Follow TV Tropes


Comic Book / Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Go To
"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 . Superman, 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. Batman is a bitter, angry figure who narrates much of the story with philosophical musings and breaking down his methods. News Broadcasts shed light on the political debates surrounding Batman's influence, positive and negative, on the criminal underworld. The art itself is moody and atmospheric, black and grey dominate every page and the use of red and yellow are eyesores. 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 also serves as a prequel to Dark Knight Returns.
  • In 1994 the much ignored Spawn/Batman came out, written by Miller and drawn by Todd McFarlane. It was a(n 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 or even 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. It eventually went on hiatus, and was meant to return as Dark Knight: Boy Wonder.
  • In 2015 to 2017, a third book titled Dark Knight III: The Master Race ran, co-written by Miller alongside Brian Azzarello.
  • In 2019, a fourth book was announced titled The Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child, written by Miller once again and drawn by Rafael Grampa, which was published under the rated-R imprint DC Black Label.

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.

Cryptozoic Entertainment held a Kickstarter campaign to fund Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - The Game.

A couple of elements from this story were borrowed by several Batman adaptations:

This miniseries contains examples of:

    open/close all folders 

  • 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... and he also assassinated the Mayor in horrific fashion) — 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.
  • The Alcoholic: Dialogue from Gordon and Alfred at the start of the series suggests that Bruce is dangerously close to becoming one, if he's not there already. Once he resumes the mission, it's never mentioned again.
  • All-Loving Hero: Superman values all life on Earth. As he tries to recover from being caught in the Coldbringer's blast, his internal monologue admonishes Lola Wong for assuming that his attempt to let it detonate somewhere safe was anything remotely close to "harmless", citing all the small animals that live there that have now basically been atomized.
  • Anti-Hero:
    • Batman is an Unscrupulous Hero or Pragmatic Hero, being more ruthless than his original DC counterpart.
    • The Sons Of Batman are more or less Nominal Heroes, as their "crime-fighting" is just as violent as their crimes when they were Mutants.
  • Anti-Villain: Superman is a Punch-Clock Villain overlapping with Hero Antagonist in this miniseries. He only reluctantly fights against Batman under orders from the US government.
  • Appropriated Title: The Dark Knight Returns was originally released as Batman: The Dark Knight, with "The Dark Knight Returns" being the first issue's title.
  • Arc Words:
    • For Batman: "Lucky" and "This would be a ___ death."
    • For Gordon: "I think of Sarah. The rest is easy."
  • Arc Villain: Each issue focuses on a different antagonist for Batman to fight, each highlighting a different kind of foil for Bruce.
    • Issue 1 deals with Harvey Dent becoming Two-Face again, serving as a mirror to Bruce’s internal conflict with the "Batman" persona who wants to live again. Dent’s fall coincides with Bruce embracing the Batman once again.
    • Issue 2 has the Mutants and specifically their young and fit leader, a counterpoint to the old and worn down Batman. Their struggle highlights the question of whether Bruce can truly still do this at his age.
    • Issue 3 has the Joker, whose vicious rampage has Batman questioning how effective he really is without killing criminals while also operating as a example of how Batman, in the minds of people like Dr. Wolper and Commissioner Yindel, inspires the very maniacs he fights.
    • Issue 4 finally has Superman, whose subservience to the government runs opposite to Batman’s anti-authoritarian vigilante mindset.
  • Art Evolution:
    • Miller's rendition of Batman starts off rather traditional if not bulkier. It's only as the book goes on that noticeable wrinkles start appearing on his face and his posture begins hunching over.
    • Batman starts off more or less in the typical Neal Adams design with baby blue cowl and yellow oval around the symbol. After being beaten by the Mutant Leader, he switches to a darker cowl and oval-less symbol, hearkening back to the darker, more vicious version of the character from his pre-Robin years in the Golden Age.
  • Attempted Rape: One of the first crimes Bruce stops after he redons the cape and cowl.
  • Author Appeal: According to Frank Miller's intro to the graphic novel, the entire story grew from his refusal to accept that he could be older than Batman, who he saw as a perpetual father figure. Up until this point, Batman was always 29. The first comic book was released when Miller was also 29.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Par for the course with Batman, right down to his fights. The page quote is one such example, as he takes down an armed criminal coming up behind him in a dark room by breaking his leg with a kick.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Batman and Catwoman.
