Christopher Nolan’s recent trilogy, concluding with this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises, owes more to Miller than Tim Burton’s two versions did, and on Rises’ boot heels comes an animated adaptation of Miller's source material in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, directed by Jay Oliva (Green Lantern: Emerald Knights).
At an hour and a quarter, this is just the first half of a larger work, yet I wonder whether it was needed at all. Essentially, we’ve already gotten it — and in live-action, no less! — with Nolan’s treatments. And since this isn’t created for kids, why did they bother? Other than purely commercial reasons, of course.
The story finds Bruce Wayne (voiced by Peter Weller, ol’ RoboCop) nearing old age and having given up the cape and cowl after the death of Robin. Once though dead himself, Batman bursts back onto the scene when Gotham City is overrun by a gang of hoodlums known as Mutants, just as Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face (Tulsa native Wade Williams, TV’s Prison Break), reappears. He even gets a new Robin in the form of — gasp! — a teenage girl named Carrie (Ariel Winter, TV’s Modern Family).
From the opening race of the Batmobile, action scenes are well-rendered, and Weller seems right at home in the role. Despite reliable support from the likes of Michael McKean and Paget Brewster, the lesser-known voice talents sound too ... well, cartoony, which is directly at odds with what Miller intended. His satire, perhaps most evident in the TV anchor sequences that thread through his original work, comes off as broad jokes delivered with an elbow to your ribs.
And, really, how many times do we need to flashback to the murder Wayne’s parents? Returns, Part 1 delivers the umpteenth.
On the plus side, the animation is fluid overall and given an outstanding score by Christopher Drake (Batman: Year One) that bears distinct touches of Tangerine Dream. But those are not reason enough to compensate for a watered-down version of a groundbreaking story.
Returns, Part 1 is available on both DVD and Blu-ray, but only the latter boasts significant extras, including a 40-minute documentary on Batman (co-)creator Bob Kane, a pair of Two-Face episodes from the early 1990s’ Batman: The Animated Series, and a peek at The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2, which is due next spring. As big a Batman fan as I am, I can’t say I wish to follow this telling to its conclusion. —Rod Lott
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