“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2,” Warner Brothers Home Entertainment’s second in a special two-part DVD series adapting Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 DC Comics graphic novel, held it’s West Coast premiere at the Paley Center For Media in Beverly Hills. As Batman fans of all ages rubbed elbows with the cast and crew on the red carpet, CBR News caught up with the creative people behind “The Dark Knight Returns,” including director Jay Oliva.
A longtime animator and director, an enthusiastic Oliva compared “The Dark Knight Returns” to his other superhero animation work, such as Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” direct-to-DVD film and DC Entertainment’s “Young Justice” television show.
“I was a huge fan of [‘The Dark Knight’] but at the same time I wanted to give it my director kind of flair, so one of the differences from the past stuff that I’ve worked on is they didn’t want to cut anything, we basically put everything we could in parts one and two, there’s only a few things that we left out,” Oliva explained. “The nice thing is Bruce Timm allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do — I had a checklist of course, but every time I asked him, ‘Bruce, is it ok if I do this?’ he was like, ‘Sure, why not!'”
Though Oliva was not originally lined up to direct the film, “They asked if I wanted to storyboard on it and I said sure, give me this sequence in part two, because I wanted to board the Joker/Batman sequence,” the director told CBR. Laughing, Oliva then recalled that week later he was suddenly called into a meeting, which worried the director as he was convinced he was about to be fired.
“They said the director was going to be moving on to another project, would you like to take over? I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is insane!'” Oliva laughed again.
Tackling the look of the film was a challenge for the director as he and Executive Producer Bruce Timm struggled to balance Miller’s art with the demands of animation.
“It had to feel like ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ but not exactly like Frank Miller’s work. One of the things I watched was that episode of ‘Legends Of The Dark Knight’ that Bruce Timm had done where they did a kind of homage to the Dark Knight Returns and I remember watching it thinking, ‘Oh, that’s so Frank Miller!’ When I look at it now, it’s very Bruce Timm style, but because of the subject matter, because of the colors, it felt like Frank Miller. So because of that, I thought, ‘Well if we make it feel like Frank Miller and have the same subject matter and colors it should be fine,'” Oliva said.
The DVD stars a high-profile set of actors and voice actors, such as “Modern Family’s” Ariel Winter as Robin, “The Social Network’s” David Selby as Commissioner Gordon, “Person Of Interest’s” Michael Emerson as the Joker and Conan O’Brien as talk show host David Endocrine. Cult television and film actor Peter Weller heads the cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne, laughing on the red carpet as he summed up his method for getting into character.
“You close your eyes, you jump up and down, grab the money, get in a fast car, drive away!” Weller joked, miming running for the door.
On a more serious vein the actor told CBR that Batman was a hard character to get a handle on, partially because of the icon-status of the hero but mainly because of the logistics of voice recording.
“It’s all synthetic acting. You’ve got to make it up; you’ve got nothing in that booth but yourself and a microphone. There’s no costume you’ve got to do, no gun slinging, no relationships, no other actors nothing,” Weller stated.
Best known for his turn as Officer Murphy in the “RoboCop” franchise and actually met and became friends with Frank Miller during “RoboCop 2” as Miller wrote the original screenplay. Despite this, Weller admitted that he was a newcomer to “The Dark Knight.”
“I’ve read a lot of Frank Miller, he’s an old friend, but I’ve not really read that,” Weller said, before looking around furtively at the Batman-adoring crowd thronging past to the auditorium.
“Wait, let me lie and say, yes, I have!” Weller amended with a laugh.
While Weller knew Miller better than the source material, “The Dark Knight Returns” screenwriter Bob Goodman was a huge fan of the graphic novel, though his love of the story could actually be a hindrance when it came to adaptation.
“The adaptation process involves getting your head really into the material, memorizing every last little happy morsel of it, and then putting it aside and saying, ‘How am I going to tell this as a movie?’ or in this case, two movies,” Goodman explained.
So when it came to breaking down Miller’s detailed panels and crowded pages into scenes, “I personally didn’t worry about it panel by panel or this line or that line, it was more capturing the intentions, capturing the ideas and then making the movie that works with that story,” Goodman said.
