Comic Book: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
"There are seven working defenses from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three of them kill. The other - [KRAKK] - hurts."Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
is a four-issue Batman
comic book miniseries written and drawn by Frank Miller
and published by DC Comics
from February to June 1986.
In this storyline, Batman has been retired for ten years, alcoholic and consumed with grief after the death of Jason Todd, the second Robinnote
, still as young and handsome as ever, has become little more than an icon, answering to the government and trying to stay as neutral as possible. Commissioner Gordon is weeks away from retirement, The Joker
has been silently locked away in Arkham for years, and Two-Face is about to be released back into the world with a brand new skin. In Batman's absence, and in the midst of a killer heat wave, Gotham City is overrun with crime, plagued by a monstrously violent gang known as The Mutants. After encountering a Mutant gang in the alley where his parents were murdered, Bruce Wayne resurrects Batman, aided in his renewed crusade by Carrie Kelley, a 13-year-old girl who becomes the third Robin. Defeating the Mutants, though, turns out to be child's play compared to what Batman faces next...
TDKR is a seminal comic book work, with a gritty, unique style that's draped in the best of Film Noir
techniques. It is often considered as influential as Watchmen
in demonstrating the possible "maturity
" of the comic book medium, and, along with Watchmen
, it ushered in The Dark Age of Comic Books
(for good or bad). It was also highly influential in the DCU's recasting of Batman and Superman's relationship: no longer are they perfect friends, The World's Finest, but rather somewhat distant and distrusting (if respectful) of each other.
Since its release, a number of Miller's Batman-related works have tied into TDKR in one way or another:
- In 1987 Miller did Batman: Year One with David Mazzucchelli during his one-arc-long run in the main Batman book. Though it was supposed to be the origin of New Earth's Batman, Word of God says that it was written so that it could also serve as a prequel to DKR.
- In 1994 the much ignored Spawn/Batman came out, written by Miller and drawn by Todd McFarlane. It was an (ill-advised) crossover between the Spawn Universe and the Dark Knight Universe and canon to both, whose only tie to TDKR was that it showed where Batman got the technology that he would use to build his power suit... and that's only a couple of pages.
- In 2001 and 2002, Miller produced a sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It was more set around Batman than about Batman, being closer to a Justice League story or even a Superman story than a Batman story. Questionable artwork and story developments have made this one of the more controversial Batman stories to date.
- In 2005 to 2008, Miller wrote a prequel, All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, which was even more controversially received than Strikes Again. Though it's been on hiatus, the series will return under the name Dark Knight: Boy Wonder. Maybe.
There have been a handful of animated references to TDKR as well. The first is a ten-minute segment in the DCAU, considered to be among the best adaptations of a Frank Miller work. Damian Wayne's child, who resembles Carrie Kelley, also makes a very brief cameo as a future Robin in Batman: The Brave and the Bold
, fighting mutants in a "what-if" story. One episode of Darkwing Duck
featured a future version of Darkwing that was heavily influenced by TDKR's depiction of Batman in the later issues.
In 2012 and 2013, DC Universe Animated Original Movies
released an animated film adaptation
, told over two parts
A couple of elements from this story were borrowed by Christopher Nolan
for The Dark Knight Saga
, especially with The Dark Knight Rises
. Even more elements of the story are said to be utilized in the DC Cinematic Universe
as far as that version of Batman is concerned, with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
even serving as a partial adaptation
in addition to telling an original story.
This miniseries contains examples of:
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- Faking the Dead: Batman fakes his death in the final chapter. It fools everyone...almost.
- Flatline Plotline: Batman's ultimate plot in the fourth issue is to remove himself from the public spotlight by faking his death. Being Batman, he kills himself for a while using a special drug, using the fight with Superman both as a cover and as an excuse to work out his anger and frustration with Superman.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: While Batman's return helps save Gotham from the Crapsack World it has become in his absence, it also causes the Joker to snap out of his 10 years of catatonia and gives him a motive to return to crime.
- Old Superhero: One of the central themes of the overall plot is how age affects Batman in everything he does, from his tactics to combat to his overall state of mind.