  • Ax-Crazy:
    • The Mutants kill indiscriminately and with an almost childish glee; one even mentions that they have a quota for murders. Their leader is just as deadly, openly proclaiming that he'll kill Batman and Gordon and eat their hearts.
    • The Sons of the Batman don't lose any of their viciousness once they break away from the Mutants, they just start targeting criminals.
    • The Joker is depicted as having a love/hate fixation on Batman that he feeds with his indiscriminate killing.
      Joker (inner dialogue): They could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line up the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine — and it would never be enough. No, I don't keep count. But you do. And I love you for it.
  • Badass Boast: The Mutant leader and Batman exchange them in the mud pit.
    Mutant Leader: 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 Normal: Do you need to ask?
  • Bad Future: Batman is gone for ten years and everything goes to hell.
  • Banana Republic: Corto Maltese.
  • 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.
  • Big Bad: The US President, who bears more than a slight resemblance to then-current President Ronald Reagan.
  • Big Blackout: Affecting the entire U.S., and caused by an electromagnetic pulse from the nuclear explosion.
  • 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.
  • Brass Balls: Subverted by Byron Brassballs. With that name, you'd think he'd be an exemplar of courage, but he's really a Dirty Coward and complete asshole who brazenly justifies his sociopathically self-centered behavior and actions in his interviews.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Batman swears in his inner monologue that he's firing rubber bullets on the Mutants. There's seriously no way he's not trying to directly convince the reader he's telling the truth.
  • 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.
  • The Cameo: Harlan Ellison of all people appears on a newscast to speculate on how badly the nuclear war with the Soviets will end. He's never actually depicted on-panel, but the dialogue is pretty spot-on:
    "... be eating our own babies for breakfast."
  • 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.
  • Cheap Costume: Carrie Kelly's Robin suit is an off-the-rack costume. She even appears to paint the frames of her glasses black to better emulate his mask for her first patrol.
  • 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.
  • Combat Pragmatist:
    • The Mutant leader puts his claw-like fingernails and filed teeth to good use in the first fight against Batman.
    • Batman becomes one in his second fight with the Mutant leader, since brute force failed spectacularly the first time.
  • 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!
  • Cool Old Guy: C'mon now. Batman, Alfred for being so up in the years, still serving and snarky, Jim Gordon, Green Arrow, Superman (despite being arguably on the wrong side), and even the Joker in a dark and nasty way.
  • Crapsack World: Between the Mutants, the heat wave, and general decay, Gotham has become a rather nasty place to live.
  • Crazy-Prepared: You do know who this comic is about, right?
  • 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 decisively.
    Batman: You don't get it, boy. This isn't a mudhole, it's an operating table. And I'm the surgeon.
  • Darker and Edgier: Robin kills. Batman mutilates. The Joker's massacres are graphically portrayed. Superman openly kills Soviet troops in faraway lands. Frank Miller lays out his grim feelings of America for all to see.
  • 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.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Joker lays the snark on thick, but only truly descends into the cackling madman we're familiar with in his final moments as he twists his head around.
  • 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.
  • Death Seeker:
    • Bruce has become one by the start of the story, and after he becomes Batman again, he frequently remarks on how certain things would be good or bad deaths as the story progresses.
    • Batman suspects that Harvey Dent has become one due to what's happened to him, and by the time his arc is complete, it's proven to be correct.
    • After Batman paralyzes the Joker, the latter decides death (especially once where he gets to frame Batman for it) is preferable to his current predicament and happily breaks the rest of his spine.
  • Deconstruction:
    • Batman's tactics spur debates on toughness on crime. The story also deconstructs many elements of Batman's mythos, particularly his potential insanity, as well as showing what kind of world would make Batman not only possible, but necessary.
    • Superman is heavily deconstructed as well, especially the characterizations from the 1950s onward where he was written as a model citizen and patriot. The character's morals are portrayed as being too rigid and simple to stand up to the messy complications of reality, such as what a law-abiding patriot is supposed to do when given orders from a senile and self-centered president. The numerous covers depicting Superman fighting in World War II are also reexamined by showing the consequences of Superman going to war and just how ugly that would be.
