The Dark Knight Returns

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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 Robin[1]. 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 Kelly, 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.
  • In 2005 to 2008, Miller wrote a prequel, All-Star Batman and 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.

Though a movie deal has been kicking around Development Hell for a long time, the only real adaptation as of yet is a ten-minute segment in the DCAU, considered to be among the best adaptations of a Frank Miller work. Carrie Kelly also made a very brief cameo as a future Robin in Batman the Brave And The Bold, fighting mutants in a "what-if" story. Recently, it's been announced that the DC Universe Original Animated Movies line is adapting the story in a two-part adaptation.


Tropes used in The Dark Knight Returns include:
  • 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 literally 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.
  • Aw, Look -- They Really Do Love Each Other: Batman and Catwoman.
  • The Alcoholic: Dialogue from Gordon and Alfred at the start of the series suggests that Bruce is dangerously close to becoming one.
  • Anime Hair: TV reporter Lola Wong. See Fashionable Asymmetry.
  • Anti-Hero:
  • Ax Crazy:
    • The Mutants, especially their leader, and The Sons of the Batman once The Mutants are no more.
    • There's also the Joker, who 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.

Mutant Leader: "Batman! Face me, fool! I kill you! I eat you heart! I show you who rules Gotham City!"

Batman: "Okay, boy... Show me."

Alfred: Very well, sir, I shall come right out and say it. Have you forgotten what happened to Jason?

Batman (internal): Why do you think I wear a target on my chest? I can't armor my head.

  • Civilian Villain: Happens twice, when the same psychiatrist declares Two-Face and the Joker legally sane.
  • 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 Old Guy: C'mon now. Batman, Alfred for being so up in the years, still serving and snarky, Jim Gordon, and even the Joker in a dark and nasty way.
  • Could Have Been Messy: Averted. Sharp Batarangs are sharp no matter what they hit.
  • Crapsack World
  • Crazy Prepared: Well of course. You do know who this comic is about right?
  • Curb Stomp Battle: Batman's second fight with the Mutant leader.
  • Dark Age
  • Darker and Edgier
  • Dating Catwoman
  • 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.
  • 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 [2]
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Both played straight and subverted. In issue 4, Batman invokes the trope in his speech to the Sons of the Batman:

Batman: (breaks a rifle in two in 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 him and rescues the child) I believe you.

  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Batman beats Superman.
  • 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.
  • Oddly-Named Sequel 2: Electric Boogaloo
  • Evil Costume Switch: It's not discussed in-story, but it's worth noting that during the first issue, when Batman is at his most straightforwardly heroic, he wears the classic blue cape/black-on-yellow bat symbol costume. As the story progresses and his actions, motives, and mindset get darker, he wears the costume seen in the page pic.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Of a sort. At the start of the story, Bruce has a mustache, but after a sleepwalk 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.
  • Eye Scream: To reiterate: Sharp batarangs are sharp. Joker learned the hard way.
  • Faking the Dead
  • Fashionable Asymmetry: The newscaster Lola Wong always wears asymmetrical earings, plus her hair is higher on one side.
  • Fat Girl: Lana Lang. I Was Quite a Looker is averted, though, as her usual depiction is never addressed.
  • Flatline Plotline
  • Foe Yay:
    • Let's not talk about the Joker/Batman subtext here. More specifically, the Joker seems to be absolutely convinced he and Batman have Foe Yay going on. Batman does not agree.
    • There's also a bit of subtext to the imagery of Batman analyzing the Mutant leader before their first fight, although he's completely clinical in his internal dialogue.

Batman: ...except he's got exactly the kind of body I wish he didn't have...powerful, but without enough bulk to slow him down...every muscle a coiled steel spring ready to snap...and he's young, too, in his physical prime...and I honestly don't know that I could beat him.

  • 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: S[3]O[4]B[5]s.
  • Future Slang: The Mutants are all over this one. "Balls nasty!", "spud" vs. "slicer-dicer", "chicken legs", and many others.
  • Gang of Hats: The Mutants and their various splinter groups.
  • 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..."

