Greetings, all and sundry! Sometimes, serendipity makes itself known in the most surprising and elegant ways. Originating with my response to one of hostess, Ruth’s questions tacked onto her always entertaining monthly ‘Five for the 5th’ post. And the shy query of which film so far this year has been the most satisfying?
Animation Done Right:
Warner Brothers’ Batman: The Dark Knight Return Parts 1 and 2
The prospect and challenge of taking on Frank Miller’s exemplar graphic novel from more than a quarter century ago may have been daunting. To the point of keeping other lesser mortals away from the original artist’s rough, gritty, non 1980s style designs and machinations. Until an opening created an opportunity to pursue greatness.
Which begins with an older, graying and mustached Bruce Wayne (Wondrously voiced by an older and more mellow Peter Weller). Behind the wheel of a very expensive and fast Formula 1 racer during the final laps of a Le Mans race of endurance in and around Gotham City. Determined to win. With just his mustache peeking beneath his visored helmet, Bruce ignores warnings from his pit crew and kicks his machine into Overdrive. Grazes his competition out of the way and tumbles his machine across the finish line.
Bruce’s need for speed. For excitement. Comes ten years after Jason Todd’s death as Robin at the hands of the Joker. And slightly fewer years after Superman was recruited by the government to put all other Super Heroes away. With Bruce opting to fade into anonymity while most were locked up and a few became fugitives. In those intervening years, Gotham has gone to Hell. Gangs and their violence are rampant. Muggings, rapes and homicides are the norm. To the point where shrinks and grief counselors are on the air around the clock. Between ‘Crossfire’ style, “God! Ain’t it awful!” looping argument shows.
Into this pre thunderstorm. lightning slashed nightmare strides Bruce Wayne after drinks with his old friend, just shy of retirement, Commissioner Jim Gordon (Sharply voiced by David Selby). Mood and suspense soar as a group of bald headed and freaky haired “Mutants” talk trash while deciding whether or not to mug the old guy. Wayne stares the blustery thugs down and repairs back to Wayne Manor. A bat flies against a leaded window, silhouetted by the moon and lightning. Before crashing inside. And the game begins pulling Wayne back in.
Wakening with a mysteriously shaven away mustache, Wayne goes through the day. Absorbing the droned banal news that Harvey Dent’s Two Face has gone through miraculous reconstructive surgery and is being paroled from Arkham Asylum (More of an upscale, minimum security retirement home) under the protective wing of Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, marvelously, smugly liberal voiced by Michael McKean. When not dividing his time to secure The Joker’s (Michael Emerson from ‘Lost’ and ‘Person of Interest’) early release.
Later that night. Crime is afoot! Somewhere around Crime Alley a getaway car is screaming down darkened streets with a GCPD cruiser in pursuit. As an old jalopy streaks off in the other direction. A veteran behind the wheel. A rookie on the radio. The veteran looks up in time to see a familiar silhouette from years gone by leaping between buildings. The vet advises to rookie to relax and and enjoy the show as the Getaway car tumbles, stops and the bad guys flee into a deserted building.
Batman gets there ahead of the cops. Subdues two quickly. Has a longer fight with the last. And indulges in some advanced physical interrogation techniques to confirm what he fears. While ignoring the weapon drawn, frightened rookie and fading into deep shadows after Batman finds a scarred coin in the thief’s pocket.
Two Face is out and active. Sending Batman to sift clues as the “subdued” and heavily bandaged felons are interviews and bellyache live on television throughout the day. Public opinion, aided by the visual media quickly turns against Batman and his “vigilantism”. Nothing new there. Though the same media is hyping Commissioner Gordon’s replacement, Captain Ellen Yindel. Who appears more than happy to add Batman’s scalp to her lodge pole.
A situation a newly bandaged Two Face is more than happy to add fuel to. By interrupting evening television to announce that he is willing to blow up one of Gotham’s most prestigious buildings if a ransom of 22 million is not paid post haste. The scheme involves two helicopters. One old. One new. His crew and an LED countdown bomb. Batman intercedes with smoke bombs, fisticuffs, liquid nitrogen. And a bolt and line firing rifle for a high wire intervention with Harvey and Two Face.