- Air-Vent Passageway: The gigantic leader of the Mutant gang is behind bars awaiting trial. Batman knows that being in prison won't hurt his gang cred one bit (it helps that the Mutant leader spends his free time annoying the prison guards and bragging about what kind of havoc he will make when he gets out, instead of showing remorse) — to break the Mutant gang, you must break its leader. Thus, he and Gordon arrange for the leader to escape via the prison air vents and meet Batman for a mud pit duel.
- Arc Words:
- For Batman: "Lucky" and "This would be a ___ death."
- For Gordon: "I think of Sarah. The rest is easy."
- Awesomeness by Analysis: Par for the course with Batman, right down to his fights. The page quote is one such example.
- Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Batman and Catwoman.
- Badass Boast: The Mutant leader and Batman exchange them in the mud pit.
Batman! Face me, fool! I kill you! I eat you heart
! I show you who rules Gotham City! Batman:
(rises up out of the mud where he's been hidden
) Okay, boy... Show me.
- Badass Grandpa: Batman, obviously, but also Jim Gordon, Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, Superman (despite having not really physically aged) and Alfred to some extent. And less sympathetically, the Joker too.
- Batman Gambit: Bruce uses quite a few over the series. Even his final trick relies on knowing Clark will let him go.
- Better to Die Than Be Killed: Happens twice, once when the Joker breaks his own neck(!) to frame Batman.
- Black Helicopter: The Batcopter.
- Book Ends: Inverted
(at the opening, as Bruce's racecar crashes) This would be a good death, but not good enough.
(at the finale, as he begins his life in the shadows, training his army) This will be a good life. Good enough.
- Break the Cutie: This is essentially what happens when Carrie sees the bodies of the Cub Scouts who took the poisoned cotton candy from the Joker. Batman's internal dialogue lampshades it.
- Bullet Proof Vest: See Chest Insignia below.
- Cape Wings: The imagery is invoked when Batman uses his cape to appear to break his fall when confronting the police during the Joker's attack on The David Endochrine Show and the Joker later on at the fair. The cover art used as the page image above also invokes this imagery.
- Casa Lane Parenting: Carrie's parents seem to have trouble remembering that she even exists.
- Chest Insignia: Turns out it's bulletproof.
Batman (internal): Why do you think I wear a target on my chest? I can't armor my head.
- Coincidental Broadcast: Used throughout for exposition.
- Comic-Book Time: Averted. Part of the inspiration was Frank Miller wondering "What if Batman actually got older after taking up crimefighting in the '40s?"
- Cool Guns: A few:
- Invoked by Batman when he comments on one of the military-grade handguns used by the Mutants. It's slightly futuristic-looking and specially adapted for a silencer.
- The MP40 is very common. Not only do the Neo-Nazis led by Bruno use them, but, oddly, so do the guards at the police station!
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Batman's second fight with the Mutant leader. He uses his brains instead of pure brawn, and while he doesn't come away unscathed, he does win.
- Dating Catwoman: Literally; it's never said outright, but Selena's voicemail to Bruce is a huge hint, they kiss before Batman and Robin go after the Joker, and Gordon has to restrain her from physically attacking Superman after Bruce Wayne's funeral concludes.
- Death by Disfigurement: Toyed with. Batman breaks the Joker's neck just enough to cause paralysis. The Joker finishes the job by himself, both to frame Batman for his death and to spite Batman. And yes, it's medically possible. It's the reason why people tell you not to move after car accidents.
- Defeating the Undefeatable: Batman beats Superman. Not without some trickery, but still.
- Doesn't Like Guns: Played straight at first in issue 4, Batman invokes the trope in his speech to the Sons of the Batman:
Batman: (breaks a shotgun in two with his hands) This loud, clumsy, stupid thing... this is the weapon of the enemy. We do not need it. We will not use it.
- Don't Make Me Destroy You: Throughout the fight between Batman and Superman, Supes makes it clear from the start that he doesn't want to kill Bats and practically begs him throughout to just give up so he doesn't have to.
