- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2012

Sequential-art creator Frank Miller’s seminal chronicle of the Caped Crusader’s middle-age years arrives in an animated format in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $24.98).

This 15th in a series of direct-to-disc, PG-13 cartoons from Warner Bros. Animation attempts to adapt the DC Comics’ legendary four-issue, limited series from 1986 and, as Larry David might say, the result is “pretttty, prettty, good.”

Of course, the task is daunting, so much so that the series has been broken into two parts. The first film, a 76-minute Blu-ray offering, features an abridged version of the first two comic books.

The plot takes viewers into a bleak future for Gotham City as a retired and broken-of-spirit Bruce Wayne watches his city collapse under the barbaric weight of criminal gang called the Mutants.

The return of a Harvey Dent (Two Face) eventually brings Batman out of hiding to deal with his former archenemy as well as the Mutants. His work also makes him an inspiration to a young girl named Carrie Kelly, soon to take the mantle of Robin.

Unfortunately, the movie’s rating sanitizes some of the urban violence and dialogue that made the book so shocking, and the political and culture critique of the 1980s, so brilliantly brought to barbed life by Mr. Miller, doesn’t have the same punch and will be difficult for the casual viewer to appreciate.

I also almost wish director Jay Oliva and his team had delivered a more dynamic art style (maybe even a motion comic vibe using original art from Mr. Miller and inker Klaus Jansen) rather than using more traditional animation.

The group often does keep the spirit of the original illustrated pages alive and viewers get a bulky Batman who sort of resembles Cartoon Network’s “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” design, with a Jay-Leno-sized jowl.

I will admit the animated effort sucked me in and often touched an emotional nerve. I appreciated the dialogue, taken directly from much of the source material (although I wish Mr. Oliva had retained Batman’s internal monologues to further develop the story for newcomers) and it had me waxing a bit nostalgic back to when I first read the books.

Moments brought to colorful life — including the power of the Batmobile (or rather Bat-tank), an explosive helicopter attack, puffy-haired news broadcasters interviewing citizens and experts about Batman (is he a fascist, vigilante, a social disease, coward, terrorist etc.?) and some great visions of Batman in the shadows — looked as if they were ripped from the comics’ panels.

The highlight of the action is a pair of brutal fistfights between Batman and the Mutant Leader. Better yet, the gravely and exhausted voice-over work of Peter (RoboCop) Weller as Bruce Wayne/Batman is dead on with his interpretation of the bitter hero.

I defy any fan of the Caped Crusader not to get a chill up his spine when Batman says to the Mutant Leader, “You don’t get it son. This isn’t a mud hole, it’s an operating table and I’m the surgeon.”

Yeah, that line is pretty much plucked from Mr. Miller’s prose and it is one of many juicy pieces of dialogue delivered.

The biggest problem with “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” is viewers have to wait until late next year to see its conclusion. The story leaves off just as another supervillain ponders his return and Commissioner Gordon retires. I know what’s coming in 2013 and viewers will not want to miss an unbelievable confrontation with the Man of Steel.

Best Extras: As always, the reason for fans to buy many of these uneven animated superhero adaptations on Blu-ray is for the bountiful collection of extras.

The best of the batch is a 38-minute tribute from 2008 to the man who created Batman, Bob Kane. With words from legendary artist Jerry Robinson, Mark (Luke Skywalker, Joker) Hamill, the patriarch of Marvel Comics Stan Lee and interviews with Mr. Kane (both recording and a television appearances), it’s a fitting featurette for the pop-culture icon maker.

But, wait a minute Bat fans. Where is a documentary on the original source material and its place among the best of American comics? That there’s not even a featurette, or interview with Frank Miller is just criminal. Alas, maybe we’ll get these extras in part two.

Next, we get a 12-minute look at the impact of having a female Robin in the comics’ world. This one stands out for interviews with comics’ writer extraordinaire Grant Morrison, DC animated properties guru Bruce Timm and for plenty of artwork from the Dark Knight Returns books as well as Batman comics featuring Batgirl.

Finally, viewers get the two-part episode “Two-Face” from Bruce Timm’s classic 1990s cartoon series Batman: The Animated Series.

Once again, Home Warner Video, that’s a silly mistake. Why not include the 1998 episode “Legends of the Dark Knight” from “The New Batman Adventures”? Part of that cartoon was actually inspired by Mr. Miller’s work.

Read all about it: Let’s just ignore the poorly executed extra that slaps three digital pages of the first issue of the Dark Knight comic on readers’ screens. It’s a wasted tease.

Any mature, self-respecting sequential-art fan who has not read the book needs to run out and buy a copy of the trade paperback “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” ($19.99).

It compiles the four-issue masterpiece that helped let the world know that superhero comics were not just for kids anymore.

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