Read-Only File – The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

Of all the comic books Batman has headlined over the decades, perhaps no single title has proven as influential, especially to movie adaptations, as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. For better or worse, the 1986 graphic novel set the template for every “dark” and “gritty” depiction of the character to follow.

The comic was adapted directly into a two-part DTV animated feature in 2012 and 2013, but I’m not going to review that here. My Batathon will only focus on Batman’s theatrical movies. I just don’t have the time to look at everything else. However, I felt that the Dark Knight Returns graphic novel itself merited some coverage due to the degree it influenced nearly every Batman movie made after its publication. You can see unmistakable traces of it in the films by Burton, Nolan, Snyder, and most recently Reeves. Schumacher not nearly as much, obviously, but even that director once claimed that he wanted to make a third Batman movie that would have been more in line with this vision of the character.

The Dark Knight Returns (1986) excerpt 1
Title:The Dark Knight Returns
Year of Release: 1986
Author: Frank Miller
Format: Graphic Novel

In the prior two decades leading up to this book, the main pop culture mental image of Batman was of Adam West’s do-gooder Caped Crusader from the campy 1960s TV series. Even most of the comics and cartoons in those years had drifted pretty far from the original noir-ish conception he started as in the 1940s, and instead portrayed Batman as a wholesome boy scout who only fought crime from within the confines of the law. Frank Miller wasn’t having any of that. In his revisionist take on the character, Batman became a brooding, tormented vigilante who took the law into his own hands and used brutal tactics to purge Gotham of crime by any means just short of murder, at which he barely drew a line.

Written during Koch-era New York, The Dark Knight Returns is set in a dirty, decaying Gotham City that seems insurmountably overrun with crime. Batman went missing for ten years, and all the city’s problems he ever fought to solve have festered and intensified during his absence. Finally unable to watch his home crumble around him any longer, the reclusive Bruce Wayne pulls the old Bat-suit out of the closet and embarks on his own personal war on crime, savagely attacking and punishing muggers, rapists, murderers, and other assorted scumbags. While doing so very effectively strikes fear into some of these lowlifes, the worst of them (especially the fearsome Mutant gang) become even more aggressive and dangerous. Batman’s reappearance triggers a kind of psychosis throughout the city that may actually make things worse.

This puts Batman on the wrong side of the new police commissioner, who labels him a public menace and orders him arrested. It also inspires some of his old enemies to come out of retirement. Eventually, the situation escalates to such a state that the President of the United States calls in the country’s most powerful weapon (no, not a nuke; the one that wears blue tights and a red cape) to bring the matter under control. Batman, of course, already has a contingency plan for that.

In writing this comic, Frank Miller envisioned an older, grizzled Batman haunted by the ghosts of his past. He’s suffered additional tragedies beyond the original loss of his parents, and feels responsible for some of them. At the same time, he’s grown so militant and jaded that he may not be able to see the world clearly any longer, nor his own place in it. Scarred and weathered, the only things still keeping him going are his anger and a misguided sense of righteousness.

In 1986, this was a shocking change to the character, written with unexpected complexity. In addition to the darker tone, the comic has a deliberately disjointed narrative that constantly rams multiple character points-of-view right into each other and routinely clips dialogue into fragments of sentences, stream-of-consciousness style. The artwork is often cluttered and messy. The effect can be disorienting, yet the story has a propulsive momentum that makes you want to read the whole thing in one sitting.

The Dark Knight Returns (1986) excerpt 2

The Dark Knight Returns is a seminal work of comic book fiction, and I won’t pretend to have any new insights into it that haven’t been hashed-out by countless others in the three decades since it was published. I will say, however, that the politics of the piece can be a little problematic. Again, I’m hardly the first to notice this, and it isn’t my intent to step onto a political soapbox here, but the story boils down to a vigilante power-trip fantasy. Miller attempts to head off criticism of this by adding a layer of satire, in which insipid media talking-heads natter on about Batman being a fascist, while the Dark Knight himself is out there on the streets getting the job done that nobody else has the balls to do. In modern parlance, Miller was “trolling the Libs” years before that became a multi-billion dollar industry of its own. In his later work and public appearances, the author would lean more heavily into this sort of thing (along with other, more serious issues), but it’s evident enough here to merit an eye-roll or two.

That’s as much as I’ll say about that. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, besmirch this comic. It’s a tremendous piece of storytelling, masterfully executed. Even the aspects I might take issue with have some nuance and depth to balance them out.

As mentioned earlier, just about every Batman movie made in the wake of this comic took heavy inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns, either in tone, style, or narrative. In none is this clearer than Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, which closely copies the image of an older, beefier Batman and directly lifts significant chunks of the story.

I expect that the book will continue to find admirers and copycats in future portrayals of the character for decades to come.

The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

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