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Frank's Movie Log

My life at the movies.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

2013 | United States | 148 min | More...
A still from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2013)
B: 4 stars (out of 5)
on Thu Sep 14, 2023

Peter Weller voices Batman in this animated feature that sees a middle-aged Dark Knight emerge from a ten-year retirement to reclaim a Gotham City overrun by violent gangs.

The film hews close to Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel, retaining all the scenes and interstitial transitions, but omitting the inner monologues. This necessitates some small but impactful changes.

Consider an early scene where Bruce walks home through the city at night after meeting Jim Gordon for drinks. His feet take him to Crime Alley—the site of his parents’ murders. There, he encounters two gang members. The thugs encircle him.

In the graphic novel, we get Bruce’s inner monologue where he contrasts these kids with the one who killed his parents. He remembers how his parents’ killer trembled when he pulled the trigger. Not these kids. They’re a purer breed, and the city is theirs.

Minus the inner monologue, the film has Bruce clench his fists and growl, “Come on!”

The scene ends the same, with the punks backing down, saying Bruce is “into it,” but without the inner monologue, the nihilism vanishes, and with it, the despair behind Bruce’s rage.

Other changes prove less impactful. The film omits Miller’s subversive trick of opening his series with a Neal Adams-style Batman, who morphs into Miller’s iconic hulking beast as the series unwinds. Instead, Batman proves a hulking beast from his opening foray.

We get the news lead-ins, the repeated mentions of the thunderstorm heading toward Gotham, intertwined with Bruce’s increasing urgency to take action, culminating with a fearful weatherman saying of the storm, “Like the wrath of God it’s heading to Gotham.”

The film recreates several panels from the comic and many of the iconic splash scenes as Batman reemerges. We lose his inner monologue, but retain the action and dialogue, including the seminal scene where he takes down a gang of armed robbers in a deserted warehouse. The sequence culminates with the last robber leveling his gun at Batman’s temple. In the novel, Batman’s inner monologue enumerates the seven working defenses from his position. Three disarm with minimal contact. Three kill. The third hurts, he thinks as he drives his leg back into the man’s hip, sending the robber to the floor. We lose this context, but keep the brutal blow.

With source and film back in sync, a rookie police officer moves to arrest Batman, saying, “You’ve crippled that man!”

Crouched over the moaning robber, we get Batman’s memorable line, “He’s young. He’ll probably walk again. But you’ll stay scared, won’t you, punk?”

A terrific scene recreated almost verbatim. I say almost because, aside from the missing monologue, we also miss the robber’s terrified response of “Jesus, sweet Jesus!” An odd exclusion given the panel’s iconic nature.

I can forgive these omissions. But I struggled with the voices. Weller acquits himself well as Batman—his performance echoes his iconic turn as RoboCop—but my mind expects Kevin Conroy. Ditto Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon and Mark Hamill as Joker. Hearing this film’s unfamiliar voices, good as they may be, felt like watching a dubbed version. On a second viewing, the new voices proved less jarring. Maybe they’ll grow on me. But I’ll forever miss Conroy and Hamill.

The new character voices fare better. Ariel Winter nails Carrie Kelly. As in the book, she remains my favorite version of the character. As with Batman, we lose her inner monologue, but it proves less impactful, as her best lines come via dialogue, such as her first meeting with Batman, who lies clinging to consciousness in the Batmobile, helped there by Carrie.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“Carrie. Carrie Kelly,” she replies. Then, after a beat. “Robin.”

“Mine’s Bruce,” Batman replies.

Just as in the book, Carrie is the audience surrogate, and Batman’s welcome to her is his welcome to us. When they later find themselves fleeing the Gotham police and she almost falls to her death, she doesn’t scream. But when Batman pulls her to safety, he acknowledges her youth by embracing her and whispering his highest praise: “Good soldier.”

The movie keeps all this and more. Including bits I suspected would never transition, such as Miller’s Mamet-esque youth slang, the alternate 1980s timeline, and the Cold War paranoia.

But losing the inner monologues hurts. Consider Batman’s final showdown with Joker. Fleeing Batman’s pursuit, Joker shoots various bystanders with chaotic glee. In the film, we just see Batman grimace and close the distance. In the novel, we get this inner monologue: “A gun is a coward’s weapon, a liar’s weapon. We kill too often because we’ve made it easy. Too easy. Sparing ourselves the mess and the work.”

The film splices the bit about guns being “a coward’s weapon, a liar’s weapon” into Batman’s dialogue in a later scene where he addresses the gangs, but transforming it from inner monologue to speech reduces its impact. In the novel, it’s a mantra. He’s not preaching, he’s preparing himself—trying to will himself to cross the line and end Joker’s murderous reign forever.

A later tweak proves more welcome. In the coda scene, Oliver Queen joins Bruce and company in the caves beneath Gotham. This surprised me, given how close the film had hewed to the source. Then I realized he’s there to give Bruce a peer to talk to. As a saving grace, the film shifts the novel’s final inner monologue to dialogue, queued by an added prompt of Queen asking, “You gonna be all right with this? This quieter mysterious?”

Bruce replies, “I spent 10 years looking for a good death. This… this’ll be a good life… Good enough.”

Cut to end credits. For all its shortcomings, the film nails the ending, outdoing the book by coming full circle with the opening street circuit race sequence.

Newcomers should start with the source novel. This is a good adaptation, but it can’t stand alone. Once you’re familiar with Miller’s work, your memory can fill in the missing inner monologues and their context and motivations. If my review seems harsh, it’s because the film had the potential to transcend the source and deliver the best Batman movie ever made. As-is, it flirts with greatness.

But maybe, as Bruce says, that’s good enough.

Viewing History

    Watched on
    Thu Sep 14, 2023 via Blu-ray (Warner Bros., 2013)
    Watched on
    Thu Dec 03, 2020 via Blu-ray (Warner Bros., 2013)