- Expository Hairstyle Change: Of a sort. At the start of the story, Bruce has a mustache, but after a sleepwalk (or psychosis-driven fugue; it's not made clear which) into the Batcave, Alfred notices that he's shaved it off... and he didn't realize he'd done it.
- Eye Scream: To reiterate: Sharp batarangs are sharp. Joker learned the hard way.
- Freudian Excuse: A psychiatrist blames Batman for making the Joker into a raving loon. He might have a point, but the Joker kills him.
- Fun with Acronyms: Sons Of the Batman = SOBs
- Godzilla Threshold: Discussed at length. During Commissioner Gordon and his replacement Yindel's first conversation, she asks him why he's allowed a vigilante like Batman to operate in Gotham. Gordon talks about the first time he heard the Urban Legend that Franklin D. Roosevelt let Pearl Harbor happen in order to get the US into WWII and stop the greater evil of the Axis. He went back and forth on whether it was morally acceptable if true, until he realized the whole thing was "too big" for him to judge. Later, after Batman rallies the Sons of Batman and the Mutants to quell the mass riots, Yindel finally realizes the same. When asked by an officer if they should do something, she can only respond "No. No. He's too big." Later, a news blurb shows her dodging questions about the police being lax in enforcing her warrants against Batman.
- Going Cold Turkey: When Bruce takes up the cowl again, he quits the sauce. He doesn't have any withdrawal issues, possibly because Batman is an even stronger addiction.
- Good News, Bad News: The President has a very cheerful way of telling the American People about the dangers of nuclear fallout.
Well folks, I've got good news and bad news. Heh... The good news is that the Soviets have withdrawn their forces from the island of Corto Maltese.... And the bad news, well... It looks like those Soviets are pretty bad losers, yes they are...
- Go Out with a Smile: Joker laughs the entire time he's twisting his head around to finish breaking his neck, leaving a grin on his face as he dies.
- Grandfather Clause: The Bat-signal is discussed here.
- Groin Attack: Happens to Batman at the foot of the Mutant leader during their first fight.
He shows me what a fast kick is. Something explodes in my midsection. Sunlight behind my eyes as the pain rises.
- Hall of Mirrors: Batman chases the Joker into one at the fair. The Joker gut-shoots him after he gives himself away trying to come through a mirror.
- A Handful for an Eye: During their second fight, Batman cuts the Mutant leader over the eyes to blind him with the blood, then compounds that by throwing mud in his face.
- Hannibal Lecture: The Joker, paralyzed from the neck down, hits Batman with one just before killing himself.
- Heat Wave: Gotham has been stuck in one for a while at the start of the series.
- Heroic BSOD: In the first issue, Bruce, lost in thought, wanders to the spot where his parents were killed and is confronted by Mutants. Their dialogue (casually referring to killing Bruce, having a quota for murders, and then dismissing Bruce as their target because he's "into it") shakes Bruce to his core, as he's been equating them to his parents' killer up to that point.
Bruce: No. Not him. Not him. He flinched when he pulled the trigger. He was sick and guilty over what he did. [...] These... These are his children. A purer breed. And this world is theirs.
- He's Back:
- Batman, after 10 years in retirement.
: Police phone lines are jammed with citizens describing what appears to be a siege on Gotham's underworld... by the Batman
- And Joker in a twisted inverse version.
- Human Shield: As Batman's chasing the Joker through the fair, the Joker tries this with one of Carrie's friends. Batman promptly tags him with a handful of batarangs.
- I Am the Noun: This is the climax of the "breaking the shotgun" sequence mentioned above.
Batman: Tonight, we are the law. Tonight, I am the law. Let's ride.
- I Fight for the Strongest Side: Once the Mutant leader is defeated, the gang disintegrates into a number of splinter groups that define themselves by whatever figurehead they're following; the only thing that remains consistent is their use of violence.
- Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Subverted. Batman doesn't have to actually get violent with perps to get info. Instead, he lets their fear of him do his work for him, although in some cases a bit of setup is needed.