As for the core of the story itself, though there were a lot of ideas flung around in the original graphic novel Goodman stated that for the DVDs he tried to keep the focus squarely on Bruce, an idea Oliva also embraced.
“One of the main things I wanted to do is keep the narrative going, because when it comes down to it, it’s about Batman, it’s about Bruce Wayne, it’s about his coming back from retirement and his redemption,” Oliva said. “So we trimmed all the fat that wasn’t part of that story, and some of those scenes I love, like the scene with the mom with the paint, which is one of my favorite scenes but it didn’t fit into the narrative of ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ at least the story I was trying to tell.”
The darker story is also quite a departure from Goodman’s usual animated work, and the writer laughed as he started numbering all the times he’s written a version of Batman, be it for “The Batman,” “Batman Beyond” or “The New Batman Adventures.”
“Someone else told me how many different versions of Batman I had written. I had no idea, it was like nine or thirteen or some huge number of different versions!” Goodman laughed.
Despite his years writing the character, Miller’s Batman gave Goodman the chance to go darker than he’s ever gone with the character before.
“Obviously this is sort of the extreme version of Batman where you really get to explore the most challenging questions about vigilantism, the questions of his psychological state, of whether he is right for what he’s doing and how society accepts what he’s doing,” Goodman said, adding, “So it’s the meatiest version of Batman that you could ever do, and I don’t know where you go darker than this.”
Goodman was not the only one who had spent decades of his life in the fictional Gotham as veteran animator and producer Bruce Timm, creator of “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Batman Beyond,” also served as executive producer for both parts of “The Dark Knight Returns.”
“It’s definitely one of my favorite stories,” Timm told CBR, recalling the first time he laid eyes on the story. “I remember distinctly being in the comic book shop in 1986 when it first hit the stands and going, ‘What the hell is this? This is Batman?’ but pleasantly so! I was knocked out by it back in the day and I think it still holds up. I think it’s a brilliant comic.”
Laughing, Timm also admitted that, like the attempt to adapt Frank Quitely’s comic book art for the 2011 “All-Star Superman” animated film, Miller’s style proved harder to translate to animation than he first thought.
“We always think they’re going to be a little bit easier!” Timm said with a grin. “It’s funny, some of the projects we’ve done which have been adaptations we didn’t even bother to try animating the artist style because we thought, ‘Well there’s just no way to adapt Doug Mahnke’s work’; I love Doug Mahnke, but his stuff is so subtle.”
When it came to “All-Star Superman” and Quitely’s work, Timm and the animation team were presented with another difficult challenge. “We looked at Frank Quitely and we said, ‘Oh, Frank Quitely, his stuff is really distinct, we’ll be able to figure it out!’ And it was really hard,” Timm said. “Same thing with Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight.’ You have this idea in your head, ‘Oh, I know what Frank Miller’s Dark Knight looks like, that’ll be easy to animate.’ It just takes a lot of trial and error to figure it out — now he’s too fat, now he’s too muscular, now he’s too this or that.”
While “The Dark Knight Returns” is one of Warner Bros.’ most adult and longest comic book adaptations in the DC animation library, Timm said that future projects would most likely be lighter, and definitely shorter.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be a trend,” Timm said. “I think it was a special case with this one just because it was the most famous Batman comic of all time and the home video people thought it was worth the investment.”
As the cast, crew and audience filed into the theatre, an enthusiastic Oliva ended by stating that while there were many individual parts and characters he loved from the graphic novel, like Goodman he felt the most important story in “The Dark Knight” was the story of Batman — and Gotham’s — redemption.
“Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same, and by Bruce suppressing Batman he was getting post-traumatic stress from his parents death over and over again and was sort of going crazy,” the director said. “So in order to bring balance to his life he had to embrace Batman, and by doing so he’s able to heal the city of Gotham, because Gotham without Batman is going to hell. And its also sort of a social commentary that the world needs heroes, people to come up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough, this is what human rights are about, this is what I’m going to fight for.'”
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2” is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.