Posted - September 4, 2011 | Updated : April 25, 2012 | August 16, 2015

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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Night Returns is written and drawn by Frank Miller.

It deserves its place as one of the most highly regarded comics around. But for all that, this work isn't perfect. For one thing, it's badly drawn (Yes, it is.). For another, it makes use of panels shaped like classic tv monitors every time it features the media in the story. And the media is featured an excessive amount of time in this comic; too much, really. Also, the viewpoint about people is too pessimistic. That said, this work took hold of me and pulled me along into a thrilling ride. At its best, The Dark Night Returns is completely immersive, making me forget about everything outside its pages, engaging me the way only great comics can.

Join me as we take a look at one of the most important, and influential, Batman stories.

As the tale starts, Bruce Wayne is fifty-five years old and he hasn't been the Batman for the last ten years - ever since the second Robin, Jason Todd, died at the hands of the Joker. For reasons never explained Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne are not on speaking terms; only the faithful Alfred is with Bruce.

The world has changed also. Apparently, there was a government-led crackdown on all super-heroes. Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, has left for space. Princess Diana, Wonder Woman, has retreated to Amazon Island. Green Arrow and Superman had a falling out that is kept unexplained, nonetheless, whatever it was still manages to get an angry rise out of Clark. Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, is armless and a renegade. Superman works for the government and follows U.S. government orders only. Gotham is still a wild place with hordes of out of control youth called Mutants flirting with crime. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement. Catwoman is old; her days of action well behind her, but Bruce still loves Selina. It is a bleak picture that greets us as the story opens.

One of the oldest things about Batman is his trauma at the murder of his parents; right in front of him so many years ago in Crime Alley. At fifty-five, this is still very much Bruce's problem. He's still not over it.

The Batman persona, so long dormant, still smolders inside him. Bruce denies the Batman, making the Batman take on the impression of being another person inside Bruce Wayne. At one point, the Batman starts talking to Bruce. The words are very impressionable:

"The time has come. You know it in your soul. For I am your soul . . . you cannot escape me . . .you are puny, you are small -- you are nothing-- a hollow shell, a rusty trap that cannot hold me-- smoldering, I burn you-- burning you, I flare, hot and bright and fierce and beautiful-- you cannot stop me-- not with wine, or vows or weight of age-- you cannot stop me but still you try--still you run--you try to drown me out . . . but your voice is weak. . . "

 Potent stuff.

What follows is cliche, but its the kind of cliche that I would think we all want at this point in the tale. We are shown a series of crimes that are foiled by a dark garbed giant bat. After ten years he has returned. It's been so long that the Batman has gone beyond being regarded as an urban myth - even during the Gotham of his heyday a substantial number of Gothamites believed that the Bat was an urban legend created by the Gotham City Police Department to prevent crime. As the story begins, there  is a whole generation of people that grew up without Batman and simply haven't' heard of him. His reappearance brings on a feeling of déjà vu as if we are seeing the Batman on his first year and not his thirtieth.

Bruce has been fighting it for so long but when he returns, he finds his happiness, as this panel shows.

batman the dark knight returns panel : batman leaps

For every action a reaction. When the Batman returns so does Two-Face and, worst of all, the Joker. Insensate and nearly comatose all these years, the Joker starts showing signs of life. I really don't agree with this. Just because the hero comes back doesn't mean the villains return too. And, looking at it in reverse, just because the hero leaves doesn't mean that the villains retire. This is a tough sell for me; I don't buy it. But still that's what happens.

This is the mutant leader.

batman the dark knight returns panel : mutantleader

The visor is worn by all the mutants. It can't be coincidence that these mutants remind us of Cyclops.

This is Robin.

batman the dark knight returns panel : robin

Robin is Carrie Kelley. Yes, she's a girl and she becomes Robin in one of the most respected hero traditions of all: She dons a costume and gets out to get her fool ass handed to her - this is the way of all great superheroes; specially the ones without powers.

