If you’ve read what I’ve had to say about Batman: The Killing Joke, you’ll already – unconsciously – know a lot of the background to how I also came across the original version of The Dark Knight Returns. Basically I was in my teens, I liked Batman, and I had a taste for darker material. It didn’t have to be awful to thrill me, mind you, but it certainly had to be a step up from chasing generic bank robbers, super campy villians, and loads of BIF! BANG! POW! stuff. And in saying that, I recognise that I’ve probably just described someone’s all-time dream Batman series. Horses for courses, eh?
What thrilled me about The Dark Knight Returns was the way this was an older Batman. A Batman who was actually retired. Out of shape, and a bit pissed off with the world, I thought this was an amazing new take on the character. I was drawn in immediately. And it wasn’t just Batman’s character which appealed. Gotham was dark and grimy. Crime ridden. A new Robin – in the form of a young girl – was introduced. The Joker got a run, and did some REALLY Joker-ish stuff. There was plenty of tongue in cheek social commentary. And finally, Superman’s also in it, and Batman goes head to head with the overgrown boy scout in a wonderful way. Oh yes, this one just ticked box after box after box.
(And if you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, a big chunky, older Batman duking it out with Superman… doesn’t that sound like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?” Sure it does. I saw loads of parallels between that film and the comic, and even director Zack Snyder said it was an inspiration. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Returns is a big deal and it’s entirely appropriate for it to inspire a movie.)
All of which bring us to this animated version which I watched as a Part 1 and Part 2 situation of 70-ish minutes each, but is also available as one long movie in what’s known as the Deluxe Edition.
In a word, this is… fabulous. Peter Weller (yes… from RoboCop), voices Batman perfectly. This old, worn down guy who’ll still beat you up if you deserve it. He’s perfect. Actually, the only person who I think could have done it as well is someone like Clint Eastwood in his later years and, even then, his voice might have been a little cliche for it. But if you think of that kind of performance, it’s the kind of vibe this Batman gives off. Ariel Winter (yes… from Modern Family), does Carrie Kelley/Robin really well. It’s the kind of role where any sort of young, enthusiastic female voice would work, so this casting isn’t anywhere near as vital as Weller’s, but she performs the material well. Outside of these two, there’s a lot of names animation fans will recognise an appreciate for their talents, along with a few surprises. Michael McKean and Conan O’Brien are in there too, for example, which thrills me.
I keep comparing this to The Killing Joke because both are classic/influential/groundbreaking comics that I loved in the 80s and here they are, both brought to life in the modern era. Yet this animation, I found, was streets ahead of the other. It felt like reading the comic book, which is important. But it also felt like a great movie in its own right, which is just as important when you think about it, as some people will undoubtedly see this without having read the comic at all. In fact maybe many will.
Like most pieces of writing on this site, I’m staying right away from saying too much about the plot. But what I can say is if you like the idea of an old Batman coming out of retirement; a new and enthusiastic female Robin (and remember, this was written in the mid-80s long before the push for female representation in comics); a Gotham City that feels totally unhinged and out of control; cool 80s references and sight gags; a Superman being the ultimate boy scout and doing the bidding of a Reagan-esque President; a totally nuts Joker; and even more besides… I think you’ll eat this up.