The Dark Knight Returns (alternatively titled Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) is a 1986 four-issue comic book miniseries starring Batman, written by Frank Miller, illustrated by Miller and Klaus Janson, with color by Lynn Varley, and published by DC Comics. It tells an alternative story of Bruce Wayne, who at 55 years old returns from retirement to fight crime and faces opposition from the Gotham City police force and the United States government. The story also features the return of classic foes such as Two-Face and the Joker, and culminates with a confrontation with Superman, who is now a pawn of the government.
When originally published, the series was simply titled Batman: The Dark Knight, with a different subtitle for each issue (The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt the Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Falls), but when the series was collected into a single volume later that year, the title of the first issue was applied to the entire series, and has remained so ever since. Some of the earliest collected editions also bore the shorter series title. The story introduces Carrie Kelley as the new Robin and the hyper-violent street gang known as the Mutants. In the Pre-FlashpointDC Multiverse, the events of The Dark Knight Returns and its associated titles were designated to occur on Earth-31.
The Dark Knight Returns is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential Batman stories ever made, as well as one of the greatest works of comic art in general, and has been noted for helping reintroduce a darker and more mature-oriented version of the character (and superheroes in general) to pop culture during the 1980s. Various elements of the series have since been incorporated into depictions of Batman in other media, while a direct animated adaptation of the story, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was released as a two-part film across 2012 and 2013.
The Dark Knight Returns is set in a dystopian version of Gotham City in 1986. Bruce Wayne, aged 55, has given up the mantle of Batman after the death of Jason Todd ten years prior. Crime is running rampant throughout the city and a gang calling themselves "The Mutants" has begun terrorizing the people of Gotham. After watching news reports about the Mutants' crimes, Wayne decides to return to his role as a vigilante. On his first night as Batman, he stops multiple assaults – including one on two young girls, Carrie Kelley and her friend Michelle – and targets the Mutants.
While foiling an armed robbery, Batman learns that the criminals are working for Harvey Dent. Previously known as Two-Face, Dent underwent extensive therapy and plastic surgery to reenter society before disappearing. Batman informs nearly-retired Commissioner Gordon that Dent may be planning a larger scheme. Soon after, Dent announces his intention to hold Gotham ransom with a bomb. After Batman defeats Dent and his goons, he discovers that Dent's mind has completely warped into his Two-Face persona.
Inspired by Batman, Kelley buys an imitation Robin costume and searches for him. Batman attacks the Mutants at the city dump with the Batmobile, but the Mutant Leader goads him into a hand-to-hand fight. Batman, due to his age and a decade of physical inactivity, is beaten and almost killed. Kelley creates a diversion which allows her and Batman to return to the Batcave, where Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth tends to his wounds. Impressed with her bravery, Wayne decides to make Kelley his new protegee. Batman strategically defeats the Mutant Leader in a fight surrounded by the Mutants. Seeing Batman defeat their leader, some of the Mutants disband into smaller gangs. One of these gangs renames themselves the "Sons of the Batman", using excessive violence against criminals.
Gordon's successor as commissioner, Captain Ellen Yindel, declares Batman a wanted criminal for his vigilante activities. Batman's return stimulates his archenemy, Joker, to awaken from catatonia at Arkham Asylum. Joker manipulates his caretakers to allow him onto a television talk show, where he murders everyone with Joker venom and escapes. Batman and Robin (Kelley) track him to a county fair while evading a police pursuit. Batman fights Joker, vowing to stop him permanently, feeling responsible for every murder the villain has committed. Batman paralyzes the Joker, but is unable to take his life. Disappointed with Batman's refusal to kill him, Joker breaks his own neck and dies. Batman and Robin escape from Gotham police.
A citywide manhunt on Batman begins. Elsewhere, Superman diverts a Soviet nuclear warhead which detonates in a desert, nearly killing him in the process, and survives only by absorbing the sun's energy. The United States is hit by an electromagnetic pulse as a result and descends into chaos during the following blackout. In Gotham, Batman and Robin turn the remaining Mutants and Sons of the Batman into a non-lethal vigilante gang, making Gotham the safest city in the country. The U.S. government orders Superman to take Batman into custody. Superman demands to meet Batman, and Wayne chooses Crime Alley.
Superman tries to reason with Batman, but Batman uses his technological inventions to fight him on equal ground. During the battle, Superman compromises Batman's exoframe. However, an aging Oliver Queen manages to shoot Superman with a kryptonite-tipped arrow to weaken him. Before he can fully defeat Superman, Batman has a sudden heart attack, apparently dying. Alfred destroys the Batcave and Wayne Manor before suffering a fatal stroke, exposing Batman as Bruce Wayne, whose fortune has disappeared. After Wayne's funeral, it is revealed that his death was staged using a chemical that suspended his vital life signs. Clark attends the funeral and winks at the disguised Carrie after hearing Wayne's heartbeat. Some time afterwards, Bruce Wayne leads Robin, Queen, and the rest of his followers into the caverns beyond the Batcave and prepares to continue his war on crime.
