“Michael Caine is Batman in The Dark Knight Returns.”
That thought kept echoing in my head, all the way through Harry Brown.
I’m not saying that they should make a movie adaptation of the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. I’m saying they did. It’s called Harry Brown, and Michael Caine is incredible in it.
Here’s the thing, I think I’m over seeing the blow-by-blow comic book to movie adaptations. Back in the 1980’s when someone explained to me that comic books were like a combination of a script and a storyboard for film making, and what an opportunity that was, I got excited along with everyone else. Who wouldn’t want their beloved medium to have as wide an audience as possible, and what better way to do that, than to bring the gift of sound and movement to the mix? Lately though, I feel like I’m overdosing on the adaptation-by-rote that has become the norm. If something is created as a comic book, then it will ultimately need more than a simple translation to be able to create the same feeling that it did upon reading. The core and the soul of the book cannot be conjured by simply slavishly and mindlessly recreating every scene. I’m beginning to feel that in many ways, while it is a dear pleasure to see my childhood heroes faithfully and perfectly recreated on screen, what I crave is to recreate the true spirit of the books that I loved.
Back when The Dark Knight Returns came out, there was talk that this was a Dirty Harry-esque Batman, and I always envisioned him as Clint Eastwood. But when he did get old he turned into this wizened little caricature of himself, all dried up and brittle. While Michael Caine grew old and into himself, he opened up and breathed some girth into his body, which is exactly what an aging Batman needs, and in Harry Brown he is precisely the character, seeking exactly the same kind of recourse, in a very similar environment.
As a teen reading The Dark Knight Returns for the first time, my world view was pretty juvenile and simplistic. Back then, the book fit into my brain perfectly, embodying a whole era of pain and anxiety about the kind of world I was growing up in. If I read it for the first time now I’d probably still enjoy it, but wouldn’t find it quite as life-altering. It’s just a little two-dimensional, which is not to say that it isn’t great fun, however, this sort of story does not have the same impact on adult me as it did on teenage me. I can’t get as personally involved in a story that is such a noir pastiche. At the time, The Dark Knight Returns was harrowing, intense, beautiful, and certainly genre-altering at the time. Now, in order to adapt it for my adult, 21st century taste, I want to see something with all of the intensity and bleak anguish I read between the lines in it when it came out . This is where Michael Caine comes in.
People have asked me if Harry Brown isn’t just a British version of Gran Torino. I can only imagine that they’re saying this because both films star men who were sex symbols of their day, and are now elderly. This is really the only thing that they have in common. One is a film about waging a violent, bloody, cold, personal war of vengeance, while another is a film about community, family, love and redemption. Saying that Gran Torino is like Harry Brown is as valid as saying that Grease is just like The French Connection because they both have car races in them. It does both films a disservice and is extremely misleading.
In actuality the film is far harsher than I imagined. Just like Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, Harry Brown is an old man at the absolute end of his tether, faced with trying to live in at a dysfunctional, dangerous society which is no longer able to self-govern in any sense of the word. It is chaos without compassion or care. Suddenly finding himself completely isolated and alone in his hell-hole of a council estate (that’s a project in American), without a single friend or family member, he is a man forced to find his own path. With nothing at all to lose, he draws on his training as a former Marine to wage a brutal and calculated war on people who have absolutely no moral center. He judges them for their crime, and takes action when no one else can or will. Ostensibly too old, operating outside of the limits of his health and the law, Harry/Batman takes it upon himself to clean things up with surgical precision, he makes the world around him a little more palatable by removing the broken elements.
There’s nothing about this which is reasonable, but Harry/Batman does it anyway, because no one else can. Alone, isolated, in mourning for the people he loved, he takes his pain and simply moves into a productive angry vengeance. With nothing left to lose, like a kamikaze, he pits himself against villainy and scum using strategy, detective work, and a keen intelligence. His black and white view of the world is limiting, but it allows him to make the hard choices and take the necessary action.
You really don’t get more like The Dark Knight Returns than this. It is a beautiful thing and it opened my eyes to the fact that although I spent my youth dreaming about a day when people would be able to enjoy the graphic novels that were changing my life, making them into movies might not be capturing the true heart of the story. In future, if I want to convey to a non-comic book reader why they might enjoy The Dark Knight Returns, I’m going to ask if they’ve seen Harry Brown.