Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Duology (2012, 2013)

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For better and for worse “The Dark Knight Returns” duology is a loyal adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel. Both films are very ugly and violent, not to mention incredibly grim to the point where any and all sense of entertainment value is absolutely gone. Miller’s tale of Batman is violent and grotesque, painting Batman more as an avenger of the people while Superman is a despicable asshole working as a fascist tool to help restore order for a president whose lust for violence is very laissez faire. “The Dark Knight Returns Part I” is actually quite riveting with brilliant animation, as Bruce Wayne experiences a mental crack in the vein of his past foes, and uses his insanity as a form of instilling justice. Even Commissioner Gordon has somewhat given in to his baser urges and turned to Batman as a means of hope by putting in jeopardy all of his beliefs, and completely dismissing the establishment altogether.

It’s a shame how backward “The Dark Knight Returns” seems at times, and it depicts everything Batman is about as something justified even if its an imperfect ideology built on a dubious foundation. With “Part I,” we see Batman come back in to his old stomping grounds, as he finds it impossible to ignore the everyday crimes occurring in Gotham, as the world celebrates the bigger victories. Children and women are being murdered, but it’s fine as long as we’re winning wars, and garnering negotiations with other nations. When he comes back to the fold to take on the Mutants, Gordon and Wayne stage a display to help send home the message that Batman is back and ready to crush anarchy. But that soon spirals out of control when Batman begins inspiring a legion of vigilantes, all of whom are willing to follow in to war. Gordon and Bruce’s manipulation of the system is really an interesting take on the entire way wars and martyrs are built on the world, all the while the film constantly jumps back to establishment and politicians, many of whom can’t form a single sentence and aren’t any closer to solving our problems than Batman is.

“The Dark Knight Returns” is a very devoted adaptation that is committed to bringing the vision of Frank Miller to life, come hell or high water. The voice work by Peter Weller is absolutely top notch as he conveys a worn and weathered Bruce Wayne who is also kind of insane when the lights are off. He just embraces it and uses it to help people. Or at least he thinks he is helping people. There’s also some fine voice work by Ariel Winter who plays the resourceful Carrie Kelly, a fangirl turned bonafide avenger, who proves more than her worth when pushed in to a corner. The stand out though is Michael Emserson as the reformed Joker who decides to embrace his own natural instincts like Bruce Wayne, and gives him a fight that tests Bruce’s own morals and principles right until the very end. That said, Superman suffers worse in the translation, being painted as a morbid zombie and patronizing madman who talks to Bruce Wayne like a mean father.

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He doesn’t reason with Bruce Wayne, he warns him that if he doesn’t comply, he’ll have to end his life. And he tries to send the message home by hinting at the fate of Oliver Queen who, it’s implied, Superman amputated in battle as some sort of deluded safety measure. It’s heartbreaking how little respect and contempt Frank Miller has for Superman, as he’s something of a goofy icon in his alone time and then an establishment puppet who delights in taking down Batman when he becomes an icon for rebellion against a corrupt government. Sure, by the end, Batman has become a legend that’s inspired his own underworld supposedly working for the better of Gotham, but who cares when Superman is out there upholding the establishment? In “The Dark Knight Returns,” nothing about the establishment works It’s all defunct, and absolutely the antithesis of fool proof.

Crime is corrupt, the establishment is power hungry, the president is blood thirsty, and psychology is an antiquated pseudo-science. Not only does the now reformed Two Face turn back to his old ways and work around his medical treatment, but the Joker rises back to his violent rampage when Batman re-emerges as a crusader once again. None of medical institutions work, so it’s up to the masked vigilante to essentially handle it all and revel in the rising tide of armies inspired by his image. He is also one who savors conformity and uniformity and applies it to the rebuilding of Gotham. Warner carries Frank Miller’s ugly vision of the future right down to the horrible image of nuclear war, and Superman recuperating from saving the world by rising from the ashes as a decrepit zombie dodging mortality left and right. I appreciated the inherent quality writing and animation, but “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” duology is an often times terrible action thriller with occasional glimmers of brilliance.