Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) is an essential piece of comic book history, focusing its lens on an aging hero who still clashes with police and criminals in equal measure. It's as much a sly criticism of the decade's social and political climate as it is a character study of Bruce Wayne and Batman; for these reasons and many more, it's remained an enduring favorite of fans and critics alike. I didn't get the privilege of reading The Dark Knight Returns until a decade after its original release, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist---or heck, even a die-hard Batman fan---to enjoy what Miller brought to the table.
The original four-part "prestige format" series has been loosely adapted and borrowed from many times over the years; you can see bits and pieces in Batman: The Animated Series and Christopher Nolan's recent films, just for starters. Like Miller's own Year One (a similarly bleak account of Batman's early years), it's been given a more complete adaptation by Warner Bros. Animation, the studio behind popular DC films like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Under the Red Hood. Condensed into two parts with a total running time of just under three hours, this ambitious direct-to-video production attempts to spruce up The Dark Knight Returns while remaining faithful to Miller's indispensable source material.
If this first part is any indication, die-hard fans don't have much to worry about. Running just under 80 minutes, it condenses the series' first two chapters with ease...and though it stands on its own two feet quite well, new viewers will get the feeling that there's something bigger around the corner. The voice casting is inspired (Peter Weller as Batman is a great choice, even if you're a Kevin Conroy disciple), with supporting roles filled by the likes of David Selby (Commissioner Gordon), Ariel Winter ("Robin"), Michael Emerson (The Joker), Rob Paulsen ("My Name is Rob") and Michael McKean (Dr. Wolper) that feel like natural fits to their respective characters. The series' distinct visuals are loosely preserved with obvious nods to Miller's sketchy style, Klaus Johnson's excellent inking and Lynn Varley's moody color palette.
Overall, it's a promising start to one of comics' most recognizable and enduring story arcs. This tale of redemption, justice, chaos and violence is seasoned by a strong Bob Goodman script, a fitting score by DC animated regular Christopher Drake and more. Punches hit hard, words are spoken with conviction and, as with the very best Batman productions, our hero feels like much more than a costumed vigilante. Warner Bros.' Combo Pack streets today and pairs a decent A/V presentation with bonus features of varying quality. Part Two is slated for a Winter 2013 release; see below for the updated review link.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of The Dark Knight Returns looks good with mild reservations. First, the positive: the stylized color palette holds up nicely and pops without bleeding; additionally, image detail is crisp and black levels are fairly consistent. This adaptation is a cut above typical direct-to-video animated fare, and most scenes easily surpass their 480p counterparts in a direct comparison. Yet a number of small digital issues creep in on occasion, from sporadic amounts of noise to minor aliasing issues and compression artifacts. These aren't overly distracting problems at all (let alone deal-breakers), but The Dark Knight Returns should've been a shoe-in for visual perfection. This image doesn't consistently reach those heights, although most will consider it good enough.
DISCLAIMER: The images in this review are taken from the DVD and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
In most regards, however, Warner's robust DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is slightly more consistent. The Dark Knight Returns
is an oppressively bleak production by design, so the appropriate delegation of surround channels, directional effects and LFE helps to enforce every ounce of weight. Gunfire and fistfights have plenty of punch (sorry), the music sounds full and rich, and dialogue is uniformly crisp and easy to understand. I'd have appreciated even more
dynamic range on several occasions, but what's here does the job remarkably well and fans should appreciate the effort. Optional Spanish, French and German DD 5.1 mixes are included, as well as English (SDH), Spanish, French and German subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the menu interface is presented in Warner's typical no-frills style, though a few annoying commercials and warnings must be dealt with beforehand. This two-disc release is packaged inside a multi-hubbed eco case with a Ultraviolet Digital Copy redemption insert and a matching metallic slipcover. The Blu-Ray has been unlocked for region-free playback, but I'm not entirely sure about the DVD.
A decent mix, but most of these are just loosely related to the main feature. The movie-specific extras include "Her Name is Carrie...Her Role is Robin"
(1080p 12 minutes), a thoughtful featurette focusing on the controversial decision to give Batman a female sidekick. We also get an Preview
for part two of The Dark Knight Returns
(coming next year), which mostly consists of interviews and unfinished art.
The less related supplements lead off with "Batman & Me: The Bob Kane Story" (480p, 39 minutes), a detailed look at Batman's creator that's loaded with old and new interviews featuring Kane and other creative minds from the comic book industry and elsewhere. We also get pair of Batman: The Animated Series Episodes (480p, 47 minutes total); "Two-Face: Parts 1 and 2" contain some of the acclaimed series' best moments, but I'd imagine most fans own these already. Closing things out is a pointless four-page Digital Comic of The Dark Knight Returns highlights (which is too small to read) and a Preview for the animated Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (480p, 8 minutes). Sadly, no subtitles are included.
Also packed inside, of course, is a DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy insert, if that floats your boat.
DC's animated version of The Dark Knight Returns is, like the bulletproof source material, an engrossing and mature take on one of pop culture's most beloved icons. Dark, brooding and layered with terrific characters, it also maintains a period-specific vibe without feeling dated in the least. Though die-hard fans will easily spot a few revisions and omissions, the first half of this two-part production is largely faithful to one of Frank Miller's most enduring efforts. Warner Bros.' Blu-Ray is light but passable, pairing a solid A/V presentation with a few loosely related extras. Part of me wants to recommend waiting for the inevitable two-pack, but even the most casual fans will enjoy themselves. Firmly Recommended.
UPDATE 2/1/13: Continue on to Part Two of The Dark Knight Returns
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off and juggling HD DVDs. Also, he don't shiv.