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Mature, thoughtful, and entertaining, DC’s two-part feature from 2012 and 2013 does the source material justice.

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There are many Batman stories out there, and each one has influenced Batman’s cinematic outings in their own way. One of the most influential is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a comic that looks at an aging Bruce Wayne and his return to crime-fighting following a lengthy absence. With the recently-released Batman V Superman taking several pointers from within Miller’s storyline, it’s worth looking back on the roots of the caped crusader and his relationship with the Man Of Steel.

The one problem with the film, and this is down to its comic book origins more than anything else, is that it feels a little too episodic, and more than just being split into two parts. Batman faces against a series of enemies, but only one at a time, so while there is an overarching storyline, it feels lessened by how Batman approaches it.

Part One takes place ten years after Batman’s retirement. Wayne (Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller) now lives a quiet, albeit lonely life:, following the death of Jason Todd and has severed ties with his fellow heroes. When Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) retires, Wayne is given the catalyst he needs to return to the Bat-Cave, with Gordon leaving the city in a worse state than ever thanks to a seemingly unstoppable army known as The Mutants. Bruce decides to take up the cowl again and fight once more for justice, even if his age is a factor against him.

Teaming up with 13-year-old Carrie Kelly (Ariel Winter), a schoolgirl who gives herself the mantle of Robin, Bruce goes to take on the Mutant Leader, but after a violent defeat, Bruce realizes he has to think smarter since strength and speed aren’t what they use to be for him.

Part Two picks up with Batman’s return – now worldwide news, and unfortunately gathering some unwanted attention. Joker (Michael Emerson) takes the opportunity to reemerge and picks up right where he left off. At the same time, Batman’s vigilantism is embarrassing the US Government, who are already in a tough predicament with Russia. With no other option, The President (Jim Meskimen) has Superman (Mark Valley) prepare to take on Batman, with both former friends knowing it’ll be a fight to the death.

Aside from the one-after-the-other villains, this is a solid story that showcases a very different Batman. Retirement has only made Bruce madder and pretty damn brutal at times. Even when his age does slow him down, it’s not going to stop him, no matter how much everyone else wants him to. The inclusion of the Government in Part 2 also brings to mind the social and political effects of superheroes, and a key theme throughout the film is how the public perceive Batman’s return. This adds weight to the plot; suddenly it’s not just super villains Batman has to face, but the very people he’s trying to save.

It must be said that some prior knowledge to the Batman mythos is preferred, as references are made to Jason Todd, the Justice League and even Green Arrow (Robin Atkin Downes), who makes an appearance in Part 2. The film assumes you’re familiar with the back catalogue so as to avoid unnecessary exposition. It’s not essential and you can enjoy the film without a PhD in Batman History, but some knowledge does help.

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Being as large as the film is, it does come with a large cast, though most are relegated to smaller roles. Two-Face (Wade Williams) comes in as a starter villain, but his small screen-time is memorable for how the psychological effects of being stuck as Two-Face has changed him, the parallels to Bruce obvious. The Mutant Leader (Gary Anthony Williams) is a vicious, cruel, blood-thirsty creature who proves to be a very effective villain for the first half of the film. Catwoman (Tress MacNeille) and Green Arrow make cameo appearances, both having changed a lot since their prime, to help Bruce and to expand this universe that little bit more.

Joker turns up late in the game having been catatonic since Batman’s retirement, and his return renews Joker’s sense of purpose, that purpose being murder and mayhem. Emerson plays this Joker with a little more flamboyancy than normal; there are some slight homosexual undertones or at the very least that Joker is in love or a form of love with Batman. It’s an interesting dynamic that should’ve gotten more screen time, but Emerson manages to stand out for how gleefully violent he is, taking a sick, sadistic pleasure in hurting Batman, both physically and psychologically.

After Joker, the villain role falls to Superman, and this is where the lines get complicated. Superman in this universe is now a Government operative, working covertly to help people in exchange for important missions overseas. Batman’s return forces Clark’s hand, and he has to fight his former friend to save Bruce from the Government. Superman’s role as a company man directly conflicts Batman’s independent ideals, but both are fighting for the same side, just approaching it in different manners, which makes the finale battle between them stand out all the more.

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Alongside Gordon and Alfred (Michael Jackson) – neither of whom are letting their age hold them back – Batman gets a new ally in the form of Carrie Kelly, a 13-year-old girl who teams up with Bruce to become the new Robin. While ideally there would have been more backstory to Carrie – she seems to jump straight into crime-fighting mode with no training – her can-do attitude and refusal to back down from a fight make her eventually endearing and despite her young age, she easily fits into the role of Robin, becoming a worthy successor to the cape.

Finally there is Batman himself. Weller might not have the nuances that someone like Kevin Conroy has, but his aged and at times brutal delivery serve this new, darker Batman well. Time has only afforded him to hone his anger into a much more effective style, adopting a much more vicious nature than before. Even so, the elderly Bruce has had more time to think on his loneliness; with Dick gone and Jason dead he has been missing a partner, hence why he takes to Carrie so quickly. There is a humanizing element to the older Batman and it becomes much more prominent in Part 2 when Batman has to rally the community together, but it’s a constant part of his character throughout.

The animation looks solid; it’s not as noir as the animated series but it captures the broken, dying embers of Gotham City and the darker world Batman now inhabits. Where the film really shines is in the fight scenes. For an animated film the fights are surprisingly kinetic. Bruce’s battle with the Mutant Leader is as hard-hitting as you can get, with every bone-breaking hit felt on-screen while the climactic battle with Superman pits two of the greatest heroes against each other and is something to behold, a very comic book-style fight. It needs some suspension of disbelief, but by the time it arrives you are fully invested in this universe and this is the pay-off.

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The film is also a lot more mature than you might expect, particularly towards violence. This is a very bloody picture with throat slashing, eye gouging and enough bone-breakings to satisfy any chiropractor. More than just the violence, though, the film does have some adult elements including a topless Neo-Nazi Woman, a strong – if slightly outdated – Cold War connection, and a quite disturbing scene where Superman is nearly destroyed by a nuclear bomb, but it’s at its most mature when handling the themes of the movie including the aging superhero, the work of the government and the perception of the public. All of it works together to make a much deeper superhero film than you might expect going in.

DC have put out a fair amount of animated movies and The Dark Knight Returns might be their best. Its episodic style keeps the large, world-building storyline in check and the large cast of characters from overpowering the screen. Weller and Emerson lead with two different but welcome interpretations of Batman and Joker and their dynamic together and the direction helps keep this a mature, thoughtful and entertaining flick, worthy of its source material.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

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Posted on Apr 4, 2016

2 Responses to “Why “The Dark Knight Returns” is DC’s best animated movie”
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  1. Avatar Jude Walker says:

    By I’ve found your article very interesting but I wondered would you recommend Batman the dark knight returns for a mature 14 year old ?

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    By I’ve found your article very interesting but I wondered would you recommend Batman the dark knight returns for a mature 14 year old ?

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