Bruce Wayne / Batman: Bruce Wayne is 55 years old and has been retired from his Batman persona for a decade. When he sees violence becoming more common not just in Gotham City but also the world, he feels a strong desire to return as Batman and emerges from his depression.
Carrie Kelley / Robin: A 13-year-old girl with absentee parents, who later becomes Batman's sidekick, Robin. Throughout the story, she is frequently mistaken for the former "Boy Wonder". After she saves the Dark Knight's life, the aging Batman places his trust in her against Alfred's wishes.
James Gordon: The elderly Commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department, who retires on his 70th birthday. He is aware of Batman's true identity.
Harvey Dent / Two-Face: Having spent 12 years in Arkham Asylum, Harvey Dent has been treated by Doctor Wolper for three years and his face has been repaired with plastic surgery. Dent's doctor gives him a clean bill of mental health, but he is still Two-Face in his mind. Dent terrorizes the city with his face swathed in bandages as he now perceives both sides of his face as scarred.
Joker: Batman's archenemy who awakens from a catatonic state upon learning of Batman's re-emergence. He plans a brutal crime spree to draw out Batman, setting in motion the events leading to a final confrontation.
The Mutant Leader: The cunning, brutal, and albino head of the Mutants, who seeks to control Gotham and kill anyone who opposes him.
Dr. Bartholomew Wolper: Two-Face and Joker's psychiatrist and opponent of Batman's "fascist" vigilantism. Wolper is convinced that the Joker and Two-Face are both victims of Batman's crusade. He is killed when the Joker floods a television studio with poisonous gas; Wolper's neck is snapped by the robot Bobbie.
Ellen Yindel: James Gordon's successor as Commissioner. A captain in the Gotham City Police Department, she is a critic of Batman, but begins to doubt herself after the Joker's crime spree.
The Mayor of Gotham City: The unnamed mayor of Gotham City. He tries to negotiate peace with the Mutant Leader at the time he was in police custody, only to be killed by him.
Deputy Mayor Stevenson: The deputy mayor of Gotham City, who later becomes the new mayor after the former mayor is killed by the Mutant Leader. He states that Commissioner Ellen Yindel will make the decision of how to act with Batman.
Ronald Reagan: The President of the United States. He instructs Superman to deal with Batman in Gotham City.
Oliver Queen: After superheroes are outlawed, Queen undertakes a clandestine rebellion against government oppression, including the sinking of a nuclear submarine. He lost his left arm after an encounter with Superman. Despite this disability, Queen is still a highly skilled marksman.
Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman: Superman is now an agent of the U.S. government and his secret identity as the former Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent is publicly known. In his inner thoughts he despises being a government tool, but he believes it is the only way he can save lives in this day and age. Because of his Kryptonian physique his aging process is slower than his former allies', which is one of the reasons of why he is no longer able to hide his secret identity. In the final climax, Superman battles Batman in a final attempt to rid the government of his opposition, but is weakened by a Kryptonite arrow fired by Queen, allowing an armored Batman to stand up to him.
Selina Kyle: No longer the Catwoman, Selina Kyle now runs an escort business.
Lana Lang: The managing editor of the Daily Planet who is an outspoken supporter of Batman, appearing on a series of TV debates in which she argues with others over his methods and influence.
Dave Endochrine: A late-night talk show host who invites the Joker and Dr. Wolper on his show; he and his audience are later killed by the Joker's poisonous gas. He is a characterization of David Letterman.
Lola Chong: A Gotham City news anchor who serves as the story's main talking head, providing exposition and narration in the form of her reporting.
Bruno: The leader of a group of neo-Nazi criminals. Working for the Joker, she battles Batman and Robin but is caught by Superman.
Abner: The Joker's hulking henchman. He builds two robotic dolls, Bobbie and Mary, to kill the Joker's TV audience; he later attempts to kill Robin at a funfair, but is decapitated by a roller coaster instead.
The Sons of Batman (S.O.B.): A group of teenagers who were formerly part of the Mutants. They have become followers of Batman since the defeat of the Mutant Leader, although they are too unruly and corrupt, taking severe measures to control the streets and even Batman. They end up following Batman for good intentions instead of bad ones.
Since the 1950s, when the Comics Code Authority was established, the character of Batman had drifted from his darker, more serious roots. It was not until the 1970s when the character began to feature in darker stories once again; however, Batman was still commonly associated with the campy theme of the 1960s Batman TV series, and was regarded more as a father figure to Robin rather than as his original identity as a vigilante.
