Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 ★★★

When I learned of the film adaptation of what I feel is easily the best exploration of the Batman universe ever written, I was hesitant to get my hopes up. That’s because it was written by Frank Miller, who for all of his amazing ability to bring darkness and grit to characters, and especially one who truly needs these attributes, his writing just doesn’t translate to dialogue in a compelling way. We’ve seen it before in 300 and Sin City, both so infused with style and tone, but barely holding it together in terms of dialogue and pacing.

Sadly, this film adaptation is no different. The glaring obstacles to complete immersion are rooted in the problems of the source material, where dialogue just flat-out feels disconnected when spoken by actors. The pacing also suffers. Perhaps that’s because the information presented visually needs to be a little slower in traditional cel animation, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the intended runtime, which seeks to split the film into two instalments, drawing every scene out a little longer than it needs to be. I’ll submit that this aspect actually detracts from the story as a whole, where one solid - if lengthy - instalment, which could do with a lot of tightening up, would serve the story a great deal more.

Part 1 is mostly setup to what we know will be a dark and intense conclusion. But what happens in this chapter - the return of a long-retired Batman to a city overrun by a gang called The Mutants - feels slow. Part of that is because, thematically, it covers a lot of ground that Nolan just covered in his last instalment of his trilogy - a retired Wayne, a city overrun, a physically-imposing criminal brute leader, even a city at odds with the vigilante it needs. There’s also the inclusion of Harvey Dent sub-arc, which does little to further the overall story and feels as though it’s forcibly inserted simply to have another featured villain from the rogues gallery.

But on the positive side, we do begin to see a glimmer of an ideal Batman – how he deserves to always be framed - an entity channeling keen intellect and a mastery of both combat and arsenal towards fighting the evils of his city. An entity that embraces and harnesses the very fear, darkness, brutality and unrelentingness that his villains themselves utilize to commit great evil. Batman is always in a precarious balance morally, and while in Part 1 we don’t see him even come close to the tipping point, we begin to see him struggle with control and the repercussions of allowing the cyclicality of crime. Sadly, it won’t be until the second instalment that we see the ramifications of all of this.

We also begin to see the amazing political satire that Miller infuses into this story, and the bizarre sense of 80s cynicism that sparkles throughout the narrative. There’s a reasonable amount of levity in this instalment and also moments of legitimate comedy, even if it sometimes has a dark or disturbing subtext.

Unlike the 90s animated series, which was animated largely in Japanese and South Korean studios, this film actually looks more like a true anime. The line art and simple shading, with jagged feature definitions and accentuated physical attributes of characters pays tribute to Frank Miller’s work without relying at all on his far grittier visual style. That’s probably a good thing. Fans of his will notice that some sequences follow his panel sequences pretty closely, while others are reinterpretations, and for the most part it all works.

The voice acting is quite good, but the pacing doesn’t really help it feel smooth or natural. But that comes with the territory sometimes when dealing with an animated work of this length.

As a standalone piece, Part 1 can’t ever really hold up. There’s not enough meat here to chew on, and the stakes are barely even set. But the groundwork (you can call it teasing) it does for the second chapter is crucial, and it’s beyond worth watching it just to get psyched for what’s to come.