The Mutants up the ante with death threats to Gordon and a kidnapping that ends badly for the Mutants. Gordon warms up the Bat Signal while a young Carrie Kelly fancies herself the new Robin. Gets into costume and spends the evening thwarting minor crimes and getting in some Spider Man roof jumping training. Intrigued by the signal, Robin follows a hugely tricked out Bradley ATV Batmobile to the junk yard and mud pits where the Mutants converge. Just in time to see the fur ball of battle happen with Mutants, rubber bullets, smoke and real grenades, small arms and RPGs.
As the smoke clears, Batman is called out by the Mutant leader. All bone, taut sinew and anger. The fight is long and violent and Batman goes down. Only to be given a reprieve as Robin joins in and Batman incapacitates the leader. In time for the cops to show up as Robin drags Batman into the Batmobile and a trip to the caves under Wayne Manor.
Alfred (Nicely voiced by Michael Jackson) is righteously upset with his charge. Yet takes it in stride as dots are connected. First, to an ailing General who has been supplying the Mutants with heavy artillery. While the remaining Mutants regroup and recruit more to lay siege to Gotham. As the doughy, liberal and poll driven Mayor decides to have a discussion with the jailed Mutant Leader. That ends badly for the Mayor. A power vacuum ensues with his lieutenant reluctantly stepping up. And Captain Yindel decides to oust Gordon a few days early.
Ahead of the game, Batman sends Carrie out in Mutant disguise to gather numbers at The Pipe. The final ejection point of the sludge of Gotham. Batman also arranges to let the leader to escape into the plumbing and sewer systems. For a final fight with, and humiliation of the Mutant leader.
A well-spent night. That bring a dawn with the Mutants becoming ‘Sons of The Batman’ and delivering street justice as a long frightened citizenry decide to start getting their licks in, too. Gordon finishes a marathon discussion with Yindel. Packs up his office and leaves. To a new day of shrinks and psychologists “pooh-poh”ing a rapid drop in crime. Smugly and contemptuously blaming Batman every inch of the way. As a near comatose Joker smiles and show the first signs of wanting to get back in the game!
A superb first outing and re-establishment of all the major players. With a deeper, darker and more taut Bruce Wayne. Whose anger at the decay and slow downfall of his city in kept inside. Building pressure and seeking release in the only way he knows how.
Commissioner Gordon is older, wiser and more sharply voiced. While Gotham is showing all the cracks and wrinkles of age and disrepair. Egged on by a culture of apathy, fear and an over abundance of victimization, litigation and criminals taking the upper hand. Then milking it for all it’s worth.
These emotions translate well in art and animation that possesses all of Frank Miller’s raw Mojo. Smoothing out the rougher edges and tweaking things just a bit. To work within the guidelines of the Censor Boards. While orchestral music by Christopher Drake heightens the dour and scary mood of a city in a downward spiral.
The Batman is larger than life. And all of the “money shots” (And there are a lot of them!) are brought to lovely, moody, colorful (Or not) life! With new and deeply improved ways for The Dark Knight’s gauntleted arms to reach from the shadows, or through rotted sheet rock walls and inflict havoc. Along with a quantum leap in the movement, shadows of fist fights, fading silhouettes, and gun flashes inside swirling smoke from pellets and canisters.
Very high marks to director, Jay Oliva and his near live action animation. Kudos to artists and backdrop people too numerous to mention. And Andrea Romano for her choices of actors and actresses to give life to such large characters and their talents to pull off their tasks so well.
Which clears the decks for our tale’s second installment …
The Dark Knight Returns Part 2
Picking up a few months after the fall of Two Face and the Mutants. The first signs of a less frightened populous. And a slowly brewing military Super Powers escalation of forces off Central America focused on the island of Corto Maltese substituting for Afghanistan at the time. Though, the President (A badly caricatured Reagan) has an Ace in the Hole, Superman! Who gets an oblique and indirect order to go up to Gotham and talk some sense into his old friend, the Batman. Whose collateral damage from the Two Face and Mutant affairs is becoming a noticeable embarrassment.