In the early 1980s, DC Comics promoted Batman group editor Dick Giordano to editorial director for the company. Writer-artist Frank Miller was recruited to create The Dark Knight Returns. Giordano said he worked with Miller on the story's plot, and said, "[t]he version that was finally done was about his fourth or fifth draft. The basic storyline was the same but there were a lot of detours along the way."
"With Batman, you've got a character that you can describe in just a few seconds: His parents were murdered by criminals; he's warring on crime for the rest of his life," Miller explained in the documentary Comic Book Confidential. "He was created in 1938, and the character was just ruthless in his methods, terrifying to criminals. Over the years, that got softened and softened, because people started thinking that comics had to be just for kids... and Batman had to be made much nicer. And eventually, no kid could relate to him anymore."
During the creation of the series, fellow comics writer/artist John Byrne told Miller, "Robin must be a girl", and Miller agreed. Miller said that the comic series' plot was inspired by Dirty Harry, specifically the 1983 film Sudden Impact, in which Dirty Harry returns to crime-fighting after a lengthy convalescence. The series employed a 16-panel grid for its pages. Each page was composed of either a combination of 16 panels, or anywhere between sixteen and one panel per page. Giordano left the project halfway through because of disagreements over production deadlines. Comics historian Les Daniels wrote that Miller's idea of ignoring deadlines was "the culmination of the quest towards artistic independence".
While the comic's ending features Batman faking his death and leading up the Sons of Batman to continue with his crusade against crime, symbolizing that Bruce Wayne dies but Batman lives on, this wasn't the original intention. During the MCM London Comic Con 2018, Miller revealed that in his original plans for the ending of The Dark Knight Returns, Batman was going to be gunned down by the police while fighting them, but the story got away from him and changed his mind.
The issues of The Dark Knight Returns were presented in packaging that included extra pages, square binding and glossy paper to highlight the watercolor paintings by colorist Lynn Varley.
Despite the cost of the single-issue packaging, The Dark Knight Returns sold well. Pricing it at $2.95 an issue, DC Comics promoted The Dark Knight Returns as a "thought-provoking action story". Time said the series' depiction of a "semi-retired Batman [who] is unsure about his crime-fighting abilities" was an example of trying to appeal to "today's skeptical readers". More than 1 million comics in print were issued.
Retrospectively, the series is today widely considered one of the greatest works in the comics medium. IGN Comics ranked The Dark Knight Returns first on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels and called The Dark Knight Returns "a true masterpiece of storytelling" with "[s]cene after unforgettable scene." In 2005, Time chose the collected edition as one of the 10 best English language graphic novels ever written.Forbidden Planet placed the collected issue at number one on its "50 Best of the Best Graphic Novels" list. Writer Matthew K. Manning in the "1980s" chapter of DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle (2010) called the series "arguably the best Batman story of all time." It was placed second in a poll among comic book academics conducted by the Sequart Organization.
The series also garnered some negative reviews. In April 2010, Nicolas Slayton from Comics Bulletin ranked The Dark Knight Returns second in his Tuesday Top Ten feature's Top 10 Overrated Comic Books behind Watchmen. Slayton wrote, "[t]here is no central plot to the comic, leaving only a forced fight scene between Superman and Batman as an out of place climax to the story." "Gone are the traits that define Batman," he said, also citing "misuse of the central character."
Miller signing a copy of the book during a 2016 appearance at Midtown Comics
The immense popularity of The Dark Knight Returns served both to return the character of Batman to a central role in pop culture, but also (along with Watchmen) started the era known as the Dark Age of Comic Books (also known as the Modern Age and the Iron Age). The grim, seedy versions of Gotham and Batman updated the character's identity from the campy Adam West version from the 1960s Batman TV series, and proved critically and commercially successful enough that a new wave of "dark" superheroes were either created or re-popularized, and preexisting heroes were redesigned or retooled to fit this new trend.
The Dark Knight Returns was one of the two comic books, alongside Watchmen, that inspired designer Vincent Connare when he created the Comic Sans font.
In 1994, this version of Batman appeared in the Zero Hour: Crisis in Time crossover event playing a small role. In March 2018, he appeared in a brief cameo in the sixth and final issue of the Dark Nights: Metal event. The three-issue miniseries Superman: Year One was revealed by Frank Miller to be set in the same universe as the Dark Knight Returns series, serving as an origin story for that universe's version of Superman. Younger versions of Batman and Wonder Woman appeared in the third issue of the series, marking their first meeting with Superman.
In 2019, Miller announced the name of the fourth chapter of the series, a Prestige Format one-shot entitled Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child, released under DC Black Label. The first issue by Miller and Rafael Grampa was released December 2019.
