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Batman: The Killing Joke

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 27 April 2017 02:35 (A review of Batman: The Killing Joke (2016))

Well, here’s a mixed bag. The Killing Joke is a powerful but slim volume that could never be feature-length without expanding the narrative, so expand it they did. And maybe it should have remained a slim 45 minutes now that I’ve seen just what they’ve done with it.


In the original text, Batgirl’s role is merely that of a broken female body that functions as the inciting incident for Batman and Gordon to take down the Joker. The prologue makes vague hand gestures towards giving her more agency, but she’s clearly still a novice pupil to Batman’s hardened veteran. Even worse is how they sexualized the character. It’s as if the creators wouldn’t buy the fact that Batman can care about Barbara Gordon as an actual human without turning first forcing her into his creepy hookup.


But wait! The prologue just keeps getting worse the longer it goes on. Eventually this chunk of the story just ends, and all of the threads and characters that we have spent the past thirty minutes investing in are immediately jettisoned off into the ether. There’s no smooth transition between this unnecessary stuff and the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke, unless Barbara Gordon as sacrificial lamb qualifies as such.


However, once The Killing Joke just adapts the text as is the film perks right on up. Brian Bolland’s art style doesn’t entirely mesh well easily with DC’s in-house animation style, but there are a few moments of noir-ish and cracked beauty. At times, scenes with the Joker look like motion comics, and I mean that as a compliment. The artwork isn’t always consistent though, with Barbara’s mouth frequently looking like a trout or going strangely off model.


It’s in these later scenes that everything is cooking. Not only do we get Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in top form, but Ray Wise makes for a nice Gordon. If any of these three performances would have faltered, then the film would not have worked at all. Tara Strong’s Batgirl is a nice lived-in performance, but it’s just a shame some of the scenes they’re forcing her to play.


Then there’s just how freaking creepy the whole carnival business is once you see it played out in action and not just on the page. I’m dying for a movie to adapt the image of Joker sitting atop a throne of baby doll parts. These are the strongest and best moments of the film. The Killing Joke has never been a story about Batgirl, it has always been a story about the Joker. Drop the awkward prologue and fast-forward to the straight adaptation for a chilling time.   

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Batman: Assault on Arkham

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 24 April 2017 02:53 (A review of Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014))

After seeing just how wonderful the Arkham games designs and overall style takes to animation, I’m hoping that maybe we’ll get a few more of these. Anything involving the Suicide Squad, or Task Force X depending on which character is spouting their code name, should be like this: dirty, smaller scale, and with a strong focus on a small handful of characters. They’re a duplicitous gang of amoral scoundrels, and half of the fun in watching them is wondering if they’ll turn on each other before completing their mission or getting revenge on their captors.


If you’re wondering if that description was a read at the live-action film, then yes, your reading skills are fundamentally solid. Assault on Arkham was the movie that I wanted Suicide Squad to be, but alas, that was not meant to be. I hope that a sequel or something like Gotham City Sirens can prove a course-corrective and bring the scale down to a smaller scale. We can clearly differentiate each character here, get a feel for their personalities and talents, and which ones are mostly likely to prove expendable as the narrative chugs along.


Coherence is always a solidly dependable friend to any storyteller, and there’s a clear objective in mind here. There’s the requisite twists and shocks that raise the dramatics like a frog in a boiling pot, but none of it strays from the core of these characters. It’s also just a ton of fun to watch Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, Shark King, Killer Frost, and Black Spider interact with each other. Throw in smaller roles for Batman, the Joker, Penguin, and the Riddler and you have a solid ensemble of major names dropping in to fill in some gaps on which these lesser-known entities are.


Of course, it’s all fun and games until the Joker breaks loose, heads start exploding, Arkham turns into a madhouse, and there’s a dirty bomb on the loose. By this point, Assault on Arkham threatens to fly completely off the tracks, but the strength of the characters saves the day. Deadshot, Harley, and Joker fighting it out on a helicopter while Batman tries to defuse a bomb is solidly entertaining stuff. I’m not entirely sure we needed seemingly every boss fight from Arkham Asylum glimpsed in quick cameos, but they’re so nicely done that I can’t complain too loudly.


