The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns (known as DKR by fans) is a superhero comic book story published by DC Comics between 1985 and 1986, starring Batman. The story's creator, Frank Miller, sought to create a fitting "end" for the character of Batman: just as the Norse myths had their Ragnarok, so would Batman eventually meet his end.
The book is set in a dark, depressing world (hinted to be the 1980s) where criminals run amok, and Batman's home of Gotham City is being terrorized by a gang of murderers called The Mutants. Bruce Wayne (Batman) is 55 years old, and gave up the role of Batman ten years before the story begins. Finally, he reaches a point in his life where he cannot sit back and watch the world be overrun by thieves and murderers. He dons the mantle of the Caped Crusader one last time and embarks on a final battle to purge Gotham of crime. The Dark Knight Returns deals in large part with Wayne's uncompromising obsession with his dual identity.
The series starts with Two-Face's disfigurement being corrected by plastic surgery and Two-Face himself seemingly becoming a sane man – Harvey Dent – again. Meanwhile, the violence from the Mutants runs rampant. The law utterly fails to curb the criminals. Batman returns and reacts with counter-violence. At the end, Two-Face threatens to blow up Gotham's Twin Towers, but he is defeated by Batman. Batman sees his face but realizes that despite the plastic surgery, the scars run too deep; Dent is not a sane man, and no amount of plastic surgery is going to fix that. In Dent, Batman sees "a reflection".
The second part deals with Batman's fight against the Mutants. He succeeds in tracking down their lair with an armored supertank, but cannot bring himself to kill the Mutant leader. In a brutal hand-to-hand fight motivated less by a desire to bring the Mutant leader to justice than by a need to prove that, despite his age, he is still a force to be reckoned with, Batman is defeated and almost killed when Carrie Kelley, a young self-styled Robin, saves him. Batman manages to flee the scene; meanwhile, the leader is brought into custody and kills the mayor while negotiating a truce. James Gordon decides to let the Mutant leader free so Batman can fight him in front of the entire gang; like Batman, he believes that the only way to beat them is to decisively humiliate them. Batman – now taking advantage of his experience and the environment instead of trying to beat the younger and faster man in his own game – defeats the Mutant leader and causes the Mutants' ranks to break down, effectively ending the Mutant threat, though individual members will still cause trouble. Batman accepts Carrie as the new Robin.
The third part deals with The Joker, who has been in a catatonic withdrawal for ten years until the Batman's return. The Joker convinces his psychiatrist, the fame-seeking Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, that he is rueful and sane, and becomes the main attraction in a talk show. The police are not pleased with this turn of events, and place the building under heavy guard. Batman, anticipating trouble, makes an attempt to reach the Joker, but ends up fighting the new Commissioner Ellen Yindel and her men. He only barely escapes. In the meantime, the Joker murders the entire talk show audience with his notorious Joker gas and escapes. With the police on his heels, Batman tracks the Joker down to a fun fair, and defeats him in a bloody and violent showdown, but he cannot bring himself to commit murder against the Joker. The Joker then commits suicide by breaking his own neck, and leaves the police thinking that Batman killed him.
In the fourth part, a belligerent US President (a caricature of Ronald Reagan) has turned Superman into an active military agent who has been used to defeat a force on the small island of Corto Maltese, located somewhere in Latin America. This leads to the USSR launching a massive nuclear warhead. The warhead is engineered to release a massive electro-magnetic pulse that disrupts electrical power throughout North America. As chaos spreads throughout the continent, Batman and an army of followers – composed largely of former members of the Mutant gang – take to the streets and restore order in Gotham. However, by now Batman has become a visible threat and an embarrassment to the government, and Superman is dispatched for a final confrontation. Using a powered exo-skeleton suit and synthesized Kryptonite Batman is on the verge of defeating Superman when he experiences a heart attack. At precisely the same moment, Alfred oversees the destruction of the Batcave and Wayne Manor and has a fatal stroke. Superman as Clark Kent arranges a dignified funeral for his old friend, but at the last minute hears a heartbeat from the coffin. Recognizing that Bruce Wayne's "death" was planned and faked with supreme skill, and that he intends to continue his work in a more quiet fashion that will not attract the ire of the authorities, Kent ignores the sound. Batman, Robin, and many of the Mutants then travel to the deepest recesses of the Batcave and plan for the future...
Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, 55 years old. He gave up the Batman identity ten years ago, strongly hinted as a reaction to the death of the former Robin, Jason Todd. But when he sees violence running rampant and his personal demons can no longer be denied, he is forced to return.
Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne's trusty butler and assistant. He dies at the end of the book.
Robin, aka Carrie Kelley, 13 years old. She becomes Robin, and is accepted by the Batman after saving his life.
James Gordon, Commissioner of the Gotham Police, 70 years old. He retires in the middle of the book.
Two-Face, aka Harvey Dent, whose face is reconstructed with plastic surgery, but who still cannot refrain from criminal acts.
The Joker as a catatonic prisoner of Arkham Asylum. He becomes criminal again when he sees Batman returning.
The Mutant Leader, head of a gang of teens called the "Mutants" who terrorizes Gotham. The leader is a strong, savage, brute who puts a hit on Gordon, beats Batman in their first encounter, goes to jail, kills the mayor (while still in jail), escapes, and is beaten by Batman.
Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, the Joker's psychiatrist and staunch opponent of Batman's "fascist" vigilantism. He is killed by the Joker himself.
Ellen Yindel, James Gordon's successor. She starts off as Batman's fiercest opponent, but doubts herself after the Joker debacle (part 3) and is strongly hinted to protect him from prosecution at the end of the book.
Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen. He has undertaken a clandestine career of terrorism against government oppression. He lost his left arm years ago and has a grudge against Superman because of that.
Superman, aka Clark Kent, a military superagent for the United States government. He has agreed to stay out of sight and do as he's told, and in exchange he is allowed to continue save lives.
Catwoman, aka Selina Kyle, who now runs an escort service.
Lana Lang, TV broadcaster and fierce defender of Batman's vigilantism.
Upon its publication, The Dark Knight Returns turned the comic book industry on its ear. It helped to introduce an era of more adult-oriented storytelling to the mainstream world of superhero comic books, and it received media attention the likes of which had never seen before in a medium long believed to be little more than children's entertainment.
This story, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen (published in the same year) and Art Spiegelman's Maus, helped to raise the medium to a more mature level of literature, and it ushered in the popularity of graphic novels as a form of literature that truly differs from "child-oriented comic books." Critics have accused this story of giving birth to the era of "grim and gritty" comic books that lasted from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, when comic books took many adult-oriented themes (especially violence and sexual situations) to "the limits of decency." Although the Batman has rarely been as obsessive and powerful a figure as Miller depicts him here, The Dark Knight Returns was tremendously influential; since the work was originally published, Miller's portrayal of the character as a dark and compulsive figure has dominated most Batman projects to at least some degree.
In 2001 and 2002, DC Comics published The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller's sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Despite a heavy promotional campaign by the publisher, the book failed to gain the same acceptance that the original story received.