- Jekyll & Hyde: Averted. Recent breakthroughs in plastic surgery restore Two-Face's appearance, but at the unforeseen cost of forever destroying the good-natured "Harvey" half of the personality and leaving the criminal "Face" in complete control.
Two-Face: Got them all to keep their lunches down when they saw my face... saying I was cured... saying I was fixed. I'm fixed all right... at least both sides match now! Go ahead, have your laugh! Take a look... take a look...
Batman (internal): The scars go deep... too deep. Not fooled by sight, I see him... as he is. (the panel shows Dent with his entire head a monstrous ruin)
Batman: I see... a reflection, Harvey. A reflection. (the next panel shows a bat's snarling face)
- What makes this scene even more powerful is that Two-Face is the only one of Batman's enemies in the story that he is sympathetic to, as he funded Harvey's surgery and rehabilitation efforts and knows what it's like to be living a dichotomy (Bruce Wayne/Batman vs. Harvey Dent/Two-Face). For bonus points, in Batman: Year One which occupies the same universe as this book, it's made clear that Harvey Dent was one of Batman's closest allies and friends early in his career.
- Kryptonite Is Everywhere: Averted. Kryptonite doesn't show up until the very end of Batman's battle with Superman, when Bruce specifically says that he had to spend years (and millions of dollars) synthesizing it, implying that the naturally occurring stuff is too rare to be a practical weapon. And despite having days to prepare for the showdown, Superman seems genuinely surprised that Bruce was able to get his hands on any at all.
- Let The Past Burn: At almost-not-quite the end, Alfred burns down Wayne Manor so that nobody can look through it for evidence or clues after Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne is revealed to the public while faking his death.
- Literal Metaphor: The governor is almost strangled by actual red tape.
- Man Bites Man: The Mutant leader puts his filed teeth to good use against Batman and the mayor.
- Media Watchdog: The public broadcast of the Mutant Leader's video after his capture is cut off after a few sentences... with good reason.
Mutant leader: ... and then I'll find your new cop - your woman cop - and I will-
Newscaster: The rest of the Mutant leader's statement is unfit for broadcast.
- Mis-blamed: In-universe example - Batman is accused by the media of inspiring a number of incidents, from a mentally-ill mob enforcer putting on a Batman costume and turning on his boss, to a very disturbed man's religiously-motivated shooting up of a porn theater. Meanwhile, a shop owner who actually WAS inspired by Batman chases off a purse-snatcher attacking an old lady. No one is hurt enough for this to make the news.
- Mistimed Revival
- Neck Snap:
- Batman snaps the Joker's neck at first, but it only paralyzes him. The Joker finishes the job for him.
- This is also how Bobbie kills Dr. Wolper at the TV studio.
- Never Forgotten Skill:
- The story starts off with Bruce Wayne retired for ten years and an alcoholic. However, once he puts the Batsuit back on, he demonstrates that ten years of retirement and alcohol have not caused him to forget his skills at all.
- Even more impressive, the Joker has been straitjacketed in a padded cell for over a decade when he learns of Batman's return and can barely speak, "b...b...b...b...BATMAN! ... Darling!", but returns to the world ready for action.
- Nixon Mask: Used by a group of convenience-store robbers in a throwaway gag.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Two of the Joker's victims were David Endochrine and Ruth Weisenheimer, who were clearly based on David Letterman and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Batman's first fight with the Mutant Leader. Robin's intervention is the only thing that saves him from getting killed. Fortunately, he learns his lesson, and their second fight ends with the tables completely turned.
- Not Listening to Me, Are You?: Alfred persuades Bruce to donate to:
Alfred: ...the Committee for the Prevention of Obsessive Behaviour in Middle-Aged Men.
Bruce: Write them a check.
- Oh, Crap:
- Older Hero vs. Younger Villain: The mid-50s Batman vs. the Mutant leader, who is "young [...] in his physical prime."
- Ostentatious Secret: As Ollie points out to Bruce:
Sure, you like to play it mysterious, but it's a loud kind of mysterious. Especially lately.
- Powered Armor: Used (among other things) to fight Superman.
- Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Inverted, in that it's the winner of the climactic battle that delivers it just before he dies.