He shows me what a fast kick is. Something explodes in my midsection. Sunlight behind my eyes as the pain rises.

Reporter: Police phone lines are jammed with citizens describing what appears to be a siege on Gotham's underworld... by the Batman.

  • Heat Wave
  • Heroic BSOD / Despair Event Horizon: 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.

  • 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.
  • Human Shield: Subverted. 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 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.
  • The Insomniac: The Joker's insomnia is addressed here.
  • 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.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Selina Kyle didn't age well. The Joker notices.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: One of the Mutant leader's Catch Phrases is his boasts that he will eat Batman's heart.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique:
    • 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.

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 and Hyde: Subverted. 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.
  • Jerkass: Everything Byron Brassballs says or does is custom-made to make you want him to get his ass kicked. And he only appears twice.
  • Kryptonite Ring: Of course Batman has one. Because he's Batman, that's why.
  • Literal Metaphor: The governor is almost strangled by actual red tape.
  • Made of Iron: Subverted here.
  • Man Bites Man: The Mutant leader puts his filed teeth to good use against Batman and the mayor.
  • Media Watchdogs: 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.

  • Misblamed: 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
  • Monster Clown: It should be obvious at this point.
  • Necessary Evil: During the transition between retiring Commissioner Gordon and his incoming replacement, Yindel, she asks him how he could stand by as a vigilante operated in Gotham. He replied referring to the speculation that FDR might have let Pearl Harbor happen in order to get the US into WWII and defeat the greater evil. He said he gave up thinking on it when he realized the whole thing was 'too big' for him to contemplate. During the riots after the bomb, Batman rallies the rioting ex-members of The Mutants outside the jail by sheer force of will, and harnesses them to help bring order to the chaos. When one of the officers present asks Yindel if they should do something, she replies, "No. He's too big." realizing that his actions were better than letting them run wild.
  • Neck Snap: Self-inflicted, no less.
  • 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: 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 Batman from getting killed.
  • 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--

"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.
    • You could arguably count Rob and Don here, 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: Subverted, proving that Commissioner Gordon is still a Badass.
  • Revenge of the Sequel
  • Robot Kid: One of the Joker's mooks builds them...to explode.
  • Ronald Reagan: Better described here as Evil Dead Ronnie.
  • 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.
  • Servile Snarker: Alfred has always been this, but in TDKR he takes it Up to Eleven.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Corto Maltese is a shout out to an Italian comic book by that name. 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 The 300 Spartans, an older film that was a favorite of Miller's, and inspired him to write 300.
      • Except that The 300 Spartans never used the phrase 'Hot Gates'. The reference 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, of all things, Monty Pythons Meaning of Life.
  • Silent Scapegoat
  • Smoking Is Cool
  • 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."
    • A very generous interpretation of the Sons of Batman.
  • Split Personality Takeover: Happens to Two-Face after getting reconstructive surgery.
  • 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.
  • Standing Between the Enemies: Batman does this with a Big No that occupies an entire panel.
  • Stock Subtitle: "Returns."
  • A Storm Is Coming

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, of course, that's how you make a valid point, right?
  • 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 Trilogy. 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." [6]. 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 nine kinds of hell out of you, drop you off a building 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.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Rob and Don.
  • 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 him with another Mutant's M-60.
    • 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.
  • Totally Radical: See Future Slang, above.
    • 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 in the--?
Carrie: Peel.
[cue Boosters]

  • Twenty Minutes Into the Future
  • Utility Belt
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Batman and Superman, again.
    • Of course Frank Miller's interpretation 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.
  • You Are the New Trend: The "mutant" gang members start dressing like Batman after he defeats their leader, and murder and mutilate people in his name. Rather than ignoring them, 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.

Notes

  1. a full two years before A Death in the Family, mind you
  2. not since the Golden Age when they pulled double duty as his Eye Beam attack.
  3. ons
  4. f
  5. atman
  6. He's referring to Superman, who proves the point in short order in the fourth issue