While I’m riding this comic book turned movie high, I must mention one of the best comic books around and definitely one of the best installments in the Batman franchise ever. And while this comic has not yet been made into a movie per se, I do believe large tracts of it have been used to create The Dark Knight Rises. I am, of course, referring to The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.
To be fair, I’m not exactly a comic expert, but even I’m not that big a fan of Miller’s work. He has obvious woman issues and is not the best illustrator, and large parts of this comic were lifted from The Watchmen. But hell, it worked! If you’re going to steal, steal big. And the concepts of outlawing superheroes, forcing others to work for the government, a dictator president and an escalated Cold War all worked quite well within a Batman context. And trust me when I say, Dark Knight Rises will use this stuff! Read the review and you’ll see what I mean…
Initially, the comic was the result of a collaboration between Miller and DC’s editor-director Dick Giordano (formerly the Batman group director). However, disagreements over deadlines forced Giordano to pull out, leaving Miller to complete the project alone. DC then published the full and final product in one volume with four parts which, despite its price, sold quite well.
The story opens on a near-future Gotham city where things have gone to hell due to the absence of the Batman. The reason for his retirement is simple: superheroes have been outlawed, except for Superman who now works for the government. We learn that this was part of the deal, where he became a military asset in order to spare his former comrades the indignity of going to prison. As with Watchmen, this has led to an escalation of the Cold War and the creation of a dictator president (in this case, its Reagan or a clear look-alike).
In any case, Bruce Wayne (aka. Batman) is struggling with being retired. By turning his back on his former profession, he feels like he’s betrayed the promise he made to his parents decades back. In addition, the situation is getting so bad that he feels he has nothing to lose by returning. This worsening situation is portrayed with an allegorical heat wave that has gripped the city and is only getting worse.
Enter into this Harvey Dent, the former DA turned Two-Face who has had corrective surgery (courtesy of Bruce Wayne) and who’s doctors now claim is recovered. However, these doctors soon have egg on their face when a masked terrorist seizes Gotham’s two main business towers, clearly meant to resemble the WTO’s twin towers (it should be noted that this comic was written several years before Sept.11th 2001), and threatens to detonate a bomb.
Batman is successful in stopping the terrorist, who is clearly Dent, and finds that the surgery has not had the desired effect. Rather than correcting his split personality, it has only deepened it, making his look one way but feel another. Dent is placed back into psychiatric care, and the public is divided over Batman’s return. The media, in the form of talking heads and news reports, play a large role in this comic. And for the most part, they have bad things to say about Batman, claiming that in spite of his actions, he ultimately attracts a more deranged breed of psychotics and criminals.
His return also puts Superman in an awkward position since he will now be forced to come to Gotham and arrest him. However, as he is still occupied with a US-Soviet standoff taking place on the fictitious island of Corto Maltese, Batman has some time. Which he spends moving onto his next targets, the Mutants gang. Seems these thugs have taken over the streets, are thieving and murdering, and are led by a massive, psychotic freak. Oh yeah, and they operate out of the city’s dump. When Batman confronts them, he gets into it with the boss, but things go awry. After all, the boss is a mutant, is hugely strong and powerful, nearly impervious to pain, and a lot younger than Batman.
After several rounds, Batman begins to lose ground against the titanic thug and has his arm broken and shoulder torn by his claws. He is on the verge of blacking out when a young girl (dressed as Robin) jumps in and takes down the boss with a crowbar. She helps Batman escapes and the police show up shortly thereafter to arrest the boss. Seems Batman has a new sidekick, and makes it back to the Batcave to recuperate. However, the mutant boss lets everyone know from custody that he defeated the Batman and that he will wreak further vengeance on Commissioner Gordon and anyone else who gets in his way.
Across town, the spineless mayor comes out of hiding and blames the escalation on Batman. He further claims that he will step in and put an end to things by speaking with the mutant’s leader. However, this meeting turns bad when the mutant leader decides to kills the Mayor. He is placed back in prison, but Batman soon arranges it so he can escape. He then confronts him again, this time in a mud pit in the middle of the dump where he plans to beat him by outsmarting him. He also makes sure that every member of the mutant gang is there to watch, because he knows their reign of terror will only end if they see their leader defeated firsthand.
This time around, the fight is still a tough slog, but Batman utilizes his experience and his environment to his advantage. The mud slows the boss down, he manages to partially blind him with his own blood and the mud, then paralyze his limps with a nerve pinch and a broken elbow. He then gets him down into the mud where he latches onto one his legs and breaks it, immobilizing him completely. He then pounds him senselessly into the mud while the mutants look on in horror and awe. The mutants are beat and the city is safe, except that people are now forming a new gang that wants to emulate the Batman (echoes of The Dark Knight here!). Just like in DK, Batman is not too enthused about their existence and begins cracking down on them. Meanwhile, at Arkham, a dispirited and anesthetized Joker sees Batman on the TV, and comes back to life! Seems Batman’s resurgence is attracting his old enemies…
Meanwhile, on Corto Maltese, Superman’s actions have prompted the Soviets to up the ante. They fire an ICBM at the island, but rather than being a nuke, its a massive EM missile. Superman diverts it to a desert where it explodes and harms no civilians, but he is almost killed in the blast. A interesting point, since we know that Superman draws his power from the sun, it seems reasonable that an uncontrolled blast of EM radiation would harm him. And of course, it does! Also, Gotham and every other city in the area is hit by a massive black out. Chaos ensues, and Batman must travel to the prisons and take control of all the gang members who are escaping. Since many are Batman wannabees, he manages to recruit them to restore some order to the streets. The power comes on shortly thereafter, and once again, the media and experts debate the events. Most condemn Batman’s latest actions, even though he has helped to save many lives.
