In anticipation of its September 25 release, the Paley Center in New York hosted the premiere of “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1.” Before the screening, director Jay Oliva, vocal director Andrea Romano and actor David Selby, who plays Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon in the movie, greeted the press on the red carpet.
“I feel like I’ve been welcomed into a whole new family,” Selby remarked. “Gordon is such a fine moral character. He’s a good man, but he’s also a tough cop. He has to be, Gotham’s a tough town.”
“There are thirty-three actors in this piece,” Andrea Romano said with pride. “Probably thirty of them are doing three voices at least. It was a huge project but we didn’t want to cut any characters if we didn’t have to.”
Based on the famous miniseries by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1” follows an older Bruce Wayne in the fifth decade of his life. Ten years after he decided to retire his Batman identity, Wayne can’t help but notice a rise in Gotham City’s crime and chaos. Finally, as he begins suffering recurring flashbacks to his parents’ murder, Bruce decides to don the mask once again and returns to his war on crime — made more dangerous now that he’s not as fast as he used to be — and faces a new generation of evil.
The film has a massive amount of material from the original miniseries to cover, and with the original story being split into two films, the adaptation is already operating on a grander scale than previous DC animated features.
“Why can’t there be a three hour DVD?” Andrea Romano asked with a nod. “It would be so great! But 70 minutes is the industry norm. I don’t know why it can’t be longer — there are so many things I would’ve like to see expanded. But it does tease nicely.”
With source material familiar to nearly every comic fan, the adaptation had the potential to be boring or flat if simply presented as a retelling rather than an adaptation adding something new to consider. Thanks to Jay Oliva’s direction, the screenplay of Bob Goodman and Romano’s vocal direction, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1” does not disappoint. The pace is excellent, the characters strong, the scenes exciting. Similar to “Batman: The Animated Series,” this future version of Gotham has a timeless quality, featuring high tech equipment mixed in with what many 1980s comics and films pictured as the near future. As a result, the movie seems familiar, but not dated.
“I wanted to make it as close to the source material as possible, but I didn’t want to make it a motion comic,” Oliva said. “It’s a movie and it should be experienced as a movie, not as if Frank Miller is just reading the story to you. And you don’t want to try and make the book obsolete. The way the panels and pacing are is genius and you can’t do that directly in a film. You only have one second or two seconds across, so I try to get all the beats there and move the story along organically. Bob Goodman, who wrote the screenplay, did an amazing job. You get a good story here, and then you can read the graphic novels to get more of Batman’s inner monologue.”
The cast stands out as much as the direction. Peter Weller is an excellent Batman, bringing forth a warrior who can no longer hide behind a playboy faÃ§ade, a man who has simply seen and experienced too much and still commands fear and respect despite his age and weakening body. Ariel Winter is fantastic as Batman’s new Robin, Carrie Kelley, able to display a multi-faceted character in just a few lines. David Selby’s Gordon is, like Weller’s Batman, an old warrior but one with a hint of more optimism and humor. The film contains great performances all around, including the last two lines of the film, which nicely set up Part Two.
Although many fans consider “Batman: The Animated Series” voice actor Kevin Conroy to be the quintessential voice of the Dark Knight, Romano said that for something as individually iconic as “Dark Knight Returns,” the producers wanted a fresh take on the character.
“I’ve cast Batman so many times now, and it was hard enough the first time,” Romano said. “I’m the biggest Kevin Conroy fan. But I’m offered the job because I’m a freelance director and I have the option to say yes or no. Because it’s an older Batman and I like the story so much, I said yes, and my first words after that were, ‘Can I use Kevin Conroy?’ Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no. This time they said no, they wanted a fresh cast. But Peter Weller is a great Batman. He does a great job and he has a weight to his voice that just lets you know he’s had a life. He’s seen things.”
In the film, Bruce doesn’t merely dream about his parents’ death; he has waking flashbacks, indicating a recognized psychological condition rather than traditional grief.
“I added more flashbacks — to be more like post traumatic syndrome,” Oliva said. “The way Bruce Wayne copes with his parents’ death, he became Batman. By kicking ass and taking names, he became normal in a sense. But the past ten years since he stopped … it keeps getting worse and worse.”
The director also added motifs and minor changes to the film as a result of the additional flashbacks. “There’s a theme with red. Red is almost like a trigger to his flashbacks,” he said. “The introduction of Joe Chill, I did it different than the book, with Bruce Wayne underneath the lamplight and you seethe iconic image of his parents being dead underneath the lamp. And I turned to Bruce [Timm] and said, ‘Do you mind if I do something different here?’ And he said yeah, go ahead, because we had just done ‘Year One.’ To me, I always thought it would be cool if Joe Chill came out of the light and he’s just blown out. He’s faceless. And the birth of Batman is in the darkness … if you pay attention and look at [Bruce’s shadow], it’s a Batman cape. To me, like I said, the birth of Batman should be in Crime Alley as opposed to in the lamp light.”
As for the animated feature’s title character, Romano and Oliva both believe — despite his many appearances in numerous popular media — there isn’t really a danger of oversaturation simply due to Batman’s more mature nature, especially when it comes to “The Dark Knight Returns.”
“I don’t know that Batman, of all the superheroes in the DC Comics world, is one that’s always going to be kid friendly,” Romano said. “He is so dark and so many of his dark stories are so interesting. There’s a PG-13 rating with this one. I think it’s up to the parents to decide, ‘Is this something I can watch with my kid, or is this something where I should wait until my kid is 13?’ It is dark. So was ‘Under the Red Hood.’ But they’re such great stories.”
“It’s a PG-13 film, I’m not making this for kids,” Oliva added. “I’m making this for people who are fans of Batman first. I’m not going to go overly violent just for violence’s sake, but I want to stay true to the source material. I think the violence is tastefully done.”
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1” releases on DVD/Blu-ray and digital download September 25 and stars Peter Weller (“Robocop,” “Dexter”) as Bruce Wayne, Ariel Winter (“Modern Family,” “Young Justice”) as Carrie Kelley, David Selby (“Dark Shadows,” “The Social Network”) as Jim Gordon, Wade Williams (“Prison Break,” “Batman: Under the Red Hood”), and Michael Jackson (“Never Never,” “Green Lantern: Emerald Knights”) as Alfred Pennyworth.