Keeping that embarrassment alive is Batman going “Old School”. In wino bag lady drag while waiting for the recently released Joker’s gang of thugs to show. The objective being, answers to where the Joker may be hiding. The thugs (Former Mutants, Rob and Don) show up in Nationalist uniforms and flattop haircuts and weapons. And Batman takes them by surprise as an angry and androgynous, “Bruno” intercedes with a sub machine gun. Bullets fly. Don and Rob are knocked unconscious. Bruno takes flight. And Batman leaves the now armed liquor store owner with a warning before pursuing. Robin waits in ambush and directs Bruno in the right direction with a sling shot pellet.
Batman follows, shots are fired. A grenade explodes and Bruno and Batman fall below the building’s basement. Punches are thrown as a reddish blur sweeps down the boulevards, streets, sidewalks and a subway entrance. A speeding subway train is suddenly and violently stopped as a blind man who had fallen onto the tracks is saved.
Stone and mortar walls burst loudly as Batman turns, Recognizing a familiar sound.
Superman (Surprisingly well voiced by Mark Valley, of ‘Human Target’) delivers a near useless warning in light of Joker’s resurgence. Which is being given the full blown celebrity treatment by Dr. Wolper. With a guest appearance on ‘The Dave Endocrine Show’ (Read Letterman. And voiced by Conan O’Brien). The Joker is fully prepared with mind control lipstick. nose filters. And a henchman supplying “Bobby” and “Mary”. Two roly-poly flying dolls. That spew lethal laughing Joker Gas just as the Joker breaks a coffee mug and slashes Dr. Wolper’s throat.
In the interim, Batman runs afoul of Captain Yindel, several dozen SWAT cops stationed on the studio’s roof. And heavily armed GCPD helicopters that look a lot like Russian Mi-24 Hinds hovering about. The Joker escapes to Selina Kyle’s Escort Service and a junior Senator is made to make a political “First Strike” statement before falling to his death. While south of the Equator, Superman attacks a Russian aircraft carrier and its supporting task force of cruisers, frigates and battleships. Batman and Robin arrive at Kyle’s service just ahead of the Yindel and the police. Batman finds answers while Robin finds a wad of Cotton Candy left from the heel of one of the Joker’s shoes. Next stop… The County Fair!
Where the Joker and his henchman are busily handing out Cotton Candy and preparing Bobby and Mary to blow up the Fair’s enormous Roller Coaster. Bobby is exploded far from his objective. And Mary takes off to finish the job as Robin seeks an advantage to exploit. The Joker runs as Batman hits the ground for a one sided running gun fight. The Joker blissfully shooting left, right and behind. Into The Hall of Mirrors. And some of the most detailed animation work of the decade. As reflection follow and disappear. Then double as the Point of View changes.
The Joker catches a Batarang in the right eye. Punches and kicks are delivered. The Joker finds a distraction and drops a section of mirrors on Batman as Robin knocks Mary off the rails of the Roller Coaster. And a few moments later, the henchman meets an unkindly fate. The pursuit goes onto The Tunnel of Love and more panicked fun seekers as the Joker is cornered for a final showdown. The Batman leaves, stabbed, wounded and bloody as Robin reclaims the Batcopter and delivers some “Property Damage” from computer sighted missiles. Then catches Batman on the fly from a high leap. Leaving Yindel and her SWAT cops embarrassed, though claiming that Batman murdered The Joker.
Batman is taken back to Wayne Manor, where Alfred performs surgery and stitching and recovery. As Russia launches ICBMs in a tactical strike against the US. Superman intercepts one of the missiles and it explodes high in the atmosphere as its brethren air burst over major cities, including Gotham. Electro Magnetic Pulse turns time back to the Stone Age as lights go out. Rubble and an airliner fall. And dust fills the air. Fires erupt, cars suddenly stop and people panic and start to riot.
