Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) is an essential piece of comic book history that examines 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.
Part two of DC's new animated adaptation picks up right where the first one left off: Batman is officially back in action, he's got a newly-appointed sidekick in Robin, and both Two-Face and the Mutant gang are no longer a major threat. He's still got plenty of hurdles to overcome, though, from media portrayal to the newly "reformed" Joker. Also, a full-blown nuclear winter and friggin' Superman. Batman is also up against himself, an element of his psyche that's always been present but once again boils to the surface. This second and final chapter of The Dark Knight Returns swings for the fences in almost every regard; despite its shorter combined running time, the total production "out-epics" The Dark Knight Rises almost every step of the way. Not too shabby for a four-issue limited series looking 30 dead in the eye.
I have very few complaints about DC's animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns as a whole; though I've hardly got the source material memorized, it captures the bulk of its subversive spirit quite well. Once again, most of Batman's inner monologue is stripped away; with this decision, a portion of psychological impact is sacrificed. In other cases, the removal of such narration helps things flow a little more smoothly. Although the filmed adaptation of comics is undoubtedly less subjective than the filmed adaptation of, well, regular books, such polarizing changes are inevitable. Miller's moody and expressive artwork---punctuated with coloring provided by his then-wife and frequent collaborator, Lynn Varley---has been preserved in spirit without feeling like a blatant photocopy, though a handful of sequences and shots visually mirror the original panels. Fans of the original probably wouldn't have it any other way.
Warner Bros.' Blu-Ray release of The Dark Knight Returns, Part Two basically follows the template of the first release, from the technical specs to the packaging and menu designs. However, the bonus features are improved slightly, in that they're more entertaining, more appropriate to the film and less promotional. Overall, this is a satisfying effort that would only be bested by a complete collection of both parts.
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, music cues sound 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. Spanish, French and German Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are also included, as well as English (SDH), Spanish, French and German subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, 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-hub eco case with an Ultraviolet Digital Copy redemption sheet and a matching metallic slipcover. The Blu-Ray has been unlocked for region-free playback, but I'm not entirely sure about the DVD.
Better than the last time around, these bonus features are more film-specific and entertaining overall. The best of the bunch is "From Sketch to Screen: Exploring the Adaptation Process"
(1080p, 44:32), a thoughtful and organized behind-the-scenes look at how The Dark Knight Returns
made the transition from comic to movie. Presented as an abbreviated and enhanced running commentary (if that makes any sense), director Jay Oliva is your tour guide during this entertaining and visually informative feature.
Two character-based featurettes are also here, including "Superman vs. Batman: When Heroes Collide" (1080p, 9:09) and "The Joker: Laughing in the Face of Death" (14:28). Respectively, these focus on the classic "Who'd win in a fight?" scenario as well as the history of Batman's most popular and iconic foe. These profiles are a bit meatier than I was expecting, but still a little too short for their own good.
A trio of Bonus Episodes are up next (480p, 67:44), including "The Last Laugh" and "The Man Who Killed Batman" from The Animated Series (no "Legends of the Dark Knight", though?), as well as "Battle of the Superheroes" from The Brave and the Bold. These loosely-related episodes are a welcome addition and pair nicely with the main feature, though I'd love to see how they'd look in restored 1080p format.
A few odds and ends wrap things up, including a pair of Sneak Peeks for The Dark Knight Returns: Part One (you know, just in case you haven't seen it yet) and the upcoming Superman Unbound animated feature, a Trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and another all-too-brief Digital Comic Excerpt from Miller's original book. Sadly, no optional subtitles are included during any of these bonus features.
Also packed inside, of course, is a DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy redemption, if that floats your boat. The DVD looks and sounds quite good overall, but the only bonus features included are a few trailers.
Batman disciples will undoubtedly have issues with this adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns as a whole, but you already knew that. Snippets of dialogues have been removed (or in some cases, added), character designs are a little different, and the overall narrative style is a bit more ambiguous. But this is a fantastic direct-to-disc animated film and about as faithful an adaptation as we're probably ever going to get. Is it more satisfying than Miller's original story? In many ways no, but that's no reason to ignore this pulpy, passionate update of one of the industry's most bulletproof works of art. Warner Bros.' Blu-Ray release of Part Two is slightly better than the first, largely due to a more appropriate set of extras... so unless you're waiting the inevitable two-pack, this one's a no-brainer. Highly Recommended.
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.