A quarter century before director Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” brought Batman’s saga to a crescendo, writer-artist Frank Miller envisioned a mythic and nearly apocalyptic end to comics' most noir-ish superhero. That work has now been brought to animated life in “The Dark Knight Returns Part Two,” the concluding chapter in a dramatic adaptation of Miller’s seminal work debuting on Blue Ray and DVD.
For comic book fans in 1986, Miller’s groundbreaking four-part deluxe miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns” redefined the character by envisioning him as a 55-year-old retired crimefighter driven to reclaim his heroic mantle in order to curb the rise of crime in an increasingly hellish Gotham City.
The series would redefine the Batman character in grimmer, grittier terms that would endure for decades to come and establish Miller as a master of graphic storytelling (follow-up works included the “300” and “Sin City” comic books, both adapted into popular films).
“If you watched 'The Dark Knight Rises' this year, you saw so many moments that were cribbed from the source material,” says filmmaker Kevin Smith, who turned out to moderate a screening of the animated adaptation at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. “So Miller's seminal piece still maintains the same power it did when it first came out. It's still an entryway book for so many people into the world of not just comics, but DC Comics specifically, but comics, yeah, in general at that point. I love it. I have an emotional connection to the material.”
Peter Weller, who gives voice to “The Dark Knight Returns’” aging, grizzled Batman/Bruce Wayne in both Part One (released in the fall of 2012) and Part Two, has long admired the mythic pathos that pervades the best of Miller’s work.
“I worked with Frank on 'RoboCop 2,' and the gift of Frank is the Achilles heel of the big human flaws that he gives his heroes,” says Weller. “They're not untouchable and they're not infallible, and they have dark, horrible times. The best thing about them all is that they are almost exclusively lonely people – I mean, the loneliest friggin' people! ... Essentially they're living in the netherworld of gloom and doom, and that's Frank though.
”Animation director Jay Oliva, who helmed the two-part adaptation, said the finale had to deliver on the gruesome conclusion of the source material. “In terms of action and pacing, I wanted this to be balls-to-the-wall action, because the first movie is meant to be a slow burn, so that if you watch One and Two together it's supposed to be one long piece,” says Oliva, who actually challenged himself to take a pivotal confrontation between the rogue vigilante Batman and his powerful but conformist opposite number, Superman.
“It was a little bit daunting, a little scary – like, 'Oh my God, this has to be the end-all be-all of all confrontations.'” laughs Oliva. “When I approached the Superman/Batman fight at the end, one of the things that I wanted to do was not to do what was done in the book, in a sense, just because there was a 'Batman: The Brave and the Bold' episode that did a great homage to the fight in 'The Dark Knight Returns.' So I said, 'Okay, let's stay away from that. Let's come up with something brand new, but that still follows the flow of the book, but in itself is what fans want to see,' and that's how we approached it."
Although the Man of Steel is essentially a lackey for a U.S. government who puts its own agenda above the will of the people, Oliva said his ace-in-the-hole was actor Mark Valley, who gave voice to Superman. “Mark Valley added this kind of gravitas to the voice performance where he was really sympathetic. In the book, people don't like Superman, but then there's the performance that Mark actually added and you can actually feel sorry for this guy. He's just trying to do his job, and then you can actually feel that kind of connection between him and Batman – the fact that they were friends.”
Another voice new to part two is that of Michael Emerson (“Lost,” “Person of Interest”), who brings a cooler, more calculated insanity than previous incarnations to his performance as The Joker. “I didn't know what kind of performance Michael Emerson would give when we first cast him,” says Oliva, who said Emerson’s take inspired him to come up with additional character flourishes and staging. “When we first recorded him, he came up with Joker that I hadn't imagined.”
There was also a bit of a casting coup for a smaller role: the late night talk show host David Endocrine, who makes the mistake of booking The Joker as a guest on his show, is voiced by real-life late night star Conan O’Brien. “We originally wanted to ask Conan, but I just thought we wouldn't be able to cast him” reveals Oliva, but he actually encountered the host when O’Brien teamed with Warner Bros. Animation to craft advetnures for O’Brien’s comedic superhero alter ego The Flaming C. “Because we were doing some 'Flaming C' stuff with him and all that kind of stuff and we just said, 'What the hell – let's just ask him,' and he said yes.”