I would if we can get a whole spinoff series from the Arkham-verse of these films. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Arkham-verse variation of Gotham City Sirens, Birds of Prey, Hush, or any number of other stories that the games have either flirted with or outright referenced through mini-games without digging into their larger significance and strengths. While not as strong as Under the Red Hood or Year One, Assault on Arkham still ranks fairly high in DC’s animated Batman film canon.

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Batman: Bad Blood

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 24 April 2017 02:34 (A review of Batman: Bad Blood (2016))

As of right now, this is the final entry in the Damian Wayne trilogy of films detailing his introduction into the Bat-Family, his eventual crossroads, and here we see him returning to the fold fully converted. Bad Blood also introduces us to Batwoman, already operating but brought under the wing (so to speak), and Batwing, brand new to the superhero game and team. This is clearly the best of the trilogy for one simple reason, and that’s how closely the story sticks to character and drama and moves away from violence and explosions.


The tension between Damian and Dick, Bruce and his protégées, and the two new recruits to the entirety of the Bat-Family keeps this thing humming. Batwing doesn’t get quite enough play here, but he adds a nice spark of personality and diversity to the team. It’s quite humorous to see Dick Grayson wear the cowl, and his distinct discomfort in the role adds some fun comedic moments both solo and with Damian’s snotty intellect. Yet it’s Batwoman that’s the clear standout in this thing, bringing a tragic backstory, a fully realized female character, and a sense that we want to learn more about her. Would it be outside the realm of possibility to see DC animated films take a swing at Elegy soon?


However, there’s still a glaring problem with Talia in these films. She plays a larger part of the narrative this time around, but she’s a complete 180 from her appearance in Son of Batman. Granted, caring and occasionally sympathetic anti-heroine and callous, psychotic mastermind exist simultaneously for her in the comics, but one film places her entire characterization on one side and the other on the reverse side. There’s no bridge between the disparate sides of her personality between them. In Son of Batman she’s a devoting mother, and in Bad Blood she’s ready to consider him expandable at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t entirely work when taken as three films telling one stretched out story.


Still, we watch these things for the sense of adventure and fun that they bring us, and Bad Blood’s glut of villains and smartly paced out action scenes. They’ve also stopped with the needless bloodletting and believability-shattering injuries. In the end, what saves the day are a surrogate and biological son making emotional pleas to their father. This choice feels like something stripped directly from the comics, and it’s a smart choice. Bad Blood’s still somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as these direct-to-DVD films go, but it’s a marked improvement in the Batman’s New 52 inspired loose adaptations. Check that cameo appearance for where the next eventually entry will take us. Frankly, I’m ready to see what that character has to offer.

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Batman vs. Robin

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 20 April 2017 08:20 (A review of Batman vs. Robin (2015))

A sequel to Son of Batman, Batman vs. Robin is an improvement over the first film, but it’s still mired in the blood and explosions that undermine the emotions at play here. We should care deeper about the fractures between Batman, Robin, Nightwing, and the presence of the Court of Owls. There’s simply too much story for too little a running time, and things that should mean more just dissolve on impact.


Talon and the Court of Owls deserve their own film trilogy to properly tell that story, one of the better modern Batman stories and the premiere tale of the New 52. Here, it’s merely background noise to the familial dysfunction between Damian’s darker impulses and Bruce’s more disciplined methods. The wedge they drive between father-and-son works thematically, but the Court and Talon remain vaguely defined presences throughout, especially the leader of the Court.


Economy of characters tells us that the lone female cast member is the most likely suspect, and she remains a cipher. There’s nothing to her, really, apart from her gigantic breasts that are constantly on proud display. Much like Talia in Son of Batman, this remains her defining characteristic. If these Batman films are going to continue to tell an on-going story, then they’ll need to branch away from the testosterone-fests of these two films or risk becoming dull.


