascinating study but ultimately retreads a lot of ground Miller had already covered with Marvel Comics' Daredevil in the early 80s.
It’s been said; "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." By the late 80s, the student of mainstream pop-culture was ready for Miller’s influence. In DKR Miller set a tone that would resonate through all of pop-culture starting in the 1990s. From film by the likes of Tarantino and Shyamalan and even grunge-rock music, the 90s-style brooding anti-hero has become a cultural template. Yes, Frank Miller really did invent the 90s.
Dark Knight Returns, Part 1; The Feature
Don’t be put off by the “Part 1” in the title. Yes, this is a retelling of only half of the Frank Miller’s legendary DKR, but this is a standalone story. While there will be unanswered questions, there won’t be a cliffhanger forcing you to wait for “Part 2” while pulling out your fingernails one by one with a pair of pliers. You’ll have one year to engage your obsessive personality disorder waiting for “Part 2”, Warner promises its release in 2013.
The story begins with Bruce Wayne, now a 55 year old man at a time when Gotham City has not had a Batman sighting in ten years. Commissioner Gordon, just days from retirement at the age of 70, laments to his old friend Bruce that the city is just so much more violent than it used to be. The willingness of authorities keep the bad guys behind bars is diminished behind a wall of red-tape, criminal’s rights and loopholes that see perpetrators back on the streets the day after an arrest. Needless to say - Gotham is about to see an older, meaner version of The Batman.
These were ripe undertones for a Batman story in the late 1980s when we saw the rise of gang violence in the opening days of crack cocaine. City streets really were more violent than ever and doom-and-gloomers predicted super-criminals and the rise of sociopathic kids with guns. It never happened. Today all crime is down considerably. But at the time Miller really touched a nerve.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns has directly influenced all Batman stories that followed, especially the recent film trilogy by Christopher Nolan. Various scenes from the new movies are pulled directly from dialogue written by Miller for DKR. There have been several animated TV series including Legends of the Dark Knight which take place (mostly) in the continuity created by Miller. Tim Burton even counts Miller as the key influence for his esthetic vision of Gotham City and The Batman.
DC Direct to Video Animation
If you’re a fan of animation and a fan of DC comics, the steady drip of DC direct-to-video animation over the last few years has been a golden age. These are all generally of high quality and remain faithful to the original stories, often beloved graphic novels. They consistently take the source material seriously and only occasionally tweak the stories for modern audiences.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is faithful to the original ‘feel’ of the story, only deviating slightly for the sake of flow. The animated movie only occasionally dabbles in gratuitous rip-offs of Frank Miller stills - it generally has a unique animated look only inspired by the shadowy artwork found in the DKR series.
Elements of the story that seemed fresh in the late 80s seem dated today. A lot of key dialogue revolves around tired notions of vigilantism vs. a rehabilitative approach and sympathy for repeat violent criminals. Some of the slang references of the gangs and even the fashions of the newscasters will appear dated and “totally 80s”.
But its datedness provides a charm that keeps it faithful to the source material. Personally I’m glad they shied away from revamping the moral foundations of the story. Dark Knight Returns Part 1 should be viewed as an animated version of an influential museum-piece rather than an update or reboot. Rebooting the story is already the job so much media that has come since - including Nolan’s Batman.
Sound and Picture Quality
- Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
- Video resolution: 1080p
- Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
- Original aspect ratio: 1.78:1
The visual, while no revolutionary step forward from other DC animation on Blu-ray, is as spectacular as you’d expected. DC/Warner takes pains to create detailed 24fps frame-rates, free of judder and compression, especially important when on-screen objects are in motion.
The animation doesn’t pound you over the head with familiar Frank Miller visuals either, outside of a few important scenes. I might have liked a few more direct-from-the-comic-pages visuals. The animation does take inevitable influence from Miller’s overall style; you’ll see the iconic male hero loom larger than life – complete with exaggerated cleft chin and jaw-lines bringing to mind Soviet era propaganda posters. Miller draws Batman to look more like a bulky meathead at the gym than as the lithe detective.
- English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- French: Dolby Digital 5.1
- Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
- German: Dolby Digital 5.1
The 5.1 audio track uses all the subtle environmental queues that we love so much. Transitions from indoor-outdoor rain drops are clearly heard, complete with detailed rain-on-pavement effects. Battle scenes are explosive and recruit enough LFE to satisfy action-movie bass-heads.
Like the source material, the animated movie is dark and atmospheric. You can expect darkness and subtlety in the A/V presentation. But there is also a lot of dialogue, especially in the form of news casts which aren’t particularly attractive or esthetic but are a required vehicle for exposition.
- Sneak Peak at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2
- Her Name is Carrie … Her Role is Robin. Featurette on the role of women in comics
- Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story. A moving tribute to the life of Bob Kane
- Episodes of Batman: The animated Series: Two-Face, Parts 1 and 2
Extras are light but highlights include a pair of episodes of Bruce Timm’s animated Batman series –directly inspired by Miller’s work. There is a moving 39-minute documentary about life of Bob Kane, one of the comic-pioneer greats who managed not to have his creative property ripped off him like so many in the business in his day.
Dark Knight Returns Part 1 delivers exactly what you’d expect. It’s not a devout frame-by-frame adaptation, like Batman Year One. Instead DKR deviates a little from the source material for the sake motion picture flow. The audio/video quality is the usual high caliber presentation for DC animation.
Elements of the story itself seem dated – the DKR hook 1986 was its shocking darkness and the cynical attitude of the Batman himself. But this is ground that has been well-covered in decades since. So, consider this more for its historic significance than for bringing anything new to the basic story by Frank Miller.
If you’re interested in taking that journey down a road of 80s nostalgia, curious about the origins of the Batman character we know today or just an incredible Bat-fan that can’t get enough, it’s a worthwhile Blu-ray disc for your collection.
To get the full effect after viewing - you might want to visit your local comic shop and pick up a copy of the graphic novel and read it for yourself.