Part 4: More Comic Book History You Don’t Care About But Need to Know in Order to Understand What the Hell’s Going On in This Review:
Since Warner Brothers insisted on adapting this story into two, one hour and twelve minute movies, I made a point of not revisiting The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 in preparation for this review of Part Deux. If it’d been up to me, I would’ve adapting Frank Miller’s four-issue story arc into one movie, and I might just edit these two together at some point, when I get some spare time. Even with everything here, it’d still be at least an hour shorter than the last two live action Bat-films. And make no mistake – the WB’s straight-to-video animation department threw in a lot.
They had no choice. These are adaptions of one of the best-loved Batman stories in history. Find me a Bat-writer and, with a little help from my friend Google, I’ll probably be able to find you a choice quote about how 1986’s Dark Knight Returns either got them into Batman in the first place, or brought them back after a period of apostasy. Current Batman/Superman writer Greg Pak just provided me a perfect example in this interview, dated February 27th, 2013:
I dropped out for a little bit, and I was still picking up indie comics like Cerebus and Usagi Yojimbo, but it was Batman that got me back into superhero comics when I was in college. Specifically it was Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, which then led me to other stuff. It was basically Frank Miller who dragged me back in, and I was hooked. I was obsessed with Batman.
See? This story’s place in modern Bat-mythology is pretty much unassailable. For most of my life, Dark Knight Returns and Miller’s other seminal late-80s work, Batman: Year One, were considered the canonically Last and First Batman Stories, respectively, between which all others would inevitably fall. No one responsible ever intended this…but time, and fan speculation/expectation, makes fools of us all. (Except Frank Miller, who’s quite capable of making a fool of himself without anyone’s help.) What began as a cognitive tool for the continuity-obsessed became an anchor around Batman’s neck as The Dark Age of Superhero Comics dragged everything down with it.
Dark Age Batman stories (i.e., almost anything written between 1986 and 2001) are marked by a constant struggle to turn him from the World’s Greatest Detective into the bitter, lonely, friendless old man we met in Dark Knight Returns Part Uno…despite constantly adopting other vigilantes into his modern, Dark Age family. If that sounds like a contradiction to you, congratulations! You’ve realized something DC’s editors are still in denial about at the time of this writing. You’d think they’d pick one track and stick with it, but no. Every writer’s allowed their own take on that aspect of the material.
Because of this, just as every superhero comic written since 1986 is, in some manner, an answer to Watchmen, so too are most Batman comics an answer to Dark Knight Returns. My first Bat-comic experience was Detective Comics #645 (June, 1992), so I’ve seen the issues brought up here resolved, re-examined, and retconned a few billion times over thirty years. Watching a movie version of this story, at this point, feels pretty damn redundant.
Still…Watchmen didn’t piss me off nearly as much as it pissed off some of you…particularly after I saw all of it. And now that I’ve finally seen all of The Dark Knight Returns…
Part 5: We Can Actually Talk About Damned the Movie
Having re-emerged after ten years of retirement, Batman and Carrie Kelly, the Other Third Robin, are cleaning Gotham’s streets of gun-wielding thugs. In the three months since his defeat of the Mutant Gang’s leader, Batman’s actions have reverberated through Gotham and the mass media echo chamber, forcing the political sphere to respond. On a local level, new Police Commissioner Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals-Barrera) issues a warrant for Batman’s arrest. On the national level, President Not-Ronald Reagan (Jim Meskimen) orders Superman (Mark Valley) to “settle” Batman – “ride him around the yard a few times if you have to. You know what I’m asking…I’d just hate for things to get out of hand.”
Meanwhile, in the Arkham Home for the Mentally Troubled, the Joker (Michael “Zep from Saw” Emerson) emerges from catatonia, to the delight of his psychologist, Dr. Bartholomew Wolper (Michael “to many credits to count” McKean). Commenting on Dr. Wolper’s frequent television appearances, Joker flatters Wolper into arranging a guest spot for the both of them on the Dave Endocrine (Conan O’Brien) Show. This does not end well, particularly since Batman and the police are so tied up fighting each other. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere…
Things get worse when Joker and C-list villain Humpty Dumpty (Townsend Coleman) invade a carnival…after the Joker does his best to start World War III in a truly roundabout way that barely matters…unless you particularly love or hate Selina Kyle. Or Wonder Woman. A truly epic fight with a truly epic body count ensues (my favorite part comes when a little boy Joker grabs as a hostage says, “You’re the Joker, right? Batman’s gonna kick your ass!”), ending with Batman and the Joker’s final confrontation inside the Tunnel of Love…the symbolism of which is intentional and made explicit by dialogue.
