I’ve wanted to write about the Clark Kent-Bruce Wayne relationship in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns since before I ever started blogging. Miller published his 1986 tale of Gotham-under-siege by criminals with no superheroes to save it as a four-book miniseries in 1986. The trade paperback went 80s-viral in 1987.
There are tons of themes to pick at in The Dark Knight Returns. There’s a critique of big media. There’s criticism of the 60’s counterculture deciding that the struggle was over and settling for comfort when they should have never abandoned the streets. There is much questioning of government authority. There’s the fact that finally, after all these years, Robin gets to be played by an actual girl and grows into a perfect Robin by the end of the story. There’s the twisted Joker-Batman relationship on full display with very little ambiguity about just how co-dependent they are.
For my money, though, the relationship between Wayne and Kent is the most important theme. Early on we learn the U.S. government suppressed all the D.C. superheroes a decade before the story opens. The Dark Knight Returns reads like a futuristic dystopian novel, but the setting is contemporary to the late 80s. The Cold War is on and the President is clearly Ronald Reagan, even though he’s not named as such.
Wonder Woman has returned to her island, Green Lantern has left the planet, and Green Arrow has been “persuaded” to retire. Superman has become a covert agent of the United States. Batman has simply disappeared. The tension between the latter two drives the story. The Man of Steel has allowed himself to be reduced to the role of supersolider, though not without reason. The Dark Knight is past 60 and forced to come out of retirement by his implacable, idiosyncratic code of justice.
Miller’s tale emphasizes the worst excesses of late 20th Century American society: Violence for the sake of violence, a famous psychiatrist pronouncing two of Batman’s worst nemeses cured and releasing them to kill again, the cynical news media sensationalizing it and allowing the doctor to frame the criminals as victims, do-nothing politicians pronouncing all this – the disorder – someone else’s responsibility.
It is these excesses that awaken the Bat and impel Bruce Wayne back into action. The idea that Batman is the real person and Wayne is the disguise is very clear in this text. I don’t know that Miller originated the idea, but he certainly popularized it. Pretty much every depiction of Batman in movies since this book was published owes some debt to Miller’s concept of the character and to his dark vision of Gotham City.
When the story opens, Gotham is on the verge of chaos. It’s being terrorized by the Mutants, a nihilistic punk gang whose leader is practically a super villain. Bruce Wayne has lived the life of a playboy for the past ten years. On the first page, a mustachioed Wayne flirts with suicide in an auto race and bails out at the last second to escape the fiery crash.
As this is going on, two world-famous doctors, one a psychiatrist and the other a surgeon, are working together to rehabilitate criminally insane inmates of the Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled. Their first project, Harvey Dent (Two-Face) is almost ready for release.
We see all this reported on the news in a series of “talking head” panels. The talking heads are an integral plot thread. They report distorted versions of events, speculate in inflammatory ways, and give misguided authorities a megaphone to say irresponsible things. Lana Lang, now the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet, is a frequent guest on the talk shows. She is the sole voice of reason and common sense in the news; everyone else is either cowardly, self-serving, or uncritical of the events they are reporting.
The story unfolds from here in four short arcs that culminate in a brutal win-or-die fight between Batman and Superman. Here’s an overview.
Book One: The Dark Knight Returns:
Harvey Dent is released. Bruce Wayne, after being accosted on the street by two members of the Mutant gang, re-lives his discovery of the Batcave in a dream. He wakes to find he’s sleepwalked into the Batcave and shaved off his mustache. Later the same night, he’s haunted by the memory of his parents’ murders, and finally, the Bat wakes up. He goes on a rampage through the streets of Gotham. Among other things, he rescues a girl named Carrie Kelley from a gang of Mutants. He also discovers that Harvey Dent is not cured.
Two Face is worse now than he was in the old days. He defaces both sides of his trademark dollar coin side and hatches a plan to hold Gotham’s Twin Towers hostage for millions of dollars with two massive bombs. Unbeknownst to Two Face, the bomb-maker is an old henchman of the Joker’s and has included a hidden, timed detonator which will simply blow up the buildings as soon as Two Face lands his choppers on the towers. Batman foils the plot, figures out the Joker is involved, and apprehends Harvey. The reemergence of Batman touches off a media frenzy. During the early part of this book, we see the Joker sitting morosely in an Arkham cell, waiting his turn to be pronounced “rehabilitated” by the famous doctors. When he hears Batman is back, he finds the old crazy smile again.