The art isn't all that terrible. I'm beginning to feel bad about my initial comment about it, even though it is true. Here are two of my favorite Batman panels from the book.

batman the dark knight returns panel : batman in car

batman the dark knight returns panel : batman parachuting

Now for the Mutant leader. As I said before, they're not really mutants; they're just a bunch of punk kids. Although the leader does not have any powers he is extremely fit - faster and stronger than Batman.  It is a reminder that Batman is fifty-five years old. The constant awareness of Batman pushing it maybe too far adds a lot of nervous tension to the read and is an integral part of the Dark Knight experience.

Have you seen 'Batman Returns'? Did you see the incredible Batmobile in that movie? Look at Frank Miller's version:

batman the dark knight returns panel : batmobile

More like the Bat Tank.

Now here is what I've been dreading. Safe in his tank, the Batman manages to make short work of the Mutants; but the Mutant leader jeers at him, calls him a coward; dares him to come out for a one-on-one. This is the part when I say to myself while reading : "Batman, don't be stupid. Stay in your tank and run this lunatic down. Don't take the bait". All the time knowing that the proud Batman will take the bait and come out.

And he does.

And he loses. That's right. The Batman loses the fight against the mutant leader. It's jaw-dropping.

batman the dark knight returns panel : batman loses

The only thing that prevents this story from ending prematurely is the timely arrival of Robin. Robin saves Batman; there is something very right in that. Where the hell is Dick ?

This seems to be the youngest Robin on record and is the most untrained. While Batman was in that tank he kept looking at the empty seat beside him and he kept thinking about Dick. It is absolutely no surprise that he forms an instant bond with Carrie, taking her under his wing, even against the advice of Alfred. It is, quite plainly, simple loneliness.

There is a very powerful scene in the book when Carrie nearly falls to her death. You can feel Bruce's concern through Miller's art and his relief at her being safe at last. Heck, I found myself mumbling "Good soldier. Good soldier", right along with the Batman.

batman the dark knight returns panel : carrie falls

What Carrie lacks in prowess she makes up for in courage. Going undercover, she helps Batman setup a rematch with the Mutant leader. It's time for round two.

This round, fought in front of the whole Mutant population, is won by the Bat. According to him its because he uses smarts instead of brawn.  I disagree. The match could have gone both ways. The Batman was lucky this time. But he did not win because he was lucky. Batman won because he was persistent. Batman won because he was gutsy and determined enough to set up a rematch in the first place. The Mutant leader did not lose because he got beaten up. The mutant leader lost because he never set up a third fight, a second rematch. He did not show persistence. The battle will go to the one who wants it the most. Incredible.

The Mutant leader may lack persistence but Joker does not. The Clown Prince of crime is set for another comeback.

With Batman's victory, a lot of the other Mutants pledge themselves to him and use the bat sign as their personal badge - shiftless youth indeed.

Although not attractive, Bruno is visually arresting. Obviously some kind of new Nazi, she goes around bare breasted and with her buttocks exposed, albeit, both body parts are painted over with swastikas.

batman the dark knight returns panel : bruno

The large ugly woman beating her up is Batman in one of his crazier disguises.

Now we have the arrival of Superman.

He is shown here in a very unflattering light. He is reduced to taking orders from the White House where he is a key deterrent to any and all enemies of the United States. Batman put it best when he says to Clark: "The power was ours but you gave it to them". The Green Arrow is absolutely pissed at Superman. But more on all this later.

First, the Joker. In the Elseworld's tale Kingdom Come a new kind of hero, Magog, won leadership from Superman and the others by killing the Joker. According to Magog, the crazy cycle of the Joker being incarcerated, escaping, then killing people had to be stopped - and he stopped it by killing the Joker. In the pages of The Dark Knight Batman is of the same mind. He is wracked with guilt over all the victims of the Joker throughout the years; he considers them his victims. He is beginning to realize that the only way to stop the death of innocents is to finally destroy the Joker. Something he should've done a long time ago.

We are again witness to a mass murder perpetrated by the Joker.

The last fight between Batman and the Joker is the most grueling in the whole book. Joker's eyes gets damaged and Batman gets both shot and stabbed. In the end Batman cannot do it. He cannot kill the Joker. He breaks his spine to paralyze him just short of killing him. In an incredible show of willpower it is the Joker who finishes the job; fatally breaking his spine himself. I love the fight scene because it is absolutely high octane. But I am less than impressed with the Batman here. How many more need to die before he has the sheer guts to end the Joker once and for all? And what kind of cruelty is this? It is much more merciful to kill  a person than to paralyze him.