"I want you to remember... the one man who beat you..."
- Recurring Extra:
- The... ill-tempered (to put it mildly) Byron Brassballs, who both encounters Superman (who saved the handicapped man Byron had knocked onto the train tracks) and later plays a role in the Gotham riots... and in a nice bit of Karmic retribution, gets his ass profoundly kicked by Batman.
- Rob and Don too. They keep running into Batman but hardly play a significant role in the story.
- Redemption in the Rain: The shot of fifty-five-year-old Bruce Wayne appearing as Batman for the first time in ten years, during a thunderstorm.
- Retirony: Inverted, Commissioner Gordon proves he is still a Badass by living till his planned retirement.
- Revenge of the Sequel
- Right Out of My Clothes: A serious version. When Superman hears the nuclear missile headed toward Corto Maltese, he takes to the air so fast that he leaves his civilian clothes and glasses hanging exactly where he left them—while sitting in a Jeep.
- Robot Kid: Abner builds them... to spray poison gas everywhere, then explode.
- Rule of Three: Batman tells Robin that if she disobeys, she'll be fired. She disobeys three times, but the third time, she saves his life.
- See You in Hell: Joker says this to Batman before breaking his own neck.
- Shoot the Hostage Taker: Batman solves a hostage situation by threatening to do this. It probably helped that the thug was new meat who didn't know about Bats' "no killing" rule.
- Silent Scapegoat
- Smoking Is Cool: Averted. Gordon's cigar smoking has apparently started to cause health problems, and his internal dialogue when this is made evident shows his mortality is weighing on his mind.
- Spiteful Spit: After the Joker's death, Batman pauses just long enough to spit in the face of his corpse before making his getaway.
I waste one second...with a goodbye.
- Split Personality Takeover: Happens to Two-Face after getting reconstructive surgery.
- Squee: Most of Carrie's scenes with Batman.
- Standing Between The Enemies: Batman does this with a Big "NO!" that occupies a panel.
- A Storm Is Coming: Invoked in the weatherman's report on the storm that accompanies Bruce's return as Batman.
Weatherman: ... like the wrath of God, it's headed for Gotham.
- Strawman Political: Features vapidly meaningless strawmen for all parts of the political spectrum because that's how you make a valid point, right?
- Subordinate Excuse: Carrie has a crush on Batman that would do The Joker proud, and in the comics she dearly loves him. She dresses as Robin and fights crime, hears the Mutants are gathering at the dump and follows Batman there, because she loves him and wants to be close to him.
- Super Registration Act: Superman gets strong-armed into working for the government.
- Tank Goodness: This version of the Batmobile, which would go on to be an inspiration for the Tumbler in The Dark Knight Saga. It's got treads. It's got armor strong enough that "the only thing I know of that can cut through its hide isn't from this planet." note . It's got machine guns. "Rubber bullets. Honest." It's got at least two decent-sized artillery pieces. It takes up three lanes on the highway. It even has a gyro-stabilized medical bed and can be piloted home by Alfred. It's a god-damned Bat-Tank.
- There Is No Kill Like Overkill:
- The Sons of the Batman, who have turned their over-the-top violence as former Mutants to fighting crime instead of creating it. At one point, it's mentioned that they used napalm to break up a three card monte game. One SOB, after killing the aforementioned Nixon mask robbers, took a pair of wire-cutters and sliced off the store owner's fingers on one hand because, as he put it, "you did nothing to stop them."
- The nuke that nearly killed Superman was designed to create a "nuclear winter" scenario.
- Truth in Television: At the beginning two Mutants try and mug Bruce Wayne. They turn out to be Dirty Cowards when he sees them, they take into account his size, and run off when he stands his ground and is prepared to fight. It's common in Real Life for thugs like the Mutants to only target those who cannot defend themselves, and want nothing to do with those who can.
- Unwitting Pawn: Two-Face to the Joker.
- Utility Belt: Prominently featured in the first issue. Batman uses items from it to defuse one of Two-Face's bombs, and does a mental run-through of its items in boredom while he's waiting for Two-Face to make his move on Gotham's Twin Towers.