Book Two: The Dark Knight Triumphant
Inspired by her rescue, young Carrie Kelley puts on a knock-off Robin costume, sneaks out, and takes to the streets looking for Batman. Batman learns that the Mutants are getting military weapons from an army general who’s on the take and are planning something big. He attacks an assembly of them at the Gotham dump with a Batmobile that’s really a tank. The Mutant leader calls him out. He leaves the Batmobile, tries to go toe-to-toe with the leader, and learns too late that he’s foolishly underestimated the leader’s strength and speed. Batman barely escapes with his life thanks to a well-timed nerve gas capsule and to Carrie Kelley, who helps him back to the Batmobile and gets him home. The Mutant leader is apprehended.
Bruce Wayne reveals his identity to Carrie and agrees to train her over Alfred’s objections. Batman and Carrie spread a rumor among the Mutants of a big meeting. Batman convinces Commissioner Gordon, who’s only a few days from retirement, to allow the Mutant leader to escape. The escape is calculated to lure the Mutant leader to a place of Batman’s choosing. Having learned his lesson about the wisdom of brawling at his advanced age, Batman uses guile and precise martial arts techniques to utterly defeat the leader in front of his entire gang. In this book we also learn that the President is concerned about the reemergence of Batman. He sends Superman to Gotham with orders to keep things from getting out of hand.
Book Three: Hunt the Dark Knight
This book opens with the retirement of James Gordon. The new police commissioner is Ellen Yindel, a Chicago police captain selected because she’s a woman and is willing to take a hard line on Batman. She issues an arrest warrant for Batman at the event announcing Gordon’s retirement and her appointment.
The Joker’s release from Arkham is eminent. We learn, via the news, that although the Mutant gang is disbanded, the thugs are still out there. Some have found new bosses, but a big group of them has re-branded their gang the “Sons of Batman” and vowed to turn their violence on the criminals of Gotham City.
Superman arrives to have a word with Bruce Wayne. He interrupts Batman and Robin as they’re attempting to unravel the Joker’s post-release plan. Batman agrees to meet with Superman, but asks him to come to the manor the next morning.
The next day, as Wayne and Superman are talking, Superman is called away to intervene in an international crisis at Corto Maltese, an island off the coast of South America, and prevent a nuclear war.
The Joker is released, goes on the “David Endocrine” show, kills hundreds of people, and escapes. Batman pursues the Joker in Gotham as Superman fights what appears to be a division of the Soviet Army supported by several aircraft carriers at Corto Maltese. There’s a long showdown at the county fair in which the Joker dies and Batman is left severely wounded with the police closing in.
Book Four: The Dark Knight Falls
Batman escapes the police with the help of Robin, who is in the Batcopter (now a gunship). During the escape he uses high explosives, punches Yindel herself in the face, and actually picks up a gun at one point. After the escape, while Alfred is operating on Batman, the Soviets launch a nuclear missile at the U.S. from Corto Maltese.
Superman turns the missile into a desert and avoids loss of life, but he’s caught in the blast himself and withered practically to a skeleton. It turns out that the nuke is capable of generating a massive electromagnetic pulse, which takes down both the power grid and all the electronics in Gotham. A large group of Mutants who are still being held by the police escape from jail bent on wreaking havoc just as the Sons of Batman decide to purge the city of criminals. All manner of other people decide to riot; chaos ensues. Before long, Gotham City is burning.
Batman comes to and realizes what’s happened. He and Robin take to the streets on horseback.
They forge the Sons of Batman and the remaining Mutants into a temporary army, restore order, and put out the fires. A week later we find out that the Soviet nuke was a special weapon designed to induce nuclear winter, and no one in the hemisphere has seen the sun since the detonation. The President orders Superman to bring Batman in, alive or otherwise. Oliver Queen (formerly Green Arrow) shows up at Wayne manor. Oliver anticipates a confrontation between Batman and Superman and wants to help Batman, presumably as revenge for the loss of his arm.
Finally, as Bruce Wayne is teaching Carrie to ride and relishing the idea of having a protege with decades of life before her, a blaze of heat comes from the sky and we get “Where?” spelled out in heat vision at Bruce’s feet. Bruce responds: “Crime Alley.”
Which sets the stage for the confrontation between the two titans that looms over the entire novel. I’ll discuss the role of Superman in this story, and this final battle, in my next post.