We've already gone through a lot in this two hundred page epic but it's still not finished. That's how loaded The Dark Knight Returns is.

The last act begins with a nuclear counter-attack launched by the Russians in a war in which Superman acts as an unthinking pawn. Although Superman is able to divert the missile, it still explodes within the U.S. causing a nuclear winter and panic all over - including the streets of Gotham.  Beside the ineffectual police force, it is  the Batman who organizes riot control and for the first time in this book we see people helping each other.  A ray of hope.

Civil disturbances aside, the government finally decides to sic their attack dog Superman on Batman. Superman gives Batman the choice of venue. Batman chooses Crime Alley - where everything began for him.

So the big problem of the Batman is how to defeat Superman.

But, first of all, why does Batman hate Superman so? The Green Arrow pops in at this point and he hates Superman even more than Batman. Understandably so, since Superman seems to have something to do with Ollie's lost of an arm. An archer without an arm. He asks for a piece of the Big Boy Scout and Batman gives it to him. As for Batman, he hates Superman because Superman is a sell-out. Superman has turned his back on the very idea of the hero as a check, not only for criminals, but for the abuse of those in authority. And Superman gets his way because of his sheer power. But not this time; this time the Caped Crusader will school the Man of Steel.

The way Batman prepares for Superman reminds me of how Iron Man prepared for the Hulk in World War Hulk. In World War Hulk Tony Stark puts on the Hulkbuster armor; Batman puts on a heavy armor of his own. Stark failed to control the Emerald Giant entirely but the Batman has thought this thing out too much to fail.

What follows is Batman vs. Superman and arguably the best part of the The Dark Knight Returns.

Upon arrival, Superman is immediately met with a barrage of missiles and a full on hit from the Batmobile/Tank. It rattles him, but that's all. Batman then hits him with a sonic barrage that causes Clark's nose to bleed. Then the Bat absorbs the electrical power of the entire city and diverts it to Superman; then we have this powerful panel.

batman the dark knight returns panel : batman punches superman

Batman is just a guy and Superman is the most powerful being in all the comic universes so Batman has to endure a beat down for a while - then in comes the Green Arrow.

Ollie is armless, and, apparently, Bruce told him to just come in and be straightforward about it. But the Green Arrow likes grand entrances and flair, so he tangles with soldiers and engages in all sorts of tomfoolery; totally outside Batman's script.

batman the dark knight returns panel : GA

It all gets so out of hand that I begin to laugh as the Batman admonishes the Green Arrow to "get yourself killed in your own time". It would not be Oliver Queen if it was anything than this. Priceless.

So what's Oliver's big surprise for Superman? First surprise is he's still a crack shot with the arrow even without the arm. Second surprise is kryptonite.

batman the dark knight returns panel : kryptonite

After this, we have the most memorable panel and the most memorable line in all of The Dark Knight Returns. This is the panel.

batman the dark knight returns panel : my hand at your throat

And here is my fave line:

"... I want you to remember, Clark... in all the years to come... in your most private moments ... I want you to remember ... my hand... at your throat".

What the Bat is saying is he could've killed Superman right there. But he does not, he collapses in Superman's arms. His heart stops.

Batman dies in Superman's arms.

That was very powerful, but there's no letup to the tale at this point. In order to keep Batman's  secrets, Alfred destroys the mansion and the underground caves. After this, Alfred himself dies of a stroke.


This is the saddest panel for me in the whole comic. No one has sacrificed more for Bruce than Alfred; no one more faithful. He deserves much better than to die alone and unmourned. We are plumbing the depths of sadness here.

What really happens is that Bruce engages in  a bit of fakery and is still alive. He is shown in the end panels deep in the earth with a small band that he will train to become the new heroes of the future.

This is a weak ending and I disagree with it. Batman should really have died in that battle with Superman; that would have been a powerful end to The Dark Knight Returns. That will always be how it ends in my mind.

What a ride. What an incredible ride. Thank you Frank Miller.

Next: Selected Tales from Detective Comics