    • The Joker’s conflict with Batman reveals just how much death and destruction is left in their wake because Batman lets the Joker live. Much of Batman’s internal monologue in the third issue is devoted to him seriously examining whether upholding his no-kill rule is really worth it in regards to the Joker. Also, the operatic nature of their conflict is taken Up to Eleven with the Joker all but confirming he treats their “relationship” as a twisted kind of romance.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Batman beats Superman. Or at least got the better of him. Not without some trickery, and Superman holding WAY back, but still.
  • 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 
  • Despair Event Horizon: Batman suspects that Harvey Dent has been pushed across this. In their final confrontation, it's confirmed by his dialogue and emotional breakdown.
  • Determinator: Bruce/Batman. Despite being gutshot and stabbed multiple times by the Joker and shot at several times by the police, Batman still manages to elude them by getting to the Bat-Copter.
  • Die Laughing: 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.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Carrie to Robin, and hanging on Bruce's every word she becomes more and more like him.
  • Doesn't Like Guns:
    • Played straight at first in issue 4, as 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.
    • That being said, he will use them when they're necessary. In the first issue, he uses a rifle to shoot a grappling line between the Gotham Towers to confront Two-Face and his henchmen. In the fourth issue, he uses Commissioner Yindel's gun to shoot some plastic explosive. He also gets pushed into using one when taking on three Mutant kidnappers who have a toddler as a hostage. The confrontation culminates with Batman pointing one of the Mutant's guns (a frigging M60 GPMG) at the last kidnapper, who is holding the hostage at gunpoint.
      Mutant: I'll do it man, believe me! Believe me!
      Batman: *Shoots the wall behind her and rescues the child* I believe you.
  • 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.
  • Dying Smirk: Batman manages to defeat the Joker, leaving him physically paralyzed. The Joker mocks Batman one last time and proceeds to snap his own neck while laughing. When Batman incinerates the body, the Joker's smoldering corpse is still grinning...
    Batman: Stop Laughing.
  • The '80s: 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.
  • 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.
  • Eyes Always Shut: The reporter Lola Wong. Even when Two-Face shoots a missile into the skyscraper where their studio is located, she never opens her eyes.
  • Eye Scream: To reiterate: Sharp batarangs are sharp. Joker learned the hard way.

  • Faking the Dead: Batman fakes his death in the final chapter. It fools everyone...almost.
  • Falsely Reformed Villain: Happens twice, when the same psychiatrist declares Two-Face legally sane and recommends the Joker make a talk show appearance as part of his rehabilitation.
  • Fashionable Asymmetry: The newscaster Lola Wong always wears asymmetrical earrings, and has a triangular hairstyle that is much higher on one side than the other.
  • Fatal Method Acting: In-Universe, The Joker makes his grand comeback by murdering everyone on The David Endochrine Show, including David himself and Ruth Weisenheimer.
  • Fearless Fool: Gets some deconstruction in Harvey Dent, who at the climax of their confrontation leans so far out of his helicopter to try to shoot Batman that he falls from it, with Batman (not knowing for sure that it's actually Dent) noting that whoever it is has Dent's lack of sense of self-preservation. The deconstruction comes from Dent being a Death Seeker who may have done that on purpose.
  • Feeling Their Age: Batman is portrayed like this. He starts as a Retired Badass, but soon returns to crime-fighting. Throughout the story Batman keeps on lamenting how slow he's become, culminating in the fight between him and the Mutant leader, who is, as Batman himself states, "in his physical prime". Batman loses, but only because he "tried to fight like a young man". Later he beats the Mutant leader with some Combat Pragmatist moves.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: Due to age and rust, Batman isn't as stealthy as he used to be. The thugs he's pursuing in the first chapter hear floorboards creaking under him and note that "[...] he never used to make noise before." This bites him hard in the third chapter when the Joker hears one of the funhouse mirrors creaking under his weight and shoots him as he breaks through it.
  • Forgiveness: Bruce Wayne has forgiven Joe Chill for killing his parents, finally understanding that all he ever wanted was money before the situation escalated. In spite of this, his Batman mindset still wants to punish him for robbery and murder in general.
    Bruce: He flinched when he pulled the trigger. He was sick and guilty over what he did. All he wanted was money. I was naive enough to think him the lowest sort of man.
  • 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
  • Future Slang: The Mutants are all over this one. "Balls nasty!"note , "spud" vs. "slicer-dicer"note , "chicken legs"note , and many others.
  • Gang of Hats: The Mutants and their various splinter groups.
