The Dark Knight Returns

⭐⭐⭐½ averaged across 2 films.

tl;dr: A decent two-parter featuring a whole host of Batman's best rogues gallery, but ultimately maybe too dark for its own good.


DC Heroes

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part I

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

The Dark Knight Returns, irritatingly, blew me away somewhat. Irritating because Part 2 isn't on Prime yet, which is a real shame because the proposition of the Joker combined with this animation and scripting team is something I am genuinely excited for.

There are issues here - it is by no means a perfect film. Voice acting took me a little while to feel comfortable with, particularly for Wayne and Gordon, although eventually they slotted into place in my head. The Mutants never truly feel that menacing and the complete lack of capability shown by the police feels a little overblown, even for Gotham. The gang's leader is also a little, well, 90's in design. Between the horns, red eyes, sharpened teeth and clear cannibalistic traits I was half expecting him to turn out to be Dracula; what with all the rain and grime, Blade actually wouldn't have felt out of place as a cameo (universe crossing issues aside). As it is, these clearly abnormal traits are never explained or even really mentioned.

Despite these flaws, however, the core conceit of an ageing, retired Batman feeling himself honour-bound to take up the mantle once more is a refreshing and intriguing spin on the usual Gotham fare. Pacing is handled nicely, with Bruce realistically stumbling back into his alter ego with plenty of road bumps before a triumphant (and intelligent) return. Batman never truly gets back to his glory days, but instead shifts gear to play to his remaining strengths. Its a subtle but clear message that the stakes are a little different to normal.

Interwoven with this semi-origin story is a clever meta-analysis of Batman as perceived by the wider internal society, with a running subplot focusing on whether Batman and similar vigilantes effectively attract or create their nemeses. It cannot be argued that this hasn't been done before (The Dark Knight, anyone?) but the use of TV chat shows and the conclusion of Two-Face's character arc all weave together nicely to add a little more thoughtfulness to the plot than would ever be required for a superhero animation. Plus, telling this story with an aged Bruce Wayne allows for some very clever dissection of why Batman even exists and whether the use of fear as a mechanism of control actually works in Gotham.

Animation is stunningly drawn and very well colour caste. The tone of The Dark Knight Returns is definitely dark, gritty and rough around the edges. The panels are drawn with harsh lines and muted colours, that really emphasise the decay of Gotham and amplify Batman's nightmarish tactics of fear-induced civility. The undercut score and dialogue is similarly roughed up, with plenty of staccato. The result is far more spectacular but creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

So PartII is out on Prime, but did it live up to Part I? I think it's fair to say: partially yes, partially no.

Second time around the meta-analysis takes aim at the broader DC universe a little more, helping explain where all the heroes have gone and why Batman retired in the first place. Part II feels a lot more like a standard justice league animated film. There's a lot less grey here, even if the 'good' guys are divided on quite where the lines between black and white are drawn. The result leads to some interesting cameos and thoughtful comparisons regarding the morality of blindly accepting authority and whether you can ever justify a 'for the greater good' mentality, but nothing truly original. Unfortunately, the subtlety of the first film has been lost somewhat, along with a lot of the humanity.

Part I used Two-Face to great effect to question whether Batman's existence creates his enemies. Part II clearly decided that it worked so well they'd take a second shot at the plotline, this time upping the stakes with the Joker. The standard tropes are all here, with the Joker gleefully killing to get Batman's attention, Batman taking the bait, yadda yadda. Where The Dark Knight Returns detours from the normal plot is by ramping the level of violence up to 10. The Joker doesn't just kill, he outright murders. That's a weird duality to explore and these moments are probably the films cleverest scenes, though I'm not entirely convinced their depth was intentional. I found it equally fascinating and disturbing to realise that the Joker's attack on the chat show audience, killing dozens, somehow seemed par for the course; yet when he starts randomly gunning down people in ones or twos at the funfair, each falling body felt like a gut punch. There's a creepy dichotomy at play here which I wish more superhero films had the guts to showcase – the whole problem of the scale of death and our brain's ability (or inability, really) to properly comprehend it.

Personally, however, I feel The Dark Knight detours too heavily. The final showdown with the Joker is impactful but does go a little too far. The Clown Prince just hasn't done enough to justify Bruce snapping like that. This is a far cry from A Death in the Family yet somehow this is the plan that succeeds? It isn't done well enough for me to buy that. Similarly, the whole Superman as a soldier, willfully tearing apart entire battalions, killing at the first order, maiming his friends... nope, sorry. I don't buy it and the filmmakers haven't given me much reason to. And that's before even mentioning the whole nuclear infused, vampiric energy-draining zombie Superman we momentarily had. That was definitely weird and seemingly just there to be disturbing...

Because yes, ridiculously, Superman isn't just in this film, he's arguably the main plotline. It is certainly to The Dark Knight Returns credit that it can contain an entire Joker escape, attack, chase and showdown routine alongside the entire story line of Batman vs Superman, whilst running subplots about the Sons of Batman, a new Robin, several cameos and nuclear Armageddon... all while maintaining pace, plot, character development and causality. Seriously, all that occurs without dragging or getting confusing and that's pretty impressive.

All that said, though moments left me wincing for the characters, shocked at the level of visceral action or baffled at where the plot was going to go next (and how it would get there), I still enjoyed The Dark Knight Returns. I don't need a Part III, but as a conclusion to Part I it more than delivered. Animation, atmosphere and sound crafting all remained superb and the voice acting was a lot less jarring second time around. Overall, a solid conclusion to a very interesting rendition of the Dark Knight.

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