In 2018, it was announced that this version of Robin, Carrie Kelley, would be getting a spin-off in the form of a young adult graphic novel. It will be written by Miller with art from Ben Caldwell. There was very little information until November 2021, when Miller said "[The Carrie Kelley book] is shaping up great; Ben is just a powder keg of talent. It'd probably be out now but it just keeps growing, due to his enthusiasm and output. I'm already kind of tugging at his sleeve about doing something else after this."
In other media
Stephen Amell appears as an older Oliver Queen in the Legends of Tomorrow episode "Star City 2046", with a grey goatee and missing his left arm, a nod to the portrayal of the character in The Dark Knight Returns. This version of Oliver appears again in the crossover "Crisis on Infinite Earths" which designates the events of "Star City 2046" not just as an alternate timeline but taking place on Earth-16.
In the episode "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies" of Gotham, the show's first Proto-Joker, Jerome Valeska (played by Cameron Monaghan), confronts Bruce Wayne in a house of mirrors after the GCPD raid Jerome's carnival populated by his cult followers, which pays homage to Batman and Joker's final confrontation in The Dark Knight Returns. In addition, Monaghan's performance as the second Proto-Joker, Jeremiah Valeska, took some influence from the Joker in the comic.
In the Batwoman episode of the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" crossover, Kevin Conroy appears as Bruce Wayne from Earth-99. This version is more violent to the point of killing, as Joker is dead. While confronting Supergirl, Bruce quoted the comic while talking about how Clark always said "yes" to anyone with a badge or a flag, giving them too much power. Bruce says "Life only makes sense if you force it to" before attacking Supergirl with Kryptonite.
Two members of the Mutant gang are shown throwing snowballs at an elderly Beast Boy in a cage in the episode "How Long Is Forever?" of Teen Titans.
The Batman episode "Artifacts", set in a future Gotham, mostly references Miller's work, with the future Batman depicted as a tall, muscular man and Mr. Freeze going so far as speaking the sentence "The Dark Knight returns" upon meeting his nemesis.
There are some references in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. In the season 1 episode "Legends of the Dark Mite!", Bat-Mite transforms Batman into alternate versions of himself, one of which is his look from The Dark Knight Returns. In the season 2 episode "The Knights of Tomorrow!", the Mutant gang is seen robbing a bank in a future where Bruce Wayne's son, Damian, is the new Batman. The battle between Batman and Superman is featured in the season 3 episode "Battle of the Super-Heroes!", where Batman wears a similar armored suit as well as some moments of the fight taken straight out of the comic.
In the 1995 film Batman Forever, director Joel Schumacher uses some elements of the comic: when Bruce remembers falling into the cave as a child, and in a deleted scene when GNN News makes a bad reputation of Batman after his fight with Two-Face in the Gotham Subway and before when he follows Two-Face in a helicopter.
The Tumbler in Batman Begins (2005) was inspired by the Batmobile in The Dark Knight Returns. Both Batmobiles are designed as large, military vehicles built for special purposes.
The "copycat" Batman vigilantes in The Dark Knight (2008) were inspired by the Sons of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Like the Sons of Batman, the "copycats" are a gang who are inspired by Batman's actions and decided to follow his example by using violence against criminals.
In the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan used a number of stories including The Dark Knight Returns as influence for the film. After the death of Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne retires from Batman and spends the next eight years in a depressed state caused by his experiences as a vigilante. Bruce decides to return as Batman when he realizes that The League of Shadows has returned to Gotham; Bruce uses a special brace for his arm to compensate his frail physicality. While in the film, Bruce uses a brace to support his damaged leg; During a police chase, two cops witness Batman's unexpected return. The older cop comments to his younger partner, "You're in for a show, kid"; The fight between Batman and Bane was influenced by the two separate fights between Batman and the Mutant Leader. Due to years of inactivity, Batman fails to beat the Mutant Leader and gets badly beaten. In the second time, Batman brutally fights the Mutant Leader while his followers watch in silence. After Harvey Dent dies in The Dark Knight, Batman is falsely accused for his death and becomes a fugitive. At the end, Bruce abandons his personal life and persona as Batman by faking his death so he can have a fresh start with his crime-fighting career. In the film, Bruce fakes his death so he can finally move on from Batman and start a new life with Selina Kyle in Florence, Italy.
Director Zack Snyder stated that although the 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice features an original premise, the film does borrow some elements from The Dark Knight Returns, like an older and hardened Batman, who is in his mid 40s unlike the comic book where he is in his mid 50s who lost Robin (although Snyder intended for him to be Dick Grayson, the identity of the dead Robin is never stated in the film. A behind-the-scenes video released for the DC Extended Universe stated it belonged to Jason Todd, and was labeled as such at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood.) in his younger years, being less averse to using lethal force to the point of using guns to dispatch enemies, Batman's fateful confrontation with