  • The Ghost: Dick Grayson is mentioned sporadically throughout the book, but he never appears.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • Handicapped Badass: At some point prior to the beginning of the comic, Superman caused Green Arrow to lose his left arm, which he is still bitter about. It hampers him but doesn't make him any less effective of an archer.
    I want a piece of him. Just a small piece will do...for old times' sake.
  • Hands-Off Parenting: Carrie's parents seem to have trouble remembering that she even exists.
  • Hannibal Lecture: The Joker, paralyzed from the neck down, hits Batman with one just before killing himself.
    Joker: You won't get far. But then, it doesn't matter if you do. They'll kill you for this. And they'll never know you didn't have the nerve. I'll see you in hell!
  • Hate Sink: Everything Byron Brassballs says and does is custom-made to make you want him to get his ass kicked...and he only appears twice.
  • 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 talking about killing Bruce and having a quota for murders, and then dismissing Bruce as their target just as casually because he's "into it") shakes Bruce to his core, as he started the confrontation equating them to his parents' killer in his head.
    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.
      Reporter: 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.
    • The media, police and the public in general also collectively freak when Two-Face returns.
  • Honor Before Reason: Batman knows that it's best if he just shoots the Mutant leader in the dump, but he can't bring himself to cross that line... and it nearly gets him killed.
  • Hulk Speak: The Mutant leader's dialogue is laced with this, but he can talk normally when he wants to, implying that it's done to play up his monstrous image.
  • 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.
  • Human Weapon: Superman here is nothing but an icon who reports directly to the President, who gives him orders that include waging a one-man war in a Banana Republic, stopping the nuclear strike that follows (he doesn't completely succeed), and assassinating Batman, all of which he does without question.
  • 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.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Selina Kyle didn't age well. The Joker notices.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: One of the Mutant leader's Catchphrases is his boasts that he will eat Batman's heart. The Mutant Leader also rips out the mayor's throat with his teeth while in captivity. Was he trying to eat him as well?
  • Improbable Aiming Skills:
    • The Green Arrow is better than you at archery even with one arm... in the dark... in the rain... hanging upside down.
    • Whether you think Batman was aiming for the Mutant or not, the gun he was firing was definitely not meant to be fired with one hand. He's lucky he didn't kill the baby himself.
  • Informed Attribute: Doctor Bartholomew Wolper is considered the psychological expert on the Batman, but when his arguments include the idea that Batman is responsible for his villains' actions, it's hard to treat the man as a qualified expert when he has made such a significant error.
  • Inner Monologue: Could easily be called 'Inner Dialogue: The Comic'. Batman talks more to himself than any three other characters talk to anyone else put together.
  • Insane No More: Bart Wolper is the psychiatrist for both the Joker and Harvey Dent while they're in Arkham, and declares both to be sane since the Joker is basically catatonic prior to Batman reappearing and seems calm and collected after, and Harvey's split personality appears to be gone after his new face is revealed to the public. The real result is that Dent becomes a Death Seeker who believes his face is completely destroyed, and the Joker kills hundreds in a poison gas attack on live TV, with Wolper being killed by the robot that delivered the gas.
  • Insane Troll Logic: The Joker's psychiatrist, Doctor Bartholomew Wolper, uses this to argue that the Joker himself didn't commit his crimes, Batman did, through the Joker.
  • The Insomniac: The Joker's insomnia is addressed here.
  • 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.
    • In one instance, Batman scares a perp (the one who had the page quote applied to him earlier on) into talking simply by walking toward him; the perp falls through a window trying to get away, injuring himself, and talks after Batman tells him that he's the only person who can save him from bleeding to death.
    • In another instance, he hangs an unconscious Mutant upside-down from a gargoyle at the top of a skyscraper, puts a hand over the Mutant's face, and slowly moves his hand away when the Mutant wakes up and tries to cut a deal. What makes this even more effective is that the reader doesn't realize all this until it's all said and done; the sequence is drawn from the Mutant's perspective until the last panel.
      Batman (internal): It was tough work carrying two hundred and twenty pounds of sociopath to the top of one of Gotham's Twin Towers. The scream alone is worth it.
  • Jekyll & Hyde: Averted. Recent breakthroughs in plastic surgery restore Two-Face's appearance. Unfortunately, Dent's mind breaks when he sees his restored face, believing both sides to be destroyed and leading him to take up his old ways in the hope that he'll die when Batman comes to take him down.
