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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a two-part animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s 1986 comic book “The Dark Knight Returns,” portrays an aging Batman and his return to fighting crime in Gotham City.
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★★★★★

The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 and Part 2

Directed by Jay Oliva

Rated PG-13

Available on DVD

A massive tank roars through a waterfall into a dark cavern. A criminal pleads with his interrogator as he dangles over the roof of a building. A costumed figure emerges from the shadows to fight for the heart of his city…

Decades before Christopher Nolan gave us these images of a grim, realistic Batman, they appeared in the first Dark Knight tale — a gritty comic book mini-series about an aging Bruce Wayne’s return to the fight against crime. Now Warner Bros. Animation has translated The Dark Knight Returns into a two-part animated feature, and Batman’s stealthy takedowns and heavy-handed fistfights are every bit as fun to watch in real time.

The two movies begin with Bruce Wayne, now 55 years old, returning to his role as Batman to fight a wave of violent crimes in Gotham City. You’ll see Batman ascend Gotham’s towers to fight Two-Face and be broken by the leader of the merciless Mutant Gang. Batman will face the Joker one last time, and struggle to bring order to a Gotham City gone dark in the wake of an electromagnetic pulse. And finally, the Dark Knight will square off against the Man of Steel in a slugfest every bit as block-busting as you would expect (city blocks are literally busted, into rubble and little pieces of glass). If you’ve ever gotten into an argument about who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman, many consider the battle in The Dark Knight Returns to be the definitive answer.

Part I starts off a little too slowly for my liking. Bruce Wayne has many flashbacks to the night his parents were murdered, and frequent newscasts interrupt the story to give you an idea of the crime-ridden nature of Gotham City. Once his psychoses drive him to shave his old-man moustache and don his costume again, though, the story picks up. If you’re sick of watching comic book hero origin stories, it’s a lot of fun to watch Batman struggle to get back into his old game — he may be as intelligent and terrifying as ever, but his aging body betrays him from time to time.

Part I ends on a satisfying enough note to be enjoyed as a standalone feature. Part II debuted on DVD several months after Part I, and it’s clear the animation team learned from their first outing. Part II is much more action-oriented than part I, and as a result is a more exciting movie — there are a lot of dramatic chases and well-choreographed fight scenes. The focus is off Bruce Wayne, and is instead on Batman and the new female Robin, which makes for a better movie.

The visual style is true to the dark, unpolished character of the comics, but is sharper and more defined, especially in the action sequences. Stacked up against the comic book, the movie is diminished by its omission of Batman’s inner dialogue — his inner musings about the nature of his fight against crime and the enjoyment he gets from beating on criminals really add to his personality in the comics. The movies more than hold their own in the action department, though — it’s fun to watch batarangs whiz through the air and knock guns out of hands, or to hear the grunt of the criminal on the receiving end of Batman’s fist.

If you like Batman (and who doesn’t?), you’ll enjoy these animated features. And if you want to read the graphic novel that started it all, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is available for checkout from the Hayden Library.

Rating: One batarang out of one.