Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, alongside Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, revolutionised American comicbooks in the mid-eighties. Bold, graphic and harrowing, and reflecting the real-life politics of the time, both works ripped apart the conventions that had held back the medium for years and their huge success revitalised the industry.
Curiously, they were both inherently filmic, almost like storyboards for a film. Both used monologues/voiceovers and other movie techniques to tell their tale, the artwork using many cinematic tools such as consecutive frames ‘pulling-back’ into wide shots/reveals, dialogue sequences cutting to and fro with close-ups and over-the-shoulder views. Its curious though that now, decades later, with the superhero genre in such an ascendency at the cinema, that only one of those two seminal works –Watchmen– has ever been brought to life on the silver-screen, and even then with limited impact and success (though for the record, I loved it, particularly the directors cut- that the same Zack Snyder later wreaked Man of Steel upon us frankly astonishes me, appreciating Watchmen all the more) .
Of course, its easy to say that much of TDKR has been seen onscreen, as much of it was widely pillaged by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, albeit within the constraints of a more realworld scenario. Indeed, whilst watching TDKR it struck me a number of times just how much Nolan’s films really owe to TDKR, to such an extent that uninitiated viewers familiar with that trilogy may wonder what all the fuss was about when watching this. With the next Superman film bearing the title Superman vs Batman, I have to suspect this mining of the original material in the graphic novel is simply set to continue. Which raises the inevitable question, if film-makers insist on returning to Frank Miller’s work and taking this and that, why not just be open about it and adapt the whole thing as it is?
A ‘proper’ live-action TDKR remains a great unrealised dream of a movie. This animated version, hamstrung by both a necessitated PG-13 rating and a limited budget, is a frustrating experience. On the one hand, so much of it feels authentic, recalling the freshness of the work back when it first came out. It still impresses even in the hindsight of so many years, how bold and revetting the piece is, how it turns upside down so many of the Batman’s conceits that had been parodied over the years.
On the other hand, the limited animation does it few favours and the story still feels truncated even at (in this deluxe version) something like two and a half hours. The whole thing is too complicated, too intense, too multifaceted. A cinematic treatment should be expanding it, not condensing it, using the graphic novel as a launchpad, investigating its themes and issues further. A live-action HBO miniseries remains the ideal home for something like this, in just the same way Watchmen really needed similar treatment.
It makes a few mistakes. Most heinous is the decision to drop the first-person narration that runs through the work, putting us into Batman’s ‘head’ for the first time and learning why he does what he does. Having to ‘show’ us the content of these monologues either in action or spoken dialogue rather handicaps the whole thing.
Likewise the PG-13 rating dilutes the impact; it makes something that should have the cold brutality of a Taxi Driver more akin to what the animation looks like, a kid’s comic. Which, yes, brings me to the animation. Perfectly servicable and at times even quite impressive, I would have preferred something more akin to the edgy, brevity-of-line of the original work in rich computer-graphics than the rather less-inspiring Saturday-morning tv look that this most often approximates (cgi animation doesn’t have to look 3D at all, but even then a look approximating that of Lucasfilm Animation’s Clone Wars series might have been preferable). I don’t care for any of the DC Animation films that have been done, to be honest, and this film betrays its origins (why the small head/huge shoulders ‘look’ that runs through al the character designs?) . Of course, all these creative decisions are all dictated by the budget so obviously inevitable. Within its limitations its not a bad job at all.
But if TDKR succeeds at anything, it is simply that it demonstrates, post-Christopher Nolan, there is still a need for a ‘proper’ TDKR someday in the future, when all the current/recent Batman cinematic treatments eventually wind down. Likely we’ll never get it, and this animated version will be the nearest thing we see. Sadly however, I have to say that when I need to get my Dark Knight Returns ‘fix’ again one day (I re-read the graphic novel every year or so) I’ll most likely return to the book rather than this movie.