    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 least both sides match now! Go ahead, have your laugh! Take a look...take a look...
    Batman (internal, as Dent is talking): The scars go deep...too deep. I close my eyes and listen. Not fooled by sight, I see 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.
  • Junkie Parent: Carrie Kelley's parents are so wasted that they don't even notice when she runs away until long after she's gone.

  • 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.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude:
    • Carrie. The police even mistake her for a boy.
    • Yindel too, although she's a somewhat more butch example.
    • Bruno, Joker's Nazi sympathizer girlfriend, in spades.
  • 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.
  • Made of Iron: Subverted here. The aged Batman absorbs a lot of punishment throughout the series, and every injury clearly pushes his body to the breaking point. He's noticeably slower in each subsequent chapter, and Alfred laments that he won't be able to effectively patch him up much longer.
  • 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: [looking disgusted] The rest of the Mutant leader's statement is unfit for broadcast.
  • Monster Clown: It should be obvious at this point. Selina notes this after the Joker attacks her.
    Selina: Bruce—he's worse than ever.
  • Mucking in the Mud: Batman sets up a rematch with the Mutant Leader in a mud pit, thereby slowing both of them and negating his opponent's speed and agility advantages.
  • Mugging the Monster: Defied. The Mutants who are about to attack Bruce at the beginning realize that not only is Bruce really big and strong-looking, but he doesn't seem to be afraid of them, and even looks like he's "into it", and they decide to head to the arcade instead.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Nixon Mask: Used by a group of convenience-store robbers in a throwaway gag.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Miller later said that he based the Mutant Leader's speech patterns on Mr. T.
    • 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.
  • Noodle Incident: A young boy running past reminds James Gordon of something really unpleasant.
  • 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.
  • Oddly Named Sequel 2: Electric Boogaloo: This one is followed by a sequel called The Dark Knight Strikes Again.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The Joker realizes Batman isn't screwing around this time when he gets a batarang in the eye.
      *Joker grabs one of Carrie's friends and puts his gun to her head*
      Batman (internal monologue): No, Joker. You're playing the wrong game. The old game. Tonight you're taking no hostages. Tonight I'm taking no prisoners.
      *cue batarangs*
      Joker *runs away shooting wildly*: Out of your mind
    • When the Mayor tries to negotiate with the Mutant Leader, Gordon has one just before the Mutant tears out the Mayor's throat...with his teeth.
    • A disguised Carrie has this reaction at Bruce Wayne's funeral, when she realizes that Superman has heard Batman's heartbeat restart, revealing that he faked his death. But Superman reassures Carrie with a wink that he'll keep the secret, as long as Batman lies low.
  • Old Soldier: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • Parental Obliviousness: Carrie Kelley's parents, probably due to their drug abuse. Taken Up to Eleven when they occasionally forget Carrie exists.
    Parent #1: [visible only as a trickle of dope smoke] ...Hey...didn't we have a kid?
  • Person of Mass Destruction: Superman is treated as the best deterrent against nuclear warfare.
  • Plucky Girl: Carrie, who at the age of 13 gets herself a Robin costume and goes out to fight crime armed only with a slingshot and a few firecrackers, and who earns Batman's respect by attacking the goddamn Mutant Leader when he's just about to defeat Batman. She downplays the perky associations of this trope, tending to be more sarcastic than outright cheerful, but she's spirited as hell and, apart from the occasional BSOD, never gives up.
  • 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...
  • Profanity Police: There is a hilarious and heartwarming moment where Batman cuts off a kid — whom he just rescued from gunpoint seconds ago — encouraging him to "kick [the Joker's] ass" with a "watch your language, son".
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The President notes he really doesn't want to bring the Batman down, saying he'd have given him a medal in younger days, but all the chaos and public outrage over his one man war on crime is forcing his hand. Likewise, Superman is not happy about much of what he has to do but does the job nonetheless.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: It's implied by her state of dress, the fact she's not in the same clothes she was when the Joker first met with her, and the fact he was using mind controlling lipstick that the Joker raped Selina.
  • 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.
  • Reality Ensues: Batman's first fight with the Mutant Leader, a hulking, feral, bloodthirsty brute with filed teeth and claws in the prime of his life. Batman gets badly mauled and beaten and is only saved by Carrie Kelley's intervention.