Despite everything, Batman once again declines to kill the Joker, settling for crippling him from the neck down, which I’ve always considered a fine compromise between these two and their competing, absolutist moral systems. So the Joker gleefully kills himself, laughing all the while that “I made you lose control…and they’ll kill you for it!” His words prove prophetic in a weird way, implying the last act is (at least in part) his last, grand, posthumous joke. But I’ll come clean here, stop recounting story beats, and admit that I’ve never liked the last act of Dark Knight Returns. Coming after the first three acts, which all rock rather nicely, it felt like a tacked on bit of Cold War superhero fan fiction; Miller’s answer to that old playground debate question of who would win in a fight, Superman or Batman?
So the filmmakers were faithful to their source and deserve high praise for that. Everything good I said about the first film still holds true. Jay Oliva does great work bringing these action sequences to life, most of them in a jazzed-up form that never gets any more gratuitous than they already were…except for that final fight with Superman. If you want to talk about iconic moments in a comic book practically made out of them, you’ll eventually have to talk about this image:
which spawned a whole genealogy of artistic “homages” in its own right.
Bob Goodman’s script continues to hit all the high notes it needs to, preserving large chunks of Miller’s dialogue while softening its eccentricities. The talking-head news anchors have a reduced role now that most of the exposition storms have passed, streamlining the story and throwing what always bugged me about it into stark relief.
Before things get going – and the U.S. and Soviet confrontation over a small island nation that’s been going on in the background All This Time concludes with a nuclear air-burst over Gotham City – Clark comes to visit Bruce at Wayne Manor. Clark tells him, “You played right into their hands last time, when the parent’s groups and the sub-committees came after us, you were the one they pointed to. You act like a criminal.” Bruce’s response,
“We are criminals, Clark. We always have been. You’re still one, too. Only difference is, you have a boss.”
stands in stark contradiction to most other incarnations of Batman, who consider criminals a “superstitious and cowardly lot” he exists to combat, whatever their form. All in the name of protecting normal people from ever having to watching their loved ones bleed out on a street corner because shit happens…even to those of us born with unfathomable advantages of wealth. Might as well use those advantages to keep shit from happening to as many other people as possible, right? Too late for you, Bruce…but it might not be too late to stop someone else from becoming you, or dying as they try.
Except that kind of logic was old-fashioned balderdash in the mid-80s, a time of unparalleled fear and worldwide insecurity, when “helping people” became synonymous with “showing weakness” and the grim, corporate Apocalypse we’re all living in today really took hold. “Morning in America” was a slogan – large sections of the country feared First Term Ronald Reagan was a raving madman: throwing air traffic controllers under the bus, sending the Marines in every damn where, teaming up with that bitch, Thatcher…he didn’t try very hard to dissuade anyone, is what I’m sayin’. DKR Reagan is a vision of that madman with the Cowboy Persona turned up to twelve, as broad a caricature as everyone else in the story who isn’t Batman.
Part 5: That’s Nice, But Isn’t All This Just An Apologia For Fascism Anyway?
No, because I’ve come to realize calling Frank Miller fascist devalues the term, which we should reserve for actual fascists. As internationally recognized Fracism expert Benito Mussolini once said
“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”
and I tend to defer to him on the subject. Miller’s never advocated such a merger in his fiction, consistently portrayed all large institutions – religious, corporate or governmental – as corrupt thickets of bureaucracy and cowardice, occasionally concealing wolves. He never explores the vast amounts of truth in this (not even in the superficial, exploitative way of, say, your Mark Millars), it’s just a given in his universes. Only individuals with indomitable wills and the right cause are capable of…well, anything they set their minds too, really. That’s why they’re heroes. Not because they’ve dedicated their lives to the selfless mission of saving others – no, it’s because they’re the only proactive members of their casts.