- Worf Had the Flu:
- Despite having been catatonic for a decade and his injuries, Joker has a distinct edge over Batman. The same Batman that fought his way through the a police SWAT team and stopped at Batcave only to get supplies to investigate Joker's plan for the county fair before finally catching up to Joker in one night. Not only is Bats on his second wind for their final battle, but he's making the same mistake he did with the Mutant Leader: he's letting his feelings cloud his judgement against a much calmer opponent.
- This also applies to Superman when he fights Batman. He's not at 100% after the nuclear missile, as Batman notes the missiles he shoots at Superman wouldn't have been able to hit him otherwise.
- Vomiting Cop: Alluded to. After The Joker kills everyone at the TV studio, somebody tells the commissioner that one of the rookies got sick and had to go home.
- You Are the New Trend: Rather than ignoring the Sons of the Batman, he recruits them as his own personal army after disarming them and all but calling them out for being fools in their old tactics. Admittedly, he had stopped them from following their previous leader who was proclaiming "This is our chance to raze Gotham... to purge Gotham."
- What the Hell, Hero?: From Alfred after Bruce waxes on about Carrie's qualities as Robin:
Alfred: Very well, sir, I shall come right out and say it. Have you forgotten what happened to Jason?
- Bad Future: Batman is gone for ten years and everything goes to hell.
- Banana Republic: Corto Maltese.
- Crapsack World: Between the Mutants, the heat wave, and general decay, Gotham has become a rather nasty place to live.
- The Eighties: A lot of the action and political commentary stems from real-world politics of the period, in particular the U.S.-Soviet arms race, which comes to a head in part four.
- Setting Update: In the original stories the version of The Mark of Zorro that Bruce saw as a child was the 1920 version. Miller updated it to the 1940 version, putting Bruce's birth date in 1932 and making him a man in his mid-50s by the time of the story.
- Twenty Minutes into the Future
- The Bronze Age of Comic Books: This is generally seen as the comic that officially ended the era and brought about The Dark Age of Comic Books. Alternately, it's seen as a key story that played a part in the development of The Iron Age of Comic Books.
- Zeerust Canon: The sequel.
- The Dark Age of Comic Books: Along with Watchmen, TDKR is considered one of the co-creators of this era.
- Darker and Edgier: Robin kills. Batman mutilates. The Joker's massacres are graphically portrayed. Frank Miller lays out his grim feelings of America for all to see.
- Deconstruction: Batman's tactics spur debates on toughness on crime, while Superman's idealism makes him an ideal government cat's paw. The story also deconstructs many elements of Batman's mythos, particularly Batman's potential craziness, as well as showing what kind of world would make Batman not only possible, but necessary.
- Depending on the Writer: Happens to Batman and Superman a lot but Batman's X-Ray seeking missiles wouldn't be able to tell Superman from anyone else normally because Superman's X-Ray Vision doesn't actually emit X-Rays note
- Follow the Leader: This miniseries singlehandedly ushered in the new age of Cranky Batman.
- Oddly Named Sequel 2: Electric Boogaloo: This one is followed by a sequel called The Dark Knight Strikes Again.
- Private Eye Monologue: Miller's unique take on this permeates the entire work. The reader is constantly privy to Bruce/Batman's thoughts as disembodied word boxes rather than actual thought bubbles, and Gordon, Joker, and Superman also get the treatment.
- Spell My Name with an "S": It's officially Carrie Kelley, not Kelly.
- Stock Subtitle: "Returns."
- Spotlight-Stealing Title: The Dark Knight Returns was originally released as Batman: The Dark Knight, with "The Dark Knight Returns" being the first issue's title.
- Take That: The Mutants can be seen as a Take That to "angsty", rebellious teen superheroes made popular by Marvel Comics. Fittingly, they're named "The Mutants" (Stan Lee's working title for X-Men), they wear red shades that look a lot like Cyclops' visor, and they despise adult authority figures. They form a perfect contrast to Batman, who's the epitome of the "traditional" DC superhero—an adult hero who's driven and fearless, and has zero tolerance for crime.