All in all, it’s been a pretty good year for Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego. In The Dark Knight Rises, he beat up an asthmatic bodybuilder, then went on an Italian vacation; The Court of Owls reminded him just how much he hates birds; and now one of his most seminal adventures is getting the animated treatment for the silver screen in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1. Available today on DVD and Blu-ray, the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s essential The Dark Knight Returns makes a fitting present on the 20th anniversary of the dearly beloved Batman: The Animated Series. According to the Wikipedia page for anniversary presents, they were supposed to give us china, but we’ll settle for an awesome adaptation of one of our favorite Batman tales instead.
Although Beverly Hills is about as far from the seedy streets of Gotham City as one can get, the Dark Knight and friends paid a visit to the Paley Center for Media for the film’s premiere, and we had a chance to speak to a veritable who’s who of Batmanimation. The pressure was on, and executive producer Bruce Timm understood: “For a project like this, we couldn’t just use any old Batman cast that we’d used before; it had to be perfect.” Playing the part of the aged Bruce Wayne is none other than RoboCop himself, Peter Weller. How does a man who created a pop culture icon deal with playing another pop culture icon?
“There’s a legacy of brilliant guys who have done it before me. There’s also a history I have with Frank Miller – he directed RoboCop 2,” said Weller. “Batman has a void in his soul, no particular light or ideology so he throws it outward, which is all he can do. He uses his amazing intellect to fight crime – which is a cliché – but if everyone had an amazing intellect, they’d use it to fight crime too. At the same time, the guy’s old. He’s older. He’s not the young stud of the 1930s that he was. He’s coming out of retirement. I felt that I was coming out of retirement myself. I put my career on hold for a little over a year to delve into a Ph.D. program, so I had a lot to relate to.” So, to all those who cocked an eyebrow at Weller’s casting: your move, creep.
Moreover, shame on you for cocking said eyebrow, because this film was cast and voice directed by the one and only Andrea Romano. If you don’t know her name, you surely know her work: Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Tiny Toons, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Legend of Korra (which stars our own Janet Varney), just to name a few. Weller was her top choice to play Bruce Wayne, but we asked her to shed some light on the casting process for us. With a knowing look, she explained: “Peter Weller was on my list from previous projects and that’s my first list I go to when I cast projects. After reading the source material and looking at the character design, I thought, ‘Oh, Peter Weller!'”
Weller wasn’t the only one Romano enlisted. “There’s 33 speaking characters just in Part 1 alone,” she said with relieved sigh, “so I was able to fill this cast with talented voice actors, some of whom I’ve worked with for years like Rob Paulsen, Maurice LaMarche, Dee Bradley Baker that I knew I could get multiple voices from and we’d be able to play together.” Add in all-star performances from David Selby (commissioner Gordon) and Modern Family‘s Ariel Winter (Carrie Kelly) and you have a regular Justice League of voice acting talent.
Securing proper vocal talent is only half the battle. Making a film based on one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time is a task in and of itself, which is something that writer Bob Goodman understands. “Obviously, there’s the challenge of knowing that I’m dealing with precious material,” offered Goodman. “I love the material; it’s seminal for me. I’m the right age where it made a big difference for me when it came out. I know there will be a lot of people out there who feel that way, who will be looking over our shoulders while we do this. That being said, my job was to make this a movie.”
One of the biggest decisions relating to the project was the decision to split the project into two films, a first for DC Animated Features, but a move that ultimately makes sense. Goodman continued, “It’s an incredibly cinematic book, it’s not a movie. Everything I did was in the name of paying proper service to Frank’s ideas and intentions. I had to do a lot of restructuring and moving things around though because at the end of the day, we’re making a movie.” Were the cast and crew feeling the pressure? “We try not to think about that while we’re working on it,” said Timm with a laugh. “It’s always in the back of your head, the realization that you have to hit certain things correctly. Other than that, you kind of have to just do it. You can’t get stage fright or freeze up and worry too much about it.
Directing an animated feature – especially one that’s adapted from source material – isn’t as simple as merely making the pages move on-screen. Director Jay Oliva explained his process: “You want to find shots that are iconic, but you don’t want to handicap yourself trying to lead up to that image. I looked at what directors like Zack Snyder did for Watchmen and 300, what Robert Rodriguez did for Sin City, and tried to see how they balanced recreating these iconic shots with preserving the film’s integrity.”
Is this the animated film that Gotham needs or the one that it deserves? It may be too early to pass judgment, but one thing is certain: the joke’s on you if you let this film pass you by.