If this story advocates anything, it’s a particular breed of apolitical Anarchism popular with urban American intellectuals who don’t know what Anarchism means. “Lifestyle” anarchism,” as their betters, the “social” anarchists (the only half-decent political Left left alive in this gods-forsaken country), call them. By Miller’s definition, an anarchist is someone who goes out into the night and vents his frustrations on petty street criminals. Anarchists take the law into their own hands and anyone who says otherwise is a spineless Nancy – part of the problem, to be ignored or exposed as a Useful Idiot (like Miller himself). Back in Part 1, the Mutant Leader declared his gang the “law in Gotham.” This time, a remnant of the Mutants, christening itself the Sons of Batman, declares itself “the law,” and after the EMP burst knocks out Gotham’s power, Batman recruits them to his cause. “Tonight,” he tells him, “we are the law. Tonight, I am the law.” It got to the point where I wanted to reach through the screen, grab Batman by his lapels and scream, “Fuck the law – I want meat!”
Of course, Yindel’s the only duly appointed officer of The Law in Gotham that we follow…but who cares? By the end, whatever noble intentions she might’ve had are forgotten, as is she. Because anarchists don’t slave for years, working within systems (which are all corrupt anyway, remember); they form literal underground armies with their teenage sidekicks…whose parents have also disappeared from the narrative completely, I just noticed. Fuck them, too, I guess? Oh, right…Hippies…
Several sub-plots also vanish so we can get to the Superman/Batman fight. Former Commissioner Gordon and Current Commissioner Yindel drop out, while a one-armed Green Arrow (Robin Atkin Downes) so bitter he makes Bruce look upbeat drops in between cuts, rather inexplicably. The events that lead up to this story always seemed much more interesting than the events presented herein. Parts of me longed for a prequel to Dark Knight Returns before George Lucas ruined the very concept of prequels and DC decided the only appropriate prequel would be the rest of Batman’s publication history. Why did the DC Universe turn against its heroes? Seems more like something those fickle fucks on Marvel Earth would do, and have done in the past. Why did Batman retire, really? When did Green Arrow lose that arm? And why does this superhero mid-life crisis story end in a morass of childish political philosophy?
Still, it’s a pretty morass with a cast that continues to put other Bat-casts to shame. Weller is the perfect salesperson for this material. Valley does a passable Tim Daly impression. Emerson nails it as the Joker – mixing a lot of Ledger with a little Hamill and a little John DiMaggio. Maria Canals-Barrera does such a good job, I wish her character got to stick around for the whole story. But that’s what you get for being female and not fitting into Frank Miller’s Madonna/Whore Complex. Ariel Winter’s still cool in her role, but…well, that’s what you get for being female and not fitting into, etc., etc.
It’s shorter than Part 1 and moves like the Flash – as it damn well better. With the film split in two, this half can be an hour and twelve minutes of solid pay-off. Together, the films are exactly what they say on the tin: a half-decent Batman-Comes-Out-of-Retirement story that falls apart at the end, because the authors seem to think Superman is a giant tool. Maybe its because, by 1986, Batman’s film was stuck in development hell and Clark had three under his belt and a fourth on the way. Nowadays, I can’t help but wonder why, once the nukes started flying, Superman decides the most proactive thing he can do is try to kill his former best friend and greatest ally? Because there’s a school of thought that thinks surrounding Batman with other capable heroes somehow makes him less awesome. Not true – but people have made whole TV shows dedicated to disproving that notion (some, like Justice League, even starred Maria Canals-Barrera).
Enough with the story. It’s packed with things that bug me and, spread out over two movies, it lacks the gut-punching impact it has in book form, leaving me time to mull. As a purely technical achievement, The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 and 2 are pretty damn faultless and ten kinds of chocolate-flavored awesome. There’s more blood in either of ’em (but especially Part 2) than any live action superhero film of the past ten years (except Punisher: War Zone) and at least I can enthusiastically praise that. Comic book films have finally caught up to their mid-80s print counterparts…and it only took them thirty years! Who knows? In another ten, old story molds might start breaking down, and genuinely creative things might come back in vogue.
But the WB will probably just keep adapting old trade paperback collections. It’s safer that way. Helps the curious find what they’re looking for without being intimidated by that one (1) whole shelf in Barns & Noble. The WB’s getting better at this straight-to-video stuff….and, in some ways, they’re getting braver than they were back in the old days, when Broadcast Standards and Practices kept them firmly locked down in PG land. Now that they’ve claimed their PG-13 it’s high time they used it for something…unique…if not outright original. This one-step-forward-two-steps-back shit is killing me.