The Dark Knight Rises & The Dark Knight Returns

More than any other superhero, Batman has become a different character for each generation of readers. In his first incarnation in the ’40s, he was a grim pulp detective. In the ’50s and ’60s he was campy and gadget-happy, culminating in the Adam West TV show and movie. In the ’70s and early ’80s, like most superheroes, he became more boring and socially conscious. And in 1986, he was reinvented by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most influential comics ever published. 26 years and seven movies later, this story — more or less — has finally been filmed.

(WARNING — MAJOR SPOILERS)

The Dark Knight Returns was a non-canon story that takes place years after the official chronology of the comics. Batman has been retired for years, brooding over the death of Robin. (This was such a popular idea that Robin was killed off in the canon a few years later.) He puts the costume back on and takes on a violent criminal gang that hides in the sewers, but the gang’s young musclebound leader defeats him. He’s helped by a teenage girl who wants to be the next Robin, and after some more brooding they go after the gang again. On the second try, Batman defeats the mutant leader. After a little more action, he fakes his death and retires again, this time for good. Our last glimpse of him is as a happy civilian scout leader, exploring underground caverns with the new Robin and some former members of the gang.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has been retired for years, brooding over the death of his girlfriend. He puts the costume back on and takes on a violent criminal gang that hides in the sewers, but the gang’s young musclebound leader, Bane, defeats him. He’s helped by a young cop who will later develop into the next Robin, and after some more brooding they go after the gang again. On the second try, Batman defeats Bane. After a little more action, he appears to fake his own death and retire again, this time for good. Our last glimpse of him is as a happy civilian in an Italian cafe; meanwhile, new Robin is seen exploring underground caverns… well, you get the idea.

What parts of the comic does the movie leave out? A little angry satire of Reagan-era politics and urban decay. A bizarre fight with Superman in which Batman almost kills him. A very creepy aged version of the Joker. And of course, the movie adds a couple of sexed-up female characters and a pointless love triangle.

The real difference is this: The Dark Knight Returns was not just “dark,” it was scary. When I first read it — I was probably nine or ten — it frightened me in a way that comics never had before. And not in the hyper-violent sense of Miller’s later effort Sin City; more in the sense that so many characters were deeply emotionally damaged, and seemed to be dealing with a level of constant psychic pain that almost numbed them to the over-the-top physical punishment that’s dished out in any comic book.

The Dark Knight Rises was a fun movie, but Batman Begins is still my favorite of the current series, and I’m not sure any of them match up to the Tim Burton ones. I think Burton struck the right balance between taking the material too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. The Joel Schumacher movies went too far in the direction of camp; Nolan, as many critics have pointed out, takes the Batman story very seriously indeed. But he can’t possibly take it as seriously as Miller did — not with this much studio money riding on the result — and his movies suffer from the comparison. In The Dark Knight Returns, Miller showed that if you really want to excise the campy, lightweight side of a superhero story, it’s not enough just to dim the lighting and add some politics and social commentary. You also have to recognize these grown men in costumes for what they obviously are — insane — and follow them down that rabbit hole. When we finally get a movie that does that, it might be closer to the horror category than action, but it’ll definitely be worth watching.