“Part 2” of “The Dark Knight Returns” picks up more or less where “Part 1” left off. The Mutants have been disbanded, though they now prowl the streets in a series of smaller gangs (one even modeled after Batman), and the Joker has revived from his catatonic state. Where “Part 2” differs strongly from “Part 1” however, is in the scale of the story. No longer is this a personal account of Bruce Wayne’s return to the cape and cowl. Now we see his standing in the world at large as well as the effects his fame has caused.
As with “Part 1”, the media system factors in heavily. Newscasters and talk show hosts debate and discuss Batman’s role in society as well as the negative implications his vigilante justice has on the city. It even reaches a national level when the President (shown to be a Reagan caricature) is questioned about the Batman’s return. This is where we get a better view of the time and the setting of this story. Although it’s meant to be the future, it is clearly set in the 1980’s cold war. The rising tensions between the US and Russia have brought them into armed conflict, but the reason the nuclear apocalypse hasn’t yet occurred is in part thanks to the one superhero that’s not only allowed to wear his tights, but does so in service for the government, and that is none other than Superman.
Apparently ten years prior to the movie’s events, all superheroes were outlawed, leaving only the Man of Steel still in action. Superman has become a government lapdog, and we get to see him in action against Russian tanks, soldiers, and even a nuclear missile as he deals with the conflict in Corto Maltese. It’s not nearly as nuanced and prominent as the cold war themes of “Watchmen”, but it plays a significant role in establishing the difference between the characters of Superman and Batman.
The plot of “Part 2” deals has a few different acts, the first one being the final battle with the Joker. The Joker, this time voiced by Michael Emerson, has gotten himself a slot on popular talk show and is back in action in every way he’s known to be. The classic tricks with laughing gas, murders, and all around madness ensue almost immediately. He and Batman have their fated face off in a terrific setting befitting a hero and his arch-nemesis; a theme park and the tunnel of love. It’s pretty great stuff, although Emerson as the Joker is only a fair performance. It’s not terrible, but he’s nowhere near approaching the level of Mark Hamill’s Joker, nor is he as interesting as John DiMaggio from “Under the Red Hood”. He’s just okay, which is sad because the Joker looks fantastic in this, in terms of character expressions and animations. The rest of the cast is solid, with Peter Weller still a good choice for an aged Batman and Mark Valley as a convincing Superman.
After the Joker plot comes to an end, the cold war takes a hold on Gotham when an EMP from a nuclear explosion blacks out the entire city. As you might expect from a city that produced Batman’s gallery of rogues, anarchy follows. To make matters worse, Superman has been tasked by the President himself to bring Batman down, not because of his actions (since everything Batman does seems to be the right thing), but because his vigilantism is an embarrassment to the authorities, who are shown to be inept (to say the least).
The animation is excellent once again, and Frank Miller’s characters are brought to life in a surprisingly convincing manner. The action is also very intense and over the top, particularly the duel between the Joker and Batman or his later fight with Superman, but it falters when Batman is shown to take on large groups. There are at least two scenes showing him battle policemen, and the incompetence of the cops is almost distracting. Most of the time they just stand there, waiting for him to punch them, and when they fire their machine guns, not a single bullet seems to find its mark. There are times when Batman is out in the open, within ten yards, and an entire squad of cops with machine guns can’t manage to hit this guy. Like the storm troopers from “Star Wars”, the Gotham City Police can’t aim worth crap.
“The Dark Knight Returns” holds up surprisingly well, though there’s no denying the story shows its age. That said, these two-part movies are among the better of the animated Batman features. They’ve been incredibly faithful and surprisingly good adaptations of the famous graphic novel, doing justice to the Frank Miller story that brought the caped crusader out of the light and back into the dark of the night.