Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Super Watch: Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

There isn't much to say about the plotting of this second installment of the direct-to-video adaptation of Dark Knight Returns that a generation of comics fans grew up with via the comics page.  The dialog, often the framing, the depiction of characters...  It's likely the closest adaptation I think you'll ever run into that doesn't fall into whatever trap Peter Jackson fell into with his The Hobbit Part 1 that felt like a checklist of scenes with no real narrative push or (dare I say it) heart in its desire to lovingly recreate each beat and scene.  Nor is it the Zack Snyder slavish recreation that misses everything about why Watchmen worked, and figures that showing the same stuff we saw on the panel is good enough, even if all the directorial decisions - like casting, emotional beats, musical selection and cinematography - were completely misunderstood.

In this second installment, as an audience we've had the opportunity to get used to Peter Weller as Batman (and he's actually pretty great), and we get Michael Emerson as a giddy, cerebral Joker (God bless you, Andrea Romano).  And, somewhat like the 3rd chapter in the Dark Knight trilogy from Nolan, Batman actually takes a back seat to some of what else is happening in the story.  World War III is seething to break out, Superman's relationship with the government is filled in, and against that backdrop, Batman is still running around concerned with cleaning up the streets of Gotham.  You can almost understand how it got ignored for all those years until he retired.

I recently saw a quote from comics creator Faith Erin Hicks noting how dated Dark Knight Returns felt on a re-read.  She's not entirely wrong, but I sort of also sort of rolled my eyes.  It's a work of its time with undercurrents that remain relevant and resonant.

Comics weren't really intended to have a shelf-life when the book hit the direct market, they were commenting on the moment, and Watchmen is no less a piece of the Cold War than DKR.  And we were so ready to forget about the cloud of nuclear annihilation when Gorbachev instituted Glasnost, I'm not surprised that a generation had grown up without the context, and doesn't quite get what it felt like to do duck and cover drills until everyone admits that it's kind of pointless when you're in about 3rd grade.  Nor has the era of street crime that pervaded the big cities been seen in Gen Y's lifetime (although Chicago spent 2012 doing it's damndest to recreate the era that made "Bloods" and "Crips" household names).

The movie follows through on much of the political satire, dropping in the winking Reagan stand-in, the pop psychology, the litigious, self-righteous SOB in a suit and bad hair piece, dropping bits that won't make sense to anyone born after 1982.  There's no Ruth Westheimer.

It was a comic that adult readers actually noticed, and I think adult readers who understand the cultural touchstones of the 80's will still get their head around.  It attempts to do something other than show Batman merely pounding on criminals until they stop doing crimes, and, like the Nolan movies, sees the symbolism and effect of that symbol across the course of the story as the real narrative arc.

Much like Dark Knight Rises, the scale of this thing is what DC has always done better than Marvel, and it let's its players not just squabble amongst themselves, but do so as philosophical analogs and gods among men.

Director Jay Oliva makes a few changes, bringing the captioned thought boxes into the dialog in appropriate places, only one time greatly changing a scene.  Other times, I greatly missed the inner monologue of Batman, but dialog would have seemed heavy handed, and many of us will know what he's thinking, anyway.

The movie does more to reflect the cruelty of the Joker as he's been scene in the comics than in anything else I'd ever seen.  It's one thing to see the still images of the Joker rampaging through an amusement park, firing blindly, it's quite another to see it play out.  Also, clearly someone didn't want to risk a battle with the Boy Scouts of America which results in two notable changes to the film I won't get into here.

Perhaps fittingly, with Superman on the razor's edge of possibly returning to greater pop culture relevancy, the story that convinced a generation that Superman was too square, too much of a dupe and yes-man to ever be considered cool, goes to greater lengths than Miller's original work to demonstrate how Superman is actually a villain of the piece, losing a crucial bit of thought captioning and implying something far darker, and playing up Superman as yes-man rather than tolerating his instructions.

As a Superman apologist, and knowing the cultural legacy of what happened following this comic's release, it makes me a bit uncomfortable, but in the context of the film... you know, they made their story work.  It's a fair choice and loses some of the moral ambiguity of the original story in which Batman's argument is maybe a bit flawed.

Even across two features, we lose a scene or two I would have liked to have put back.  But they did a pretty great job.

The BluRay has some nice bonus features, not the least of which is the Batman: Brave and the Bold episode that features a Silver Age Superman team-up and a preview of what looks to be a pretty neat Superman movie in Superman: Unbound.


J.S. said...

Thanks for waiting on me!

The League said...

It's payback for all the times I was paid back for losing your soccer ball. Also, I forgot. Sorry.

J.S. said...

Now I'll have to pay you back for the soccer ball AND DKR!

The League said...

You did your damage when you and Jamie went and saw Die hard 3 without me.

Jake Shore said...

I'd be in debt to anyone who saved from seeing Die Hard 3.

Jake Shore said...

I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail, so I won't comment on the film until I see it. I am, however, interested in some of your observations.

As far as the dated feel, I'm split. I think you're right. The themes are still relevant, and shouldn't be discounted simply because of when it was written. But I think you risk having a dated feel when you're speaking powerfully to issues of the time. It doesn't bother me - I grew up in the 80s, so it's all familiar. But if you're 20 years old, how does DKR, with the Cold War, crime waves, Dr. Ruth, Letterman, etc., not look dated?

I'm not sure what you mean about "what DC has always done better." I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just not getting what you mean. If you're saying DC, at least in terms of the movies, and the best of the comics, chooses to follow the thematic implications of its characters to wherever they may go, no matter the scale, I agree with you. Whereas Marvel tends to focus on the personal with its characters. I think that has a lot to do with the differences between Marvel and DC heroes themselves. DC's heroes are iconic, larger than life. Marvel's heroes, with a few exceptions, are designed to be more accessible. I could go on, but then I'd risk huge generalizations.

I've already expressed my frustration over what I believe is the mischaracterization of Miller's portrayal of Superman that so many fans and creators have imbibed and recycled in all the years since; one that I think has hurt the marketing of the character. I'm sorry the film has decided to take that route, but I'm not surprised. Watching the preview last year, the screenwriter said "Superman is not only working with no moral authority, He's on the wrong side." When I heard that, I figured we'd get this kind of treatment.

What bothers me most about this choice is that it really is, in my view, a fanboy homage. Miller is trying to tell a story based on the what he viewed as the natural outgrowth of a character if you follow it to its logical extreme. The result isn't a pretty one. That's not a Batman I would want in my world. Give me Nolan's Batman, thank you very much. DKR is not a love letter to Batman. It's more of a assessment (?). The questionable morality of Batman's actions, as well as the moral ambiguity that hangs over the climax is an essential element of the story's greatness.

But I could be wrong.

The League said...

I think you actually summed up what I meant by DC's characters acting as allegories or mythologies better than Marvel's characters about as well as I could.

I definitely have a problem with how Superman is characterized in the film, but I think the creative team was trying to draw a clear line that Superman has wound up on the wrong side of the equation, and it feels less murky through the addition of just a few lines, than the comic. But, it also (spoiler?) ends much like the comic with Superman maybe beginning to reconsider his point of view. They also found ways to make the fight last longer, which was kind of necessary for the movie.

Anyway, give the disc a spin. I think its as good an adaptation of the comic as we were ever going to get.