  • 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.
    Batman: I'm a man of thirty—of twenty again. The rain on my chest is a baptism—I'm born again.
  • Resurrection Gambit: Batman's ultimate plan in the last chapter is to take himself out of the public spotlight by faking his death. However, he knows that Superman will be the government's tool to stop him and actually faking death won't fool his super senses, so he takes a drug that actually does kill him by stopping his heart after a couple of hours, but restarts his heart later on. The problem is that Superman hears his heartbeat start back up while he's in his coffin; fortunately, he simply winks at Carrie Kelly (the new Robin) and leaves, keeping Batman's secret.
  • Retirony: Inverted, Commissioner Gordon proves he is still a badass by living till his planned retirement.
  • 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 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.
  • The Scapegoat: 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.
  • See You in Hell: Joker says this to Batman before breaking his own neck.
  • Servile Snarker: Alfred has always been this, but in TDKR he takes it Up to Eleven, as he is at first very unhappy with the way Bruce has let himself go in his retirement from the cowl, and is even more unhappy when he goes back to being Batman because it not only makes him seem like he's forgotten the lessons of the past, it means Alfred has to patch him up again when he's hurt.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Shooting Superman: Averted. The Man of Steel upends the gigantic "Batmobile" tearing its armored hide open. A revealed Robin has a loaded slingshot at the ready, but thinks better of it.
    Superman: Isn't tonight a school night?
  • Shout-Out:
    • To an inept crook who was a running gag in Miller's Daredevil days:
      Thug 1: Can't be Batman. Turk say he killed Batman.
      Thug 2: Turk says lots.
      • Batman narrates, word-for-word that "I'm born again."
    • Two-Face was fixed, all right.
    • Corto Maltese is a shout out to the famous Italian comic book by Hugo Pratt. Strangely, the name was used in the 1989 Batman movie as an apparent Shout-Out to The Dark Knight Returns without recognizing that it was already a Shout-Out.
    • There is also a reference to a porn star named "Hot Gates". In Greek, "Hot Gates" is translated "Thermopylae," the setting of another of Frank Miller's creations. However, since 300 wasn't released for another twelve years, the reference here is to both the literal translation of Thermopylae and William Golding's (now out of print) collection of essays 'The Hot Gates and other occasional places'.
    • Batman's sarcastic internal monologue describing Superman quotes Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
    • The scene with the pimp in the cab is basically right out of the Clint Eastwood film Magnum Force.
    • One of the civilians watching the Soviets' missile strike on the TV news is dressed in a Marvelman costume (an especially deep cut, since this was before it got reprinted and continued by American publishers).
    • There's a newsreader named Harlan Ellison.
  • Show Within a Show: BBC's Superman on Trial docudrama depicts this story as an In-Universe fictional story created after talks Frank Miller had with Batman. Batman notes it's not something that happened, but something he's afraid of happening.
  • Sidekick Graduations Stick: Played for Drama; Bruce and Dick Grayson haven't spoken in seven years at the story's onset, and this is used to indicate Bruce's post-retirement withdrawal.
  • 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.
  • Sociopathic Hero:
    • One interpretation of Batman in this story, especially in the later chapters. Alan Moore's introduction in one printing of the TPB specifically noted that one interpretation of Batman was "revenge-driven psychopath."
      [Internal monologue after crippling an opponent] Something tells me to stop with the leg. I don't listen to it.
    • A generous interpretation of the Sons of Batman. They may be fighting crime, but their methods are anything but heroic.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": It's officially Carrie Kelley, not Kelly.
  • Spiteful Spit: After the Joker's death, Batman pauses just long enough to spit in his corpse's face before making his getaway.
    I waste one second...with a goodbye.
  • Spiteful Suicide: After Batman nearly breaks Joker's neck, Joker finishes the job himself after the only witnesses have fled, leaving Batman to be accused of murder.
  • Split-Personality Takeover: Happens to Two-Face; the reconstructive surgery fixed his face but seeing himself whole broke his mind and left his evil side in control.
  • Squee!: Most of Carrie's scenes with Batman.
  • Standing Between the Enemies: Batman does this with a Big "NO!" that occupies a panel, confronting the Sons of the Batman as they're preparing to go on a rampage after the power failure cripples the city.
  • Stock Subtitle: "Returns."