Batman vs. Robin retains a similar animation problem in that characters like Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne look bizarre or have trouble staying on model, while there’s no element of that found in Nightwing or Batman. Then again, you came here for the action scenes, and those do not disappoint in their fluidity and grace. There’s still a problem of characters getting stabbed and mangled beyond a believable point of injury to still be able to complete such gravity-defying acts. Look, I’ll roll with the secret society, and gleefully watch the Dollmaker’s creepy cameo, but this is a pet-peeve of mine that quickly grates the more frequent it becomes. If I’m mentioning it, then it happens too often.


The film ends with Batman and Robin both reunited and fractured, and clearly paving the road for a further entry in the series. Hopefully we can get more voices from the Bat-Family in the sequels. Characters like Jason Todd or Tim Drake provide valuable contrast to Damian and Dick, and Barbara Gordon, Kate Kane, and Selina Kyle are sorely needed to readdress the gender disparity. There’s an entertaining film here, but DC and WB have released better films that found a nice contrast between the action and the emotions.

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Short Term 12

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 20 April 2017 04:24 (A review of Short Term 12 (2013))

We could have easily descended into emotional bathos and clichéd “hope and love wins” triumph of spirit stuff in Short Term 12, but we skirt past it. Oh, there’s a few spots where the machinations are in place to edge us towards that, but the remarkable work from an incredibly talented cast keeps it all real. Sometimes too painfully real, but these moments of bruised emotional connection are what make the film so magical and healing.


These kids come from rough spots, and two main facility managers understand their pains all too intimately. The story primarily concerns the lives of several of the kids and the managers, but as the film goes on it hones in on the connection between two of them. There’s Grace (Brie Larson, god she’s just so good), the facility manager with the deep understanding and empathetic connection with these kids, and new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a 14-year-old with a similar background to Grace.


Grace and Jayden take to each other slowly, and the scene where Jayden will eventually reveal the abuse she endures from her father is one that we know is coming, but not the particulars. Where Short Term 12 goes so beautifully right in this scene, as just one example, is how it manages to pack in character exposition and development in a way that feels grounded and real. Jayden doesn’t just verbally vomit up her confession, but presents it to Grace in the form of a fairy tale that’s emotionally devastating for in the ways that it’s both obliquely symbolic and metaphorically terrifying.


There’s several more scenes like this, perhaps no two more emotional cathartic or devastating than those involving Keith Stanfield’s Marcus. In one he sits with Mason (John Gallagher Jr., able to mine his role for laughs and quiet support) and delivers a rap detailing the emotional trauma his mother’s abuse left him with. In the other, Mason and Grace shave his head and Marcus bursts into tears questioning if there’s any visible scars left. You can feel the love and healing, the deep wells of emotional connection between these characters. Stanfield, a first-time actor, not only holds his own against stellar talents like Larson and Gallagher Jr., but he possibly emerges as the most memorable and deeply felt performance. Now that is really saying something.


Short Term 12 is a quiet little wunderkind that hits you hard with its sense of truth and honesty. Not even a moment that feels at odds with everything else around, Grace smashing a lamp of her higher-ups in a “damn the man” torrent of emotion springs to mind, can deter me from loving this film. It’s a great little movie all about the cycles of trauma, pain, healing, and moving on. I rooted for these kids, I’ve been these kids, and this feels incredibly authentic.

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Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 20 April 2017 03:04 (A review of Scoop)

Is this the sight of Woody Allen trying to make one of Alfred Hitchcock’s chic European comedic thrillers? If so, then Allen should promptly return to witty, urbane jokes, or his novelistic comedic-dramas, because trying to make something that combines murder-mystery with romance and ethnic supporting players like The Thin Man isn’t his strongest showing. It isn’t that Scoop is truly terrible, it’s far more mildly amusing and a pleasing time waster between his better works, it’s just that it feels discordant and repetitious.


And it’s never the fault of the game cast, chief among them Scarlett Johansson going all-in on the neurosis and tics and Hugh Jackman using his charm as subterfuge, who delivers their laughs with conviction. It’s just that the material is merely serviceable in spots, confounding in others, and just plain lazy in too many spots. There’s a sweet spot of about 45 minutes in the middle where everything is working well enough to make Scoop mute its loud problems. This is has got to be somewhere towards the bottom of the barrel for Allen.

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Son of Batman

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 15 April 2017 12:24 (A review of Son of Batman (2014))

For every positive attribute, there’s an equally negative one at play in Son of Batman. This sense of balance renders the film one of the more unmemorable and an indifferent entry in DC’s animated film series. It also marks the first entry in a trilogy of directly related films that up to this point had merely been a series of one-offs and adaptations of well-known and beloved titles. (The Dark Knight Returns’ two films function as a split singular volume similar to final entry in the Harry Potter film saga.)


It’s going to take me a while to warm-up to Jason O’Mara’s clenched and constipated vocal inflections as Batman, and I better get used to it since he’s not only voicing the role in the Damian Wayne trilogy, but in the Justice League/New 52 films as well. He just doesn’t feel appropriately intimidating or obsessive enough in the role, and his performance livens up during scenes where Batman engages in snark and humor. It begins to feel like an exceptionally violent sitcom or half-formed satirical take on the material.


While O’Mara’s voice work is a bit flaccid, Thomas Gibson as Deathstroke, Stuart Allan as Damian, and Sean Maher as Nightwing all do tremendous work. Primarily knowing Gibson from Dharma & Greg it’s mildly shocking to hear how dangerous and threatening he can make his vocals sound, but he brings a certain spark to the role that’s hard to pin down. It’s easier to pinpoint what works so well about Allan and Maher, they just absolutely nail their roles. Maher injects playfulness into Dick Grayson that’s entirely appropriate while Allan is perfectly entitled as the heir to one seriously warped family tree.


And all of that is well and good, voice work is a good chunk of the battle in making an animated film work, but the other is the animation itself. Son of Batman alternates between moments of great fluidity and beauty, and ones where the characters fly off model and generally appear like a gauzy, ultra-snazzy Saturday morning cartoon. It seems that all the animators cared about were the action scenes, the monstrous creations, and sight of characters defying physics in the ways that only comic book-style ninjas can. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne’s face frequently goes off model and Talia al Ghul’s characterization boils down to her gravity shattering breats.


This is the same studio that brought vivid life to Frank Miller’s drawings, that turned David Mazzuchelli’s expressionistic Year One into a gorgeous piece of animation, and captured Ed McGuinness’ dynamic drawing style? It’s a bit hard to believe given how disposable so much of it looks and feels. This isn’t just a fizzy early morning cartoon, but one that asks you to suspend your disbelief to such a degree that it becomes nearly comedic. Sure, a 10-year-old could take an entire army of highly trained adults, why not. But he takes two knives to his forearms, pulls them out, and still uses them like nothing happened? That’s beyond camp and quickly escalating towards audience condescension. I think Variety described this thing best when they called it a “chop-socky Full House, or maybe, Full Cave.”

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Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 14 April 2017 11:39 (A review of Logan)

We have spent nearly twenty years watching the time-traveling, claw-heavy exploits of the X-Men, and Logan proves a fitting conclusion to many of these characters. In a perfect world, this would be the last X-Men film for a while, allowing enough time to go by for the audience to warm-up to the eventual reawakening of the franchise with entirely new players. (Baring, of course, the fringe players like Deadpool or the in-the-works New Mutants and X-Force.)


Logan plays out like a gritty Neo-Western, Shane but with claws and a dementia-addled telepathic genius. It is unquestionably the best of the three solo Wolverine outings and in the upper echelon of the X-Men franchise in general. Not only for its bloodstained hard truths and emotional complexities, but also for the ways in which is finally engages with the darker impulses and heart of Logan’s character that the prior PG-13 films could only flirtatiously blush at.


It would seem that co-writer/director James Mangold learned from his few questionable choices in The Wolverine, an already solid and terrific Wolverine film, to make something greater. There’s still a problem of bloated running time, something that’s gotten a strange-hold on our modern blockbusters in general, and the comic book superhero genre in particular. Personally, I could have easily trimmed a few sections here and there, and cut out a couple of the facial stabbings, but Mangold’s generally onto some thrilling sights and sounds here.


