One of the most famous comic book stories ever published, and one of two medium defining works celebrating a thirtieth anniversary this year, Frank Miler’s The Dark Knight Returns is so celebrated and admired that it almost seems redundant to even contemplate saying anything more about it, but since there is a high number of paragraphs following this one, then you know I’m about to say things, probably things you’ve read or heard before and for that I apologise.
First up, I love it. Although I have always preferred Miller’s other iconic Batman tale, the origin tale Year One, which is a mirror image to this and set at the complete opposite end of the Batman story in comparison to TDKR (as the cool kids will abbreviate it, but might prove problematic since the final Nolan-directed Batman movie has those initials, so excuse me while I don’t from here on), there is much to love, enjoy and admire in his dystopia-flavoured, hypothetical end to the Batman story, while marking a new beginning in the journey of his alter ego, Bruce Wayne.
An incredibly dark journey it is too, Miller’s four-part series is credited with taking Batman fully away from the camp and colourful era that he fell into as a result of the influence the famed Adam West television series had on the comics and back into the realms of a gritty, broody crime fighter and he’s pretty much stayed there ever since. Part of an era in the medium that saw characters and stories taken into murkier, adult territory, it’s no surprise that it’s part of the same period of time as Alan Moore’s double whammy of Watchmen and The Killing Joke, and that Miller would go on to also deliver Batman: Year One just over a year after The Dark Knight Returns.
Set years after Bruce Wayne has retired his Batman persona and taken up a genuine playboy lifestyle, he finds himself retreating back to the Batcave as Gotham finds itself falling into the clutches of a new criminal gang, the somewhat freaky Mutants. With politicians such as the Mayor and the Governor failing to act, and more or less passing the buck when it comes to policy decisions, James Gordon on the verge of retiring and Harvey Dent about to be released from Arkham (now a Manor as opposed to an Asylum), whilst The Joker is in a waking-catatonic state, waking steadily from his “slumber”, the stage is set for an epic Batman story that is at times painstakingly epic, violent and morose.
It’s basically the Michael Mann’s Heat of comic books, which is ironic when you consider how much of that movie also inspired Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece The Dark Knight, whilst the sequel to that movie, The Dark Knight Rises, took elements from Miller’s work here.
Whilst Nolan took smaller elements for his own story, as well as throughout his famed masterpiece of a trilogy (including the look of the Batmobile/Tumbler), Zack Snyder cribbed elements wholesale for his recent divisive entry into the DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman; story threads, dialogue, they’re all there to be seen in his movie and whilst the eventual clash between the two titans has a lot of imagery taken from Miller’s work, that movie actually subverted the ending that Miller crafted, with Snyder’s movie changing the outcome and whose funeral it is at the end.
The work within The Dark Knight Returns is incredible and incendiary, to read it is almost experiencing going into a never-ending rollercoaster, one that takes you in ever increasingly darker tunnels and complex directions. The Dark Knight Returns isn’t simply a “hero comes back for one last fight” narrative. Whilst the general thrust of its story has that element to it, it becomes much more complex than it at first appears. It has a lot of elements to it that one could imagine forming the basis of a Clint Eastwood movie, who was actually considered for the role of Batman in the late-80s when an adaptation of this was proposed when Warners desperately wanted to get a Batman movie in production. Miller’s work is an engaging and sweeping epic of one man stepping back into a dark corner of his world that he thought he left, but it also deals with political themes, as well as the oncoming onslaught of the media as well as the philosophical and political differences between two of DC’s most iconic characters.
This is probably the one “grown up” comic of the late-80’s that legitimately feels mature. In many ways, despite coming from an era known for excess, greed and being somewhat over the top, the thing it most feels like at times is a politicised crime epic from the 1970s, the type of movie that came from a Hollywood studio system that was giving us movies like The Godfather, All The President’s Men and Network. It may have a grown man dressed up as a bat hanging out with a teenager (this time Carrie Kelley as opposed to Dick Grayson who is often mentioned, but never seen), but at times its grit and politicised plotting and ideas feels as if it could have come from something made by Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula, whilst the over the top action sequences and brutal violence are the thing that makes it feel as if it’s from the 1980s, coming across like a 70’s thriller coupled with an 80’s action movie, like something Paul Verhoeven would have directed.
A costumed hero. A city falling apart. Gangs. Violence. A media that reports the stories with bland indifference. It would be a fantastic double bill to read The Dark Knight Returns and then watch Verhoeven’s RoboCop afterwards. They are great bedfellows, which is ironic considering Miller would go on to be credited as writer of the RoboCop sequels although most of his material was either unused or re-written, thus prompting him to adapt his unused work in comic book form. There was definitely a satiric feeling in the air at the time, which is no surprise given that the President of the United States was a retired film actor and the philosophy of the time was a declaration that “greed is good”.
Although never named in the story itself as Ronald Reagan, he is there. Miller goes even one step further than you could imagine and includes the President as a character, getting involved when he really shouldn’t be and calling Superman on to the case. Reading those speech bubbles with the President’s dialogue, you cannot help but hear Reagan’s measured, slow delivery when you do so. It’s uncanny, very funny and yet strangely disturbing for reasons I cannot fathom. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re seeing someone who was a sitting President talking about Batman and Superman and it makes the story all of a sudden feel all too real.
Miller’s re-positioning of Superman as a government stooge, a licensed superhero in a time when Wonder Woman and Green Lantern have either gone home or to the stars and Batman is viewed as a menace, leaves the story with really only one way to go, and it’s clear why Snyder was probably itching to get a version of this scenario on-screen. Bruce Wayne in his battle armour suit beating the crap out of Superman is a potent and powerful image, with the dialogue being incredibly dramatic, tinged with a dark beauty.
The four issues are full of superb, brilliant moments, of which there are far too many to mention; the use of the media is potent, brilliant and actually predicted much of what would happen to the news today, Carrie Kelley is a wonderful character and a very engaging Robin, whilst the final confrontation with The Joker is one of the great all time, “dark” comic moments, a character who actually resorts to killing himself just to spite Batman for not doing the deed himself when he had a chance.
The repercussions of Batman’s return also, brilliantly, get to the dark contradictory heart of Bruce Wayne’s story. Harvey Dent is cured, and The Joker is catatonic due to there being no Batman anymore. As soon as he comes back, everything kicks off again, which begs the question as to whether or not Batman is a good “idea or not”? It’s a dark question that is right at the heart of Miller’s writing and makes his epic tale all the more complex and interesting. That it builds to a fight between Bruce and Clark could be simple window dressing, but here again Miller is dealing with decade long themes that are now even more potent by the notion that in order to keep his status as the Boy Scout of the DC Universe, Clark has effectively sold out and become the government’s errand boy.
In the end The Dark Knight Returns is not just a comic book story of its time, it’s a story for all our times and only gets better with age, like the finest wine you can imagine.