Adapted from Frank Miller’s iconic 1986 comic book Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, this two-part animated film revolves around an aging Bruce Wayne who has retired from his duties as Batman after the death of Jason Todd. Crime has risen to an exponentially high level, with most of it committed by the Mutant Gang. Deciding to make a difference, Bruce decides to come out of retirement for one last run as the Caped Crusader.
What sets this film and story apart from many other Batman stories is that it focuses on Bruce Wayne as a character. By focusing on Bruce as an old man forces the audience, as well as Bruce himself, to come to terms with his mortality. Speaking of Bruce, Peter Weller, perhaps most famous for his portrayal of Robocop, does a splendid job as the Dark Knight. While he doesn’t disguise his voice like many actors do, this can be chalked up to either Bruce not caring as much about maintaining his secret identity or having both his Bruce Wayne and Batman personas merge into one collective being.
Besides Batman, David Selby’s portrayal of a 70 year old James Gordon is both magnetic and commanding. Despite being an old man and on the verge of retirement, Gordon does his best to keep order in Gotham. Even after he retires, he successfully organizes his neighborhood when a fire breaks out after an EMP fired by Corto Maltese detonates over Gotham. This is probably one of my favorite on screen portrayals of Jim Gordon. He is what a leader should be: focused, magnetic, and cares for his people.
While Michael Emerson’s rendition of Joker may not be as memorable as Mark Hamill or Troy Baker’s portrayals, he brings a chilling and unhinged aura to the Joker. His version of Joker appears very tame and harmless when we are introduced to him. However, his insanity is on full display as he brutally kills a roomful of people on the Dave Endocrine Show via his Joker venom. Later at the fairgrounds, Joker remorselessly murders many people all while maniacally laughing. Despite his laugh not packing that punch Hamill’s, Heath’s, and Joaquin’s Joker possess, it’s very chilling to hear, as it’s almost reminiscent of a dying animal. If Hamill’s Joker is the Clown Prince of Crime, Ledger’s Joker is the anarchist, and Phoenix’s Joker is the tortured soul, Emerson’s Joker is the completely unhinged psychopath.
The first part of The Dark Knight Returns perfectly balances political commentary and satire with its storytelling and is my favorite of the two. We see news clips of crime happening in Gotham as well as Bruce’s reactions to the increasing heartlessness of the atrocities committed by the Mutant Gang. Throughout the first part, Bruce is discovering his physical limits, which is on full display when he decides to fight the Mutant Leader and nearly dies. Meanwhile, we see how he begins to inspire people to his cause, the first example being Carrie Kelly (voiced by Ariel Winter) to become Robin. The second example happens when Batman defeats the Mutant Leader in a rematch and causes half of the Mutant Gang to branch off as the “Sons of Batman”, as well as inspiring regular people to take back their neighborhoods from crime.
Part 2 is where the film begins to get cluttered. The political commentary begins to detract from the story, especially when we are introduced to the U.S. President, who is a clear allegory for Ronald Reagan. Everything gets even muddier when we are introduced to a war between Corto Maltese and the U.S., with Superman (voiced by Mark Kelly) acting as a lapdog to the U.S. government. While it is kind of interesting seeing what has become of the Justice League and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like seeing Batman fight Superman, I felt that the story should’ve been focused on Batman and his conflict with the Joker instead of involving a conflict with two opposing countries.
Despite Part 2’s shortcomings, there were some technical elements that made it a bit more bearable. For example, the music conducted by Christopher Drake. The main theme for Batman gave off a feeling of a grizzled hero who has seen enough and wants to make a difference for the better. Additionally, I really liked the track where Batman was hiding in an abandoned building as he stalked a bank robber. The track has a techno sound that adds suspense to an already tense scene. In Part 2, Drake’s score takes on a more militaristic and nationalistic tone to further highlight the increased level of political commentary in the second part.
Overall, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a spectacular film that highlights the last run of an older Batman. Full of stellar vocal performances, a darker and grittier tone, and a wonderfully crafted cinematic score, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns truly signifies the return of Batman to Gotham City and is a must-watch for fans of the Caped Crusader!