You’re playing the wrong game. The old game. Tonight you’re taking no hostages. Tonight I’m taking no prisoners.
This review contains spoilers.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a 1986 four issue miniseries written by Frank Miller with art by Miller and Klaus Janson. The story was inspired by Miller having somewhat of a quarter-life crisis. He realized that he had become older than Batman and wasn’t okay with that feeling.
The story is considered to be the greatest Batman tale every told. Many will say it is the definitive Batman; even non-comic book fans love this book. It revolutionized the comics industry with its tone and visual style. It is a major influence on both The Dark Knight Rises and the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as well as being adapted into a two-part animated film.
I think it’s overrated. It’s impossible not to be at this point. The story has become so over hyped that it can never meet the expectations of anyone who reads it nowadays. But I am going to go over what I believe works and what doesn’t work in this book.
The plot is split into four parts. The first issue, The Dark Knight Returns, deals with a retired Batman in a Gotham that is over run with gang violence. The violence of this gang, called the Mutants, leads to Bruce donning the cape and cowl once again. He first has to deal with the return of Two-Face who recently had his face surgically repaired. In the second issue, The Dark Knight Triumphant, Bruce recruits Carrie Kelly as the new Robin in order to stop the Mutants. He takes on their leader and defeats him and thus, the remaining gang members become the Sons of the Batman. During this, the Joker awakens from a comatose state upon learning of The Dark Knight’s return. In the third issue, Hunt the Dark Knight, Batman and Joker confront each at a Carnival that results in Joker killing himself while making it seem that Batman had done it. This leads President Reagan to ask Superman to take care of Batman. In the fourth issue, The Dark Knight Falls, Batman teams up with Robin and Oliver Queen, who is missing an arm, to take Superman down. Bruce is able to fake his death so that he, Carrie and the gang can continue their fight against justice underground without government interference.
The immediate interest in this book comes from the premise. It is set in a future where superheroes have basically become illegal. Batman and Green Arrow have retired, Wonder Woman returned to Themyscira, Hal Jordan left the Earth, Superman is working for the White House in secret and Jason Todd is dead. However, the book doesn’t spend much time explaining the backstory. The situation is merely presented. Miller never tells exactly how Jason died or how Ollie lost his arm and that makes this more fun since it doesn’t feel the need to state a lot of exposition in terms of backstory.
The story of an old man reclaiming his former glory is always a fun story because the protagonist is naturally an underdog. As a man in his mid-fifties, Bruce has physical limitations that he didn’t when he was in his twenties. It is harder for him to be Batman and that is an interesting story. He also fails a lot in the book. Miller isn’t afraid to say that a lot of Batman’s success is due to luck or from the help of others. That doesn’t make Batman weak; it makes him human. He also gets beat down a lot in the story. He is a vulnerable hero that can be beaten. Additionally, I love that the police become a threat again after Gordon retires. It adds great tension.
This story is very much set in the 1980s. I love that gang violence is such a major part of the story because that was a real issue at the time and something Batman would have to deal with. That kind of street level violence is exactly what Batman was created to stop so it’s a great idea. I also think Miller does a great job of establishing how important loyalty is to these gangs since that is a core part of gangs.
The minimalist art style is not my favorite but it works well in the story. It creates an intense and gritty vibe that sets the mood. The style also works incredibly well with the violence since most of it ends up being implied. Because I can’t completely see the violence, my imagination makes it a lot worse than it may actually be and that takes a lot of skill.
My main problem is that the story feels incredibly padded. My summary is just the basic plot points and it is a fairly long paragraph but I didn’t mention several plot points that are present throughout the book. A lot of it seems fairly pointless to me. I really do not understand why there is so much political satire in the book. Gang violence is understandable as well as the treatment of the psychologically damaged. Both of these can make an interesting Batman story but Miller also feels the need to throw in the Cold War and Ronald Reagan. I don’t know what the Cold War has to do with Batman. The story would be much more effective if it just focused on the Mutants, Two-Face and the Joker.
Superman is a gigantic problem in this story mainly because I’m supposed to hate him. In many ways, he is a bad guy but I disagree. Clark is trying everything he can to be reasonable and Bruce just calls him an idiot for no reason. I know everyone loves the end fight between the two but I have no interest in superheroes fighting each other unless there is a good reason and I don’t think there is here. Bruce can easily just talk to Clark and they can form a plan together to fake Bruce’s death. Beating up Superman just comes across as Miller wanting to prove that Batman is cooler than Superman.
Miller has been accused over the years of being sexist and I do not want to insult him personally because I don’t know him. He is a talented writer and seems like a good man. However, there are elements that make me uncomfortable. The big one being that I find it strange that all of the old men in the story look like Arnold Schwarzenegger while the old women are fat and ugly and characters in the book observe this. I don’t need these old women to be sexy but it seems odd that the men look so good. Then, a lot of the characters say fairly sexist things. Gordon scoffs at the idea of a woman being commissioner for some reason and everyone automatically assumes that Robin is a boy. Maybe it’s more satire and I love that Bruce never questions Carrie’s ability in relation to her gender but it’s still weird. And then, there’s the shirtless woman wearing chaps and swastikas on her boobs and butt. Again, I don’t know if it’s sexist but it is weird.
The news reporters are a mixed bag. They’re formatted well and provide a lot of good exposition. They’re quite useful and also assist in giving Miller another tool to avoid showing too much violence. However, they provide a lot of useless information as well. I understand that it is apart of Miller’s satire on the culture of the 1980s but it really doesn’t serve the story. It’s satire for the sake of satire.
Despite all of my complaints, I do think that this a really good story when it is telling that story. Bruce as an old man trying to be Batman is interesting and makes him more relateable again. Two-Face being fixed on the outside but broken on the inside is haunting and the question of whether Batman is creating monsters like Dent and Joker is always good to deal with. The satire on certain psychologists and gang violence are timely issues that fit perfectly into Miller’s story but he insists on going on tangents. Everything with Superman, Reagan and the Cold War is incredibly unnecessary and just not interesting in this context. If it had more time, maybe it could be developed but it’s just a distraction from the more interesting aspects of the book as well as just some weird random elements like everyone except Batman being a sexist. I like the main story of Bruce becoming Batman again in the city culture of the 1980s but most of the elements around it feel tedious and weigh it down for me. I may not think that it’s the best Batman story ever but it is still a good one that deserves the recognition it gets.