But Batman has his own theories. Mainly, he blames Superman for selling out to the government, and sees the escalation with the Soviets as a direct result. During a conversation before Superman sets off, he tells Wayne (they use each others’ real names!) that he will have to go up against him if he persists. Wayne replies by saying that he no intention of going back into retirement, and that if it comes to a confrontation “may the best man win”. Superman is incredulous, but he has his answer!
Back in Gotham, the Joker is finding new ways to create mayhem. Having convinced the same crop of doctors that he’s cured, he goes on a talk show where he is confronted by a Dr. Ruth look-a-like. After some innane psychobabble, he kills Ruth with a poisoned kiss and unleashes his smilex gas into the theatre, killing everyone. He then runs to an amusement park where he is intercepted by Batman, and more mayhem ensues. Batman finally corners him in a sewer where they have their final fight! The Joker stabs him a few times in the stomach, and Batman manages to cripple him by breaking his neck. The Joker then finishes it, snapping what’s left of his neck and killing himself. He dies laughing…
Again, Batman narrowly escapes, and Superman recovers enough to return to Gotham. After some preparations, Batman is prepared for his final fight! Getting himself into some powered armor, assembling his usual arsenal of tools, and enlisting the help of Green Arrow, someone else who resents Superman. He’s also sure to pop a pill, who’s purpose is as yet unclear. Then, he picks the location for their fight, the very street corner where Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down. The fight goes to plan, with Batman managing to hurt Superman in a number of ways (he’s still recovering from the EM missile attack) and stalling him long enough for Green Arrow to fire off his special package! A kryptonite tipped arrow!
Naturally, Superman catches the arrow, but the tip then explodes into a million tiny particles which he then becomes poisoned with. Severely weakened, Batman puts his hands around Superman’s throat and delivers his last words to him. Essentially, he tells them he sold them out, that he could never understand that the world doesn’t make sense, that his ideological purity makes him a pawn, and that he beat him! But then, Batman suffers from what appears to be a heart attack and collapses. The police arrive to see Superman kneeling over his old friends body, guarding it even though they were locked in mortal combat not a moment before.
The comic then moves to Batman’s funeral. Things are just wrapping up when Superman notices something. A faint sound coming from the ground, and someone suspicious looking standing nearby, waiting. In short, what he hears is heartbeats, the suspicious figure is the new Robin girl, and she’s waiting with a shovel. Remember the pill Batman took? Turns out it was a designer drug that imitates the appearance of death (little Romeo and Juliet there, but okay). His case contained a hidden oxygen supply, and everything was timed so Robin could dig him up before it ran out. Superman looks at her and winks. He’s onto them, but has decided to let his friend go.
Once he’s emerged, we see Batman moving to a new location with the new Robin and a set of accolades. From there, they will rebuild, create a new Batcave and start fighting crime anew. The public thinks he’s dead, but his spirit will live on through a new generation of masked crime fighters. Yeah! Batman forever!
A possible downside to this comic was Miller’s frequent use of media types and talking heads to advance the story. While it is interesting – and effective when it comes to providing transitions and pacing – the way it constantly helps advance the plot and provide background can get a little tiring at times. By volume four its like, we get it, Batman is a controversial media topic, and the so-called experts are morons! That, plus the fact that Miller really seemed to want to stack public opinion against Batman in the story got a little heavy-handed at times.
Still, it did manage to give some depth and a certain social context to the story. Not to mention realism, seeing as how any vigilante, no matter how effective, would not fail to stir up resentment and fear amongst those in power. All throughout the novel, it is made painfully clear that authorities condemn Batman because they don’t want to appear condoning, regardless of how needed he really is. At the same time, those same people seem to want to think that former villains have been successfully rehabilitated, if for no other reason than because they want to believe their methods are effective.
And I said, this book did seem to be borrowing pretty heavily from The Watchmen. However, these elements were well suited to the Batman universe, and given the fact that Dr. Manhattan was openly compared to Superman, it wasn’t like the borrowing was all one way. What was also well executed was the reason for Superman’s employment by the government. Not only was he doing it to protect his friends; according to Batman, it had much to do with his naivete and idealistic outlook. The boy from Smallville just couldn’t help but take orders, it was what he was born to do. And when society and the government turned on them, he effectively sold them out by agreeing to do their bidding.
This last element was something I especially liked about this graphic novel, the it explored the differences between Batman, Superman, and pitted them against each other. Fans of DC comics couldn’t help but have a big fangasm, but it was also highly appropriate. Whereas Superman had always been the clean-cut, cardboard cut-out superhero, Batman was always the darker, grittier, more realistic one. And in both cases, this was presented in very real terms, showing the upside and downside of these traits. Whereas Superman is seen by Batman as a fool and sell-out, the complete flip-side of how others see him, Batman is portrayed as a sort of social fascist in addition to be being a brave vigilante. This dichotomy serves to elevate the content and makes everything feel more realistic.
The Dark Knight Returns, ladies and gentlemen. Read it, love it, then look for traces of it in The Dark Knight Rises. I’m telling ya, it’s in there. Look for it!