As I read Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Clark Kent and Batman are not exactly friends. They are more like veterans of the same unit who maintain cordial relations. Kent is barely present at all in the first two books, but he definitely looms in the background. We know almost from the beginning that a collision between the two must be inevitable. Kent is the last active superhero. He takes orders directly from the President; and we all know how Batman responds to authorities who try to shut him down.
I’m referring to Superman as Clark Kent throughout this post because I don’t think the name “Superman” appears anywhere in this novel. There’s a suggestion in book three that the word has been censored from the media and just using it is an FCC violation. Miller depicts Superman as a role and Clark Kent at the real identity rather than the disguise. Even the soldiers who work directly with Kent during operations refer to him by his last name. That’s an interesting piece of characterization, because Batman/Bruce Wayne is drawn from the opposite angle. Once he goes back into action, it’s clear that Batman is the true identity, not Wayne.
We learn early on that Superman is going to have a role in this story. The return of Batman in Book I is triggered by a message Harvey Dent leaves on Wayne’s answering machine thanking Wayne for his help. Bruce finds the message after Dent has disappeared back into the underworld as Two-Face. The second message on the machine is from Kent, letting Wayne know he’s going to be “way out of town” for a while. There’s also a message from Selina Kyle (formerly Catwoman) telling Bruce she’s lonely.
Batman himself reminds us that Kent is looming offstage with a bit of foreshadowing in Book Two. As he’s using the Batmobile-tank to decimate the Mutant gang, he’s thinking to himself and we get a reference to Superman’s heat vision:
I modified her [The Batmobile] during some nasty riots fifteen years ago. The only thing I know of that can cut through her hide isn’t from this planet.
Later in Book Two, we see nine panels of conversation between Kent and the President. The last two include close-up details of Superman’s chest logo. This is the conversation in which the President orders Kent to Gotham to keep a lid on Batman. Kent only agrees to go and talk to Batman, but it’s clear from the conversation that the President’s giving him the ok to be coercive if necessary.
The first four panels of Book Three tell us Kent has arrived. These are aerial views of Gotham City accompanied by an internal dialogue directed at Bruce Wayne. For the next eight pages, Kent closes in as Batman pursues a dangerous criminal because he needs to interrogate her about the Joker’s plans. Only the effects of Kent’s presence are depicted visually in these scenes. The wind of his passing knocks people over and sends papers flying. He stops a subway to save a man who’s been pushed onto the tracks, but we see only the dented-in front of the locomotive. The TV news reports his progress as an “atmospheric anomaly or UFO sighting,” but one of the reporters cheekily suggests that the object is “faster than a speeding bullet,” etc.
Even when Kent comes through a wall, knocks Batman aside, melts the machine gun the criminal is brandishing, and leaves her wrapped in drain pipes, we don’t see him. This is a good move on Miller’s part for a couple of reasons. First, using Superman in a story this dark is tricky because of the color of his costume and his peculiar personality. Focusing on the effects is one way Miller deals with this (he also makes good use of silhouettes to work around the color problem later in the novel). Second, it’s great for building suspense. The first image of the Man of Steel himself that we get is outdoors on a bright, sunny morning. He’s in civilian clothes and poses like a hero.
Batman’s thoughts on this occasion tell us exactly where things stand between the two of them:
There’s just the sun and the sky and him, like he’s the only reason it’s all here. Then he ruins everything by talking.
They have a brief, less-than-friendly conversation. Kent warns Wayne that eventually, “someone with authority” is going to order him to bring Batman in. Wayne responds exactly as we’d expect:
When that happens, Clark – may the best man win.
As Kent is attempting to reason with Wayne, the conversation is cut short. Kent has to leave to deal with an international crisis between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at Corto Maltese. Subsequent events prevent the two from picking up their conversation again.
The ultimate confrontation occurs in Gotham’s Crime Alley beneath the streetlight where Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. Superman is still the most powerful being on the planet, but he’s not quite invincible. He’s recovering from the effects of being caught in a nuclear blast the week before. Presumably, he’s also weakened by the lack of sunlight that comes along with nuclear winter.
This encounter is Batman’s masterpiece. He handles it much the same way he finally overcame the faster, stronger, Mutant leader: with a combination of guile, technology, allies, and an intimate knowledge of his adversary. It’s clear by the end of the fight that Batman has been planning for this contingency for years. When he eventually gets the better of Kent with the help of a well-timed synthetic Kryptonite arrow fired by Oliver Queen, Batman comments:
It wasn’t easy to synthesize, Clark . . . Took years . . . and it cost a fortune . . . luckily I had both.
The contest ends with one of the most memorable series of comics panels I’ve ever seen:
Batman falls over in a state of drug-induced faux-death. There’s a funeral, which Clark attends. As he’s walking away, the drug wears off and he hears Batman’s heart begin to beat. He turns to Carrie Kelley and winks. The next, and last, series of panels we see is Batman, sans costume, surrounded by a group of former Mutants and Sons of Batman. It’s clear that they’re going off the grid to train an army of Batman descendants. Interestingly, Carrie Kelley still wears her Robin costume.
The final showdown between these two old comrades is the element of Miller’s story that elevates it above run-of-the-mill social commentary with great art and makes it an enduring story. Clark Kent recognizes the authority of the government as greater than his own, and he obeys. In a sense, he’s supporting and defending The American Way, but it’s clear from the social context of the story that truth and justice aren’t exactly high priorities for the government. So he’s also helping to perpetuate a status quo that is rife with corruption. His wink lets us know he’s aware of the ambiguity of the situation and he’s unwilling to do more than is absolutely necessary to fulfill his orders.
Batman, on the other hand, views himself as the authority. If he recognizes any authority higher than himself, it’s a code of ethics: stop the monsters and the murderers. Protect the weak and the innocent, by whatever means necessary, even if that means doing monstrous things himself. The differences in the worldviews that inform the two characters’ actions make the story personal and emotionally compelling despite the fact that it’s a dystopian adventure story. The ending leaves Batman better off than he was in the beginning, because he now has a young protégé, an army of disciples, and the entire Wayne fortune off the books and hidden away. He also has a post-apocalyptic United States in which to operate, and that’s the sort of environment that’s perfect for Batman.
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