  • The Stoner: Carrie's parents embody this to the point that all we ever see of them is the smoke from their joints.
  • 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.
  • The Strategist: Batman of course, especially in his fight against Superman.
  • 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 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.
  • Success Symbiosis: Once Batman had retired, so did the Joker. And once he comes out of retirement, the Joker follows suit.
  • Super Registration Act: Superman gets strong-armed into working for the government.
  • Symbolically Broken Object: The pearls of Martha Wayne's necklace falling and scattering after she is shot.
  • 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.
    • Batman's first batsuit, which is heavily damaged during his first fight with the Mutant Leader, bears some resemblance to the suit worn by Adam West in the 1960s series. His later decision to switch to a darker suit symbolizes him shaking off his previous depiction as a campy wisecracker and returning to his darker roots.
    • Ronald Reagan is portrayed as a folksy buffoon who thinks country wisdom can run a country and almost starts a nuclear war.
  • Tank Goodness: This version of the Batmobile, which would go on to be an inspiration for the Tumbler in The Dark Knight Trilogy and one of Batman's vehicles in Zack Snyder's Justice League. 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.
  • Technical Pacifist: Batman will beat you, threaten to drop you off the tallest building in Gotham, and break every bone in your body... but he won't kill you.
  • 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.
  • Theory Tunnelvision: Doctor Wolper is so fixated on the idea that Batman is the problem that he even argues that the Joker is a "victim" of Batman's psychosis.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Also behind Batman's dislike of guns.
    • Word of God says that Batman didn't kill the aforementioned Mutant who held the baby at gunpoint when he shot her with another Mutant's M-60, stating he shot her shoulder. The animated adaptation completely changes this sequence to remove the issue.
    • Gruesomely played with when Batman has the perfect chance to kill the Joker but still refuses to. The Joker notices... and kills himself just to screw with Batman.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Dr. Wolper, and the entire studio audience/host for that matter. At one point, Joker even states that he's going to kill everyone in the room, but Wolper dismisses it as a simple joke.
  • Totally Radical: Along with the Mutants' Future Slang, it's played for laughs when Carrie reprograms the Bat-Copter to accept verbal commands from her. In slang.
    Batman: [to Bat-Copter] Boosters! [nothing happens] Boosters! [nothing happens] What...
    Carrie: Peel.
    [cue Boosters]
  • 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.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The entirety of the comic. "What happened to Batman after he retired?"

  • Unfulfilled Purpose Misery: The Joker has been completely catatonic ever since Batman's retirement. But as soon as he hears that He's Back, all his criminal instincts return to fight Batsy once again.
  • 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.
  • Vigilante Militia: Several members of the defeated Mutants gang become true believers and declare themselves the "Sons of the Batman." Unfortunately, they clean up the streets with the same viciousness that marked their prior affiliation, and Batman has to take them under his wing ... if only to train them in a way that protects Gotham City from their idea of "crimefighting."
  • Villain in a White Suit: Traditionally the Joker is a Secondary Color Nemesis with green hair, a purple suit, and green/purple plaid accessories. After his release he dresses in a white suit, although he still has the green hair. Combined with the chalk white skin this gives him a ghostly, overexposed appearance.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Frank Miller's interpretation of Batman and Superman's relationship is that 'these two people do not like each other'.
  • 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.
  • Weak, but Skilled: Batman, as best shown in his fights with the Mutant Leader. The first time, Batman, insecure about his old age, takes on the Leader, who's in his physical prime, and gets his ass handed to him, only being saved by Carrie's intervention. In their second fight, Batman, realizing he lost the first time because he "tried to fight like a young man", goes about it intelligently by handicapping the fighting area, using a mudhole to limit his opponent's movements, and using his superior experience in fighting techniques to overcome the Leader's physical superiority.
  • 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?
  • 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 a police SWAT team and stopped at the 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.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Yindel is the only cop fast enough to escape the trap Batman sets for them in the Tunnel of Love, so Batman breaks her nose and glasses.
  • You Are Already Checked In: A detective shows up at a crime scene, talks to Police Chief Yindel, and walks away. He then shows up again, coming from the other direction. Yindel points at the departing cop and yells "Stop that man!". The next panel is him leaping onto the Batcycle.
  • 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."
  • Zeerust Canon: The sequel.

Alternative Title(s): The Dark Knight Returns


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: