The mid 1980s was a wonderful time to be reading comics, especially for a DC fan. Maybe it just seemed that way to me, because I had just started seriously buying comics and found a local comic book club about that time; but there were some really incredible things going on about then. DC had just upended the universe with its CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. John Byrne was retooling Superman in his own image, and George Perez was breathing fresh life into Wonder Woman. Alan Moore was leading the British Invasion of Comics with his startling re-interpretation of Swamp Thing, planting the seeds for DC's VERTIGO line of Mature Readers comic, and was about to stagger everybody with WATCHMEN.
And then there was THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.
Published in 1986, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was a four-part series telling of the Twilight of the Batman; his final days and his last and greatest fight against his ultimate enemy. It was the creation of Frank Miller, who had just come off of his highly-regarded RONIN limited series and a lengthy and successful run on DAREDEVIL. Along with WATCHMEN, DKR marked the start of the “Grim 'n' Gritty” era of comic books which remains with us today.
There's a lot of interesting stuff in DKR: Miller's use of TV talking heads as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the action; his introduction of Carrie Kelly, the first female Robin; his drily sarcastic interpretation of Alfred and his very human Commissioner Gordon. And a lot of controversial stuff, like the Batman's frothing Dirty Harry rants; the effeminate depiction of the Joker, Selina Kyle's reinterpretation as a prostitute, (Frank dearly loves his prostitutes, as SIN CITY has shown us); and the Joker's hippie-dippy psychiatrist who blames the Batman for all his patient's neuroses.
But given the recent release of BATMAN V SUPERMAN, I'd like to look at the climactic battle of DKR, which the BvS movie tried to invoke: the clash between the World's Finest Heroes.
It has been ten years since Something Bad happened to Jason Todd, the second boy to take on the role of Robin. We are never told what this Something Bad is, but it caused Batman to hang up his cape and cowl and retire. Bruce Wayne is in his fifties now, brooding over the past and watching his city slowly dying of violence, crime and corruption. Finally he had take it no longer.
Over the course of the first three chapters, we see Bruce struggling against his compulsion to resume his one-man war on crime and finally embracing it; we see him go up against his one-time friend Harvey Dent, alias Two-Face, who at first also seems to have conquered his inner demons, but who like Bruce seems destined to succumb to them. We see him take on a savage street gang that holds the city in terror and recruit a new Robin to take Jason's place. We see the Joker, who had been in a state of catatonia for ten years until he heard that Batman has come back, murder a studio full of people on the David Letterman show; and we see Batman pursue him into an amusement park to a final confrontation even more visceral and final than Alan Moore's similar fight in THE KILLING JOKE.
It's all leading up to Superman.
I remember when DKR first came out, members of our local comic book club arguing over the splash panel of Batman, in a bulky suit of powered armor belting Superman. Could that really happen? I mean, Superman? Faster than a speeding bullet? More powerful than a locomotive? Against a guy in a bat suit? Even a powered bat suit; really?
But Miller set up the fight to make it halfway plausible. Supes was recovering from having a block-buster nuke blow up in his face, and so was not at his best; Bats was wearing specially-designed armor to boost his strength; and he'd managed to synthesize some kryptonite to weaken Superman further. This, I think, was the origin of the oft-stated mantra of Batman fans that the Batman can defeat any opponent up to and including God, given enough time to prepare. Most importantly, though, Clark doesn't really want to hurt Bruce. But we'll get back to that in a moment.
Why would Superman and Batman fight in the first place?
Earlier, Clark pays Bruce a visit at Wayne Manor. He tries to persuade Bruce to back off on the bat-stuff. “You're not a young man anymore Bruce... time have changed...” Finally he spits it out. “It's like this, Bruce – Sooner or later, somebody's going to order me to bring you in. Somebody with authority. When that happens...”
Bruce doesn't smile as much as he bares his teeth. “When that happens, Clark – May the best man win.”
In the years that have passed, public sentiment has turned against super-heroes. Although not explicitly stated, this might well have been one of the reasons behind Bruce's retirement ten years ago. Later on, we get an internal monologue from Superman recalling the time:
The rest of us learned to cope.
The rest of us recognized the danger – of the endless envy of those not blessed.
Diana went back to her people.
Hal went to the stars.
And I have walked the razor's edge for so long...
Long ago Clark made a deal with the devil. He agreed to work for the Government, and to operate discretely and covertly. In return, the Government grants him secrecy. And refrains from trying to take him down. Could even the combined forces of the United States military bring down Superman? Clark doesn't want to find out. And even if he could beat the Army, Clark fears the kind of hell such a war would mean for everybody involved.
Bruce despises Clark for selling out this way. And Clark doesn't like it much himself. In another monologue he says:
“I gave them my obedience and my invisibility.
They gave me a license and let us live.
No, I don't like it. But I get to save lives – and the Media stays quiet.
But now the storm is growing again ---
They'll hunt us down again –
Because of you.
The order to take Batman down comes straight from the President. Clark doesn't want to kill him, but he knows that Bruce won't let him take him alive. So the stage is set for the final battle, in Crime Alley, where Bruce's parents died and where, in a real sense, the Batman was born.
Armed to the teeth with every attack he can think of, on a battlefield he's rigged with traps and ambushes, Batman gives Superman the fight of his life. And through it all, we get Bruce's bitter, angry monologue:
“Still talking – keep talking, Clark...
...You've always known just what to say.
“Yes” – You always say yes to anyone with a badge – or a flag …
… it's way past time you learned – what it means – to be a MAN!”
There are some Batman fans who cheer him in this fight, who revel in watching Batman take that Big Blue Boy Scout down a peg; watching him humiliate Superman.
But Miller also gives us bits of Clark's monologue too: “Bruce – this is idiotic … Bruce – I just broke three of your ribs...” Even after getting a face full of kryptonite gas; even after getting a spiked boot smashed into his face. Clark doesn't stop trying to talk him down. He is not dismayed by the violence Batman is inflicting on him; he can take it. He is dismayed by the sound of Bruce's heartbeat growing more erratic, and then stopping.
This, to me, is what makes THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS moving. It's not the epic of a Man fighting a God; it's the tragedy of two heroes fighting who once were friends. Bruce is probably the only peer Clark has left on earth. Clark desperately wishes the fight could be avoided, that they could once again be friends. But he winds up cradling Bruce's lifeless body in his arms.
The story doesn't end there of course; Bruce had one last trick up his bat-gauntlet. He had time to prepare, remember? And the moment at Bruce's funeral where Clark realizes what the trick was, and gives Robin a smile is a warm and satisfying one in an otherwise grim and cynical story.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN lifted a lot of imagery from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and director Zack Snyder has said that he was faithful to the source material. Maybe. But by taking a fight written at the end of the relationship between Bruce and Clark and putting it at the beginning, he has made it a completely different fight. And, I would argue, he's taken a lot of the heart out of it as well. Perhaps he managed to find a new heart to this new fight; one which could lead the two heroes to actually become friends the way they were in a different universe.
I hope that's the case.