Gordon, on his way to the corner grocery will have none of it! Fires his pistol into the air and explains the facts of present life. “The fire department isn’t coming. If you want a roof over your head. Tonight, or ever. You must work together!” Bucket brigades are formed and fires recede. While Batman and Robin mount horses and take some in tow. To gather The Sons of Batman and re-instill order. Gangs and citizens are in mid fight as they arrive. There are a few quickly quelled dust ups as Captain Yindel watches from a rooftop. Finally realizing that Batman is, and always has been “Too big to fight.”
Three months of “Nuclear Winter” follow. And Gotham is the only major city in the US that has not fallen victim to crashed economies, massive riots, looting and all the rest. Which sends a slowly recovering Clark Kent back to Wayne Manor for a final tete a tete that goes nowhere before Clark has to fly off. Battle lines are drawn and Bruce gets to work building a better Batman. With punctuation added days later as Bruce is teaching Carrie to ride. The lesson is interrupted in a flash and the question, “Where?” burned in the snowy, ashy soil.
Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) shows up. Minus his left hand and arm. Wanting a piece of the action and “The Boy Scout” as plans are laid out for Crime Alley. The time arrives and the National Guard are out en masse, With tanks, helicopters and tactical teams over loaded with tech. Robin runs interference with the Batmobile as Batman tracks Superman closing at altitude and launches missiles. The battle is on!
With two near equally matched opponents laying waste the the alley with fists, kicks, tosses, falling bricks and girders. Electricity from the Alley’s grid drains Superman’s strength in small amounts. With the majority of Batman’s moves working against Superman as thrown vehicles soar, arc and crash around a construction site.
A final locked death grip ensues as Guardsmen chase Oliver across a roof. To hang upside down under the ladder of a fire escape. To fire a single arrow filled with an aerosol synthesized Kryptonite. That explodes as Superman turns toward and catches the arrow. Suddenly down for the eight count. Batman moves in to deliver the coup de grace. Only to stop and be overwhelmed by a sudden heart attack… Or has he?
Weeks pass and all that is Bruce Wayne is sifted from the ashes of his Manor. The funeral is attended by a small group. Including Gordon, Carrie Kelly, Captain Yindel, Selina Kyle and Clark Kent. One of the last to leave, Clark notices Carrie. Pauses and hears something soft and muted. A heartbeat, perhaps? Clark winks at Carries, signing and unwritten truce.
Time passes and arrives in the caverns and caves beneath what was Wayne Manor. Where generators and light trees illuminate the museum of trophies as plans are laid out for fresh water and reconstruction. With Oliver executing as Bruce directs Carrie and The Sons of Batman on their quieter, more discreet future.
The slightly stronger of the two films. The first being the under card for the main event. With the back story already set there is more time to indulge in the coddling of The Joker by Dr. Wolper. With a more sedate, quietly attired and cunning Joker (Michael Emerson makes a superb second string for the bow that is The Joker’s voice!) playing the Doctor for everything he can. And taking full advantage in a forum and arena of his own ego driven design. To satiate his psychosis for murder.
Also allowing optimum time to spend with Batman’s wondrous toys. And how quickly they adapt to Carrie’s and Robin’s superior hacking talents. It’s also a kick to see Batman going back to basics with disguises and costumes. Blithely gliding under citizens’, business keepers and Captain Yindel’s nose. Before delivering an emotional black eye to Yindel time and again.
As ultimate showdowns go. Joker’s is excellent! With 200 plus dead in the studio audience, cast and crew of Dave Endocrine’s show. With dreams of more, later at the County Fair. Thwarted by Batman, Robin, Yindel and the GCPD in an extended chase that reveals far more from Hero and Villain than ever delivered before. The Joker, killing indiscriminately and blissfully. The Batman, driven by anger. Both seeing Yindel and the cops as an annoyance before the final blows are landed.
Again. A satifying and fulfilling under card to the Corto Maltese, Gotham Burning and “Nuclear Winter” Trifecta second act that pulls Gothamites together. While leaving Yindel in the cold. And nowhere to be seen in the final battle between Batman and Superman. Which is more than could be asked for. Beautifully-detailed, And must be seen and reveled in to be believed!
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Have you seen these animated features? Do share your thoughts in the comments.