Warner Bros. and DC Comics opted to maximize the mileage from "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" — their adaptation of Frank Miller's groundbreaking graphic novel — by splitting it into two parts, each running around 76 minutes. The first came out in September, but as readers of the novel know, the best stuff came in the second half.

Dkr1Enter "TDKR Part 2," which hits stores this week, and doesn't disappoint on any level. This is, quite simply, the best animated superhero movie since DC and Marvel began churning out these PG-13-rated titles, aiming at the fanboy market as well as older kids and teens.

Featuring Peter Weller as the voice of Batman, Michael Emerson as the Joker (brilliant casting, that) and Mark Valley as Superman, the second half finds the middle-aged Batman once again facing off against the Joker, while the forces of a corrupt society and administration dispatch their champion, Superman, to stop the vigilante. The result isn't
Jokerquite as bracing as the original book was when released in the 1980s — charting a path for the character that culminated in Christopher Nolan's trilogy — but it's pretty damn close.

Even in today's Golden Age of live-action comic-book movies, this sort of fidelity to the source material wouldn't be possible in any medium. (Zack Snyder tried, for the most part, with "Watchmen," which simply didn't translate very well beyond the midnight-show contingent, although he fared much better with his adaptation of MIller's "300.")

Warner Bros. deserves considerable credit for giving its animation team the latitude to do these projects with such a steadfast focus on the end user — and specifically, those who don't need to be explicitly told references to "Oliver" and "Hal" mean Green Arrow and Green Lantern, respectively.

Then again, given the Warner-DC connection, it's sort of the ultimate in synergy, including a very appropriate vocal cameo by Conan O'Brien (employed by TBS, another part of the Time Warner empire) as a talkshow host with the very bad idea of having the Joker on as a guest.

However the studio justifies it, keep 'em coming (and kudos to director Jay Oliva and writer Bob Goodman, who handled the adaptation). Because in terms of superheroes and the often-perilous leap from page to screen, "Part 2" is second to none.

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