Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I am probably wrong about most of this, but when has then ever stopped me

My Siskel to his Ebert.

My frame of reference for The Dark Knight Returns is a little different than Chance's. I have not read the graphic novel but I have read Watchmen cover to cover. Then again, who hasn't read Watchmen, and I will explain why this is important later. My Batman knowledge comes exclusively from the animated series from the 90s and the movies, both good and bad. This means that Kevin Conroy is my Batman, followed closely by Christian Bale, and Mark Hamill is my Joker, follow not quite so closely by Heath Ledger.

Jack Nicholson wasn't actually acting in Burton's Batman. That doesn't count.

I came into The Dark Knight Returns completely raw, expecting nothing more than Frank Milller preachy-ness. That was there, but everything else was confusing. All of the characters, save two or three, just felt off, and the villains were not given any time to breath. This Batman is vicious, barely in control, and far to trusting of random street urchins who stow away in the bat-tank. He makes an example of an enemy by breaking both his arms and all his legs, and thinks nothing of crippling dozens of police officers. He wasn't Batman at all, just a thug in a cape and cowl.

Two Face and Joker were likewise off model. Two Face had all of a scene and a half and did nothing other than have his suicide by Bats plot foiled. Joker was far too random in his violence. He did one Joker-like thing, kill a room full of talk show guests, but his shoot out at an amusement park was just wanton and pointless. This is not how the Joker works - he does things because he wants Batman to stop him and to have a few laughs in the process. Sometimes this means killing lots of people but it is never random. Maybe this Joker was different, but again, not enough time is allotted to him to find out.

The only villain who does get adequate screen time in the leader of the mutant gang and he is worthless as a character, serving as nothing more than an obstacle for the un-retired but still quite cranky Batman. He gets all the time in the world to do nothing. There are characters that are 'correct,' specifically Gordon and Alfred. Gordon has the appropriate reaction to Batman's new found pension for violence - he stops talking to him, and Alfred does was Alfred does and dies for it, but that's it.

There is a simple explanation for so many well worn personalities doing things so markedly out of character: this is not a Batman story. The Dark Knight Returns is Frank Miller's Watchmen. I am not saying that one copied the other but they are both products of the same bizarre, cold war paranoia filled years, so much so that the characters fill almost exactly the same rolls.

Batman is Nite Owl, right down to the overweight laziness, drinking, and quickly regaining his former physical glory, but thankfully without the womanizing because the new Robin is the Silk Spectre and that would be just icky. Superman is Doctor Manhattan, invincible, fighting wars for the military and then forcing other heroes to stay quiet (only Superman is even less palatable because he spends all his time kissing the president's ass). The comparison breaks down a bit after that with no one other than President Reagan filling the Ozymandias role, and the ending is different in that Nite Owl somehow fights and then defeats Doctor Manhattan, but I stand by it. They feel the same.

At least Superman has the decency to wear pants.

The version of The Dark Knight Returns that I watched had parts 1 and 2 edited together and it felt like it should have been longer. Maybe with more time the admittedly different and terrifying take on the Joker would have made sense and Two Face would have been more than just another thug with a cool name. Maybe I would have bought into this version of old man Bruce and let go of what Batman Beyond gave us. As it stands it was an okay movie but not a very convincing Batman story.

Mask of the Phantasm is safe at the top of my list.

I used to own  that movie on laserdisc. Take that.

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