Although Warner Bros. and Marvel’s animated direct-to-video featurettes largely play to a relatively narrow base of comicbook aficionados, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1” has the potential to reach — and perhaps more significantly, deserves — a wider audience. If nothing else, this two-part adaptation of Frank Miller’s hugely influential graphic novel, coupled with an earlier version of the writer/artist’s “Batman: Year One,” makes clear the role Miller’s work played in establishing the template for Christopher Nolan’s live-action movies, which, in thematic terms, stood on the comic’s grim, muscular shoulders.
Published in 1986, “Dark Knight Returns” deals with an alternate future in which a retired, middle-aged Batman (voiced with world-weary gravel by Peter Weller) puts on the cape and cowl again, responding to an out-of-control crime wive in Gotham fueled by anarchist thugs known as the Mutants.
His return, however, will trigger unforeseen consequences, with longtime ally Commissioner Gordon (David Selby) set to retire, and a new regime, less friendly to masked vigilantes, about to rise. Meanwhile, Batman takes a new Robin (“Modern Family’s” Ariel Winter) under his wing, despite allusions to the tragic fate of an earlier sidekick.
If the look for Batman began to morph into its modern incarnation with artist Neal Adams in the 1970s, Miller’s cinematic take — as much “Dirty Harry” as Caped Crusader — lifted the storytelling to another level. Moreover, Miller’s three-part tale incorporated a bruising media critique that, a quarter-century later, seems especially prescient.
Directed by Jay Oliva and scripted by Bob Goodman, this animated movie proves extremely faithful to the source material for the most part, while boasting levels of action and violence unlikely to make anyone mistake this for “SuperFriends.” The most enjoyable part of those scenes is how they depict an older Batman lacking the nimbleness of his youth, while using a clever visual approach capturing the manner in which the character strikes from darkness to disorient opponents.
Two small quibbles can be taken with this version: Faced with conveying the word bubbles inside Batman’s head, the pic primarily expresses such thoughts as dialogue; and, perhaps unavoidably, the novel’s best elements will have to wait for “Part 2” — featuring Michael Emerson (a particularly inspired bit of casting) and Mark Valley as the voices of the Joker and Superman, respectively.
Nevertheless, under the aegis of exec producers Sam Register and Bruce Timm, Warner Bros. Animation has mined DC’s crown jewels with a level of fidelity that simply wouldn’t be possible given the big-tent demands of live-action features, highlighting how animation represents comics’ more natural cinematic soulmate.
For the discerning homevid audience, that commitment, as reflected by “Dark Knight,” promises to deliver a couple of very enjoyable nights.