Thursday, February 7, 2013
Heath Holland On...The Dark Knight Returns
For some, it’s Adam West’s tongue-in-cheek, kid-friendly hero with shark repellent in his utility belt. For others, it’s Michael Keaton’s crazy intensity and quirky brand of brooding. There’s Val “Real Genius” Kilmer’s approach, or George Clooney’s head-ducking humility and nippled bat-suit. (What? he gets cold.) For a whole bunch of people, it’s Christian Bale’s Cookie Monster growl firmly planted in our real world. For me, Batman clicked into place in 1989 with the Tim Burton BLOCKBUSTER and the zeitgeist that surrounded it. I grew up playing with Super Friends action figures (usually in the tub) and Batman and Robin frequently fighting the Joker, the Penguin, and the Riddler amidst a sea of Mr. Bubble. But Tim Burton’s movie was a blast of noir in my rainbow world and I COULD NOT GET ENOUGH of this new Batman, this guy who dressed in black and hung people off the sides of buildings and spent significant time prowling in the shadows (no, not Johnny Cash, BATMAN). Batman had been dark in the comics, but something happened in 1986 that changed Batman forever. That something was a four-issue comic miniseries written by Frank Miller called The Dark Knight Returns.
In a perfect world, TDKR would have been adapted into a live action movie years ago, instead of being pilfered by screenwriters galore (the third cousin of Pussy Galore). As it stands, this story has long been considered unfilmable, and as the years pass comic fans have held it higher and higher as some sort of golden standard not just for Batman comics, but comic stories in general.
So to say that DC Animation (a division of Warner Bros.) has now adapted the story into two direct-to-DVD movies AND that it doesn’t suck is A BIG DEAL. As of this writing, the two parts exist separately, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brothers Warner decide to double dip on this thing and combine them together into one package to drive a wedge between me and my Benjamins sometime in the near future.
Peeps, it is REALLY SOMETHING. I have to be honest, I’ve always felt like I came to the party too late to really, truly appreciate the impact of the graphic novel (that’s what hipsters call comic books when they want others to take them seriously) but I’m a big, BIG fan of this movie. It’s REALLY adult (no, there’s no penetration, it’s just mature in its handling of issues), extremely and uncomfortably violent (as violence probably should be) and, at times, very hard to watch. Doesn’t that sound fun?
Robocop’s Peter Weller) has been retired from being Batman for 10 years. He’s old now, probably in his 60s, his glory years behind him, his years of sacrificing himself for his city long over, and he’s looking for a good way to die. The city of Gotham is completely overrun with crime: rape, murder, riots, jaywalking on every major street. Meanwhile, in the absence of Batman as a yen to his yang, Joker has slipped into a vegetative state and spent years in a mental hospital, totally unresponsive. Far from the Clown Prince of Crime, he’s now the Clown Prince of Bedpans. So, without spoiling too much, Bruce decides that his city needs him (does Gotham ever do anything besides take, take, take?) and that it’s time to put on the cape and the cowl for one last hurrah. He does not plan to make it out of this alive.
The next two hours of the movie (if you watch both parts together) are effectively Batman tying up all loose ends, trying to save the city a final time, and having ultimate confrontations with the people that inhabit his universe. A lot of faces return for this last joyride: Two Face, Selina Kyle, and, of course, the Joker, in what is one of the most brutal but compelling superhero vs. supervillain fights you’ll ever see. After so many confrontations, what can they do to each other to stop the cycle they’ve been playing out for decades? Joker is played here by Lost’s Michael Emerson, and the man puts a stamp on it. After Heath Ledger’s universally acclaimed interpretation, portraying that character has to be one of the most intimidating jobs in acting. Emerson steps up to the plate and really sells it, playing The Joker as an androgynous (and maybe gay), homicidal Paul Lynde. Seriously! He plays it like Paul Lynde! How perfect is that for The Joker?! What’s creepier than Paul Lynde? A Paul Lynde that kills people and dresses up like a clown, that’s what. It’s inspired, truly.
In the end, the movie doesn’t shy away from the things that make the…ahem…COMIC BOOK exceptional. It’s not afraid to ask the same questions that the book asked over 25 years ago. It’s not afraid to shy away from the violence (this is one of the bloodiest superhero stories I’ve ever seen), and it’s not afraid to leave out some of the more “questionable” aspects of Frank Miller’s story. There’s some stuff here that I actually really dislike, but it’s tough to split hairs because the stuff I don’t like is probably someone else’s favorite part. When you adapt a work as respected as this, don’t mess with it, just do it. It does take a departure from the comic, in that it drops Batman’s narration (which had some of the best lines) because it wouldn’t translate to film. As we learned with Blade Runner, sometimes the action speaks for itself.
No, you should buy this thing and watch it NOW. It’s on iTunes, DVD, and Blu-ray. Before I saw it, I would have said that the only way you could tell The Dark Knight Returns was in print, but darn it if they didn’t pull it off in this animated version. I have to believe that this is it -- the last adaptation we’ll get. This story would not work in a live action setting. Too much would have to be changed in order to accommodate reality. What makes this so special is that this isn’t reality. It’s comics. This animated version is a comic book come to life. Panels are recreated lovingly, and the pacing of the book is kept as well. This is as good as this story can ever be told in a film medium. If someone tries to tackle this as a live action feature down the line (Please DON’T), it will be VERY different from what you see here. This is pure, and it’s one singular vision of a story that didn’t have to get filtered through film executives, script doctors, rewrites, actors improvising or questioning their motivation, and coming up with a costume that works on a film set. Batman having white, pupil-less eye slits is something that you’ll never see in a live action movie. It wouldn’t work.
Let this film represent a major peak of storytelling for an iconic character. This is Batman as he was meant to be: dark, violent, tragic, psychotic, driven, suicidal, flawed, broken, but always striving for justice and a higher purpose. He’s not just a man dressed up in a costume, he’s a force of nature. 27 years after the story debuted, finally…The Dark Knight Returns.