Not only for the ways in which the carnage is liberally dished out, but for the ways that he makes sure we pull back and look at the physical and emotional cost it takes out on our characters. The best of these films, like the Nolan Batman trilogy, never lose sight of the people beneath the heroics and the moral, emotional, and physical dilemmas and traumas they encounter in their pursuits for the greater good. This is felt throughout the script, but given visceral life in Hugh Jackman’s strongest showing in the role up to this point, and if this truly is the end for him then he’s going out on a glory note.


Jackman’s long been a charm bomb in any of his projects, and he makes the odd sight of an elderly Logan wearing reading glasses while wearing blood stained clothing strangely hilarious and nearly poetic in its world-weary and battered heroism. He gets a rich symphony to play here, acting as both surrogate son to a sundowning Xavier and father figure to Laura, a young girl with similar powers, claws, and rage issues. If you stuck this performance in an end-of-year drama without the superhero sheen, he’d be rolling in awards considerations and hosannas.


While reliable players like Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant are invaluable to pull your emotional interest, and Richard E. Grant is reliably oily as the big bad, it’s newcomer Dafne Keen as Laura that’s the most unexpected performance. Of course, X-23 is one hell of a character in the comics, another lab experiment alternating between taking their rage out upon the world and finding a place of peace, be it inner or a physical location. Keen is charismatic and enigmatic in the role, having to convey complex emotional shifts in a primarily mute role through body language and non-verbal grunting. I want big things for her in the future.


Logan is the strongest showing for an X-Men film since Days of Future Past, and one of the strongest recent showings for a Marvel property in who knows how long for its daring to shake up the formula. That near two-and-half-hours runtime can prove a case of too much (the aggressive clone, the farm scenes, protracted scenes of ultra-violence), but there’s just too much that’s good, smart, and emotional engaging here. If this is truly how we say goodbye to many of these characters as played by these actors, then it’s a near-perfect and deeply satisfying way to say goodbye to old friends.

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The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 10 April 2017 12:47 (A review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2)

The finale to The Dark Knight Returns is a stronger film, and one that is informed by the escalating paranoia, trauma, and nihilistic violence of its predecessor. It hits the ground running at full speed and never slows down until the dust settles between Superman and Batman’s climatic fight. It’s a strong showing for DC’s animated film branch, and a worthy adaptation of a towering piece of comic book iconography.


That last piece becomes clearer when you watch the films in one go, as a deluxe two-and-half hour descent into how a legend dies and reemerges in the underground. It picks up with the mutant gangs dispersal into various sub-groups after Batman defeats their leader and we get to witness the brutal fight between Batman, Robin, Bruno and her gang. This sequence also quickly introduces us to Superman, here reconfigured as the lapdog of the Reagan administration. From there we plow through the final confrontation with Joker, Gotham descending into chaos, a nuclear strike, and, of course, the infamous battle that closes out the story.


That’s a lot of material to get through, but the film never feels rushed or incomprehensible. A lot of that triumph goes to just how engaging and fluid the animation is. Some of Frank Miller’s more bonkers sequences and ideas look incredibly dynamic and unique in motion, like the two plump robotic children that work for the Joker or the sight of Batman and Robin emerging into self-destructing Gotham on horseback. Even better is just how astounding the action sequences translate here. Part 1 had a few minor sequences of action and violence, but that was more of a prelude to the never-ending violence on display here.


Sure, I can rhapsodize about just how awesome it is to see Superman and Batman’s Thunderdome-style death match, but the real sequence that stuck with me is the Tunnel of Love last stand with Joker. Michael Emerson’s vocal work is astounding, marrying to Miller’s more feminine, ambiguously queer psychotic reading of the Joker like a hand in glove, and his unhinged cackle and daring brings a certain elevated height to the scene. Joker’s eventual snapping of his own neck pushes the nihilistic violence of the sequence into even darker and more brutal territory than it existed on the page, and that’s really saying something.


