There is so much hype over The Dark Knight III: Master Race (DK 3) – from the 50-plus variant covers to the rumour of a Dark Knight IV – that I actually got a bit disturbed, and decided to seek contentment by going back to the original 1986 The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR).
Back then, the DC Universe was going through a post-Crisis On Infinite Earths phase, and it was open season for every DC character to get revamps. While Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and even the Blue Beetle had their origins rejigged, the creative team behind TDKR – Frank Miller (writer/artist) , Klaus Janson (inker) and Lynn Varley (colourist and Miller’s ex-wife) – decided to go in the opposite direction and chart the Dark Knight’s final days instead! The dramatic move paid off immensely, as the four-part story became one of the most beloved Batman stories of all time, establishing many milestones in the Bat-mythos as well as reference points for future story arcs and movie scenes.
The idea of featuring a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement may sound ridiculous and even embarrassing if some lesser writer had come up with it, but having transformed Daredevil and Wolverine into household names, Miller was at the peak of his powers at the time, and no one in their right mind at DC would have thought of rejecting his pitch.
Granting him carte blanche rights to do a futuristic possible ending tale seemed like a no-brainer, and to raise the stakes further, DC even experimented by publishing TDKR as a costlier Prestige Format edition. The multiple awards and accolades certainly justified DC’s decisions, and prompted calls for an encore.
Unfortunately, 2001’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (aka DK2) was the perfect example of why some sequels shouldn’t be made. TDKR is a masterpiece on its own and there are some stories best left unchanged and unadulterated.
In conjunction with the release of DK3 last week, here are 10 reasons why The Dark Knight Returns still matters today, and is still considered one of the greatest comics ever published.
1) The definitive Batman tale
Most of us are suckers for fallen heroes and Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to don the cowl again made it the perfect setting for a futuristic fall from grace scenario.
Ironically, TDKR wasn’t a 100% original story, as Miller took cues from Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact movie, in which Dirty Harry returns to crime-fighting after a lengthy break. After decades of the Batman outlasting and outsmarting Gotham’s dastardliest, the shift to an aging Batman adapting to a new world order does more than just tug at your heartstrings; it also proves that old heroes don’t just fade away, and their fame can still spread like wildfire!
2) Bat in the dark
TDKR featured a Batman who was darker and more ruthless than any Batmans that had come before. His no-holds-barred approach means he does whatever it takes to win and survive – including cheating, conniving and being ruthlessly cold-blooded at times.
3) Killing Joke(r)
For those who felt that the Batman is a sap for not killing the Joker despite all the deaths and madness the villain has unleashed, TDKR sets things right. Well, almost. The final (in all senses of the word) battle between the eternal enemies came to a long-deserved end with a resounding crack as the Joker offs himself by breaking his own spine. The only disappointment is that the coup de grace is not delivered by Batman – still, beggars can’t be choosers. Besides, Batman did manage to accomplish 95% of the task, so there is still some poetic justice in this final confrontation.
4) Fighting Superman
The climactic battle between Batman and Superman in Crime Alley will forever be the benchmark for their encounters.
On paper, there is no way Batman can beat Superman, unless he fights dirty. He does just that in the fight with the Man Of Steel – wearing souped-up “Superman-buster” armour, shocking Clark with an entire grid of electricity, and even enlisting the help of Green Arrow to deliver the final blow, a kryptonite arrow!
5) Hero and zero
While most people will remember them for their slugfest, TDKR also cements Batman and Superman’s respective positions as hero and stooge (or rather, Super-stooge).
6) He’s old, not dead, Jim
They worked together for decades, and the sight of both Bruce and Jim Gordon having a meal reminiscing about the “old times” was a nice touch. The confirmation that Gordon knows Bruce is Batman put to rest the most overdue secret-identity revelation ever (second only to Aunt May finally realising that Peter Parker is Spidey).
7) To me, my Bat-men
Mutants don’t just exist in the Marvel Universe. but the Mutants in TDKR are not Homo superior, though, but a large street gang terrorising Gotham. After Batman finally defeats their leader, his entire posse greatly expands the Bat-family by calling themselves the Sons of Batman and committing acts of ... er, justice in his name.
8) Girl Wonder
TDKR was also significant for giving us the first-ever female Robin – Carrie Kelley. Unlike Dick Grayson and Jason Todd (the Robins of that era), she was not an orphan, but a 13-year-old kid who was saved by Batman from some muggers one night, and was inspired to don a Robin costume and fight crime. For saving Batman’s life after his initial fight with the Mutants’ leader, he reluctantly allows her to stay on as his new Robin, and she becomes an integral part in his plans moving forward.
9) Worth every Penny
Alfred Pennyworth has always been the unsung hero of the Bat-family, and probably the only person, apart from Batman himself, who has directly/indirectly faced every Bat-villain. He was not just a butler, but also father figure, mentor, teacher, doctor, mechanic, weapons provider, driver, and probably taught Bruce about the bats and the bees as well. His final contribution in TDKR was destroying Wayne Manor to conceal any evidence linking Bruce Wayne to Batman, before heartbreakingly succumbing to a stroke.
10) The End
The Dark Knight Returns was the perfect THE END story for Batman. At its close, you felt that the Dark Knight finally earned his peace, and deserved the closure he got. Unfortunately, that was not to be, thanks to the insipid DK2 15 years later, and now, the over-hyped DK3.