Peter Weller’s vocal work in Part 1 was consistent, but there’s a few moments here that his line readings completely deflate. His reading of the “I am the law!” monologue doesn’t really jive with the scene playing out. He lacks a certain mania and guttural push that would have really sold the scene. Weller’s too even-keeled in a few scenes where Batman’s sanity should be questioned, too controlled when his obsession should be reaching a scary, near breaking point. He’s still solid for most of the film, but these moments of tonal inconsistency stand out.


There’s still a lot that’s good to great about this film. The reunion between Batman and Catwoman, however brief, is filled with unresolved emotions and a lived-in intimacy that’s quietly heartbreaking. The scene where Superman becomes a zombie-like creature after a nuclear bomb explosion is terrifying in all the best ways. While Ariel Winter’s vocal work brings a youthful sense of gumption and verve to every scene she’s in, and Mark Valley’s Superman is a worthy new addition to the stable of voice actors who’ve brought him to life. How exactly the managed to reign this material into a PG-13 zone is anyone’s guess since so little of it is watered down or elided instead of shown outright. While neither one is a complete home-run, both of them are uniformly strong and out-epic many of the live action brethren. This is what Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was supposed to look like.

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The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 9 April 2017 09:46 (A review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (2012))

Adapting Frank Miller’s iconic deconstruction of the Dark Knight mythos is a herculean effort for any creative team ballsy enough to try it. Not only was it a meta-commentary on the logical end-point of Batman’s borderline-insanity and obsessive nature, but a pitch-black satire on the entirety of the superhero enterprise. There’s just so much narrative that adapting proves a challenge of which tone to stick with, what material to exercise, and just how long do they want this thing to last?


Well, by this point, the minds running DC’s direct-to-video animated film line deserves your trust that you’ll figure it all out. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is an immensely satisfying work that acts as something of a vocal warm-up for the operatic mayhem to follow in Part 2. It begins with Batman living a dull life in retirement, watching as Gotham has descended into chaos with its savior/symbol, and ends with the reemergence of his greatest villain from a catatonic state. In-between these well-known moments Batman takes on the mutants, Carrie Kelley becomes the new Robin, and panel-after-panel is giving vivid life from the source text.


It’s notable that despite the numerous flirtations various other Batman properties have done with this material, including Tim Burton’s 1989 film, the Nolan trilogy, and a segment in Batman: The Animated Series’ episode “Legends of the Dark Knight,” just how well this material takes to the film medium. BTAS’ tiny segment was proof that Miller’s distinctive angular artwork could translate well to animation, but seeing it here is really something else. Not only were they faithful to the look and feel of the original work, but they fine-tuned it enough for fluidity’s sake.  


While not everything is a successful translation of the bleak source material, or its abundant dark humor. Look no further than the media’s various talking heads. In the comic, they acted as something of a Greek chorus and response to more paranoid and unhinged mental ramblings of Batman, and losing much of Batman’s inner monologue weakens the presence of the media’s interjections. It feels tilted too far to one side of the equation instead of finding a nice balance.


And for all of the grit and darkness on display, there’s also a few instances too many of the animation being brightly lit or somehow dulling the grittier, darker tone of the material. This is slightly to be expected given how inky and scratchy Frank Miller’s drawings can be, but when something like the fight with the mutant gang leader is so expertly done, then moments of a too sleek and shiny looking Gotham-in-chaos tend to standout more.


This isn’t enough to hamper the overall work as it sets up the pieces beautifully for the carnage that’s about to unfold. I mean, we still have Batman fighting Superman, the Joker, and heaps of Cold War paranoia (which for a while there felt antique, but appears to be making a comeback). It’ll take you a minute to not expect Kevin Conroy and company’s infamous voices to emerge from these characters, but give Peter Weller and the others a chance, they do solid work. (Highest points goes to Ariel Winter who is positively perfect as Carrie Kelley/Robin.)


The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a deeply entertaining and engrossing adaptation of the first half of the material. I swear, ending it on Joker’s awakening was a stroke of genius that gets you pumped for the real visceral action that’s about to happen. It pays homage to the material while effectively working as a solid variation of it. Isn’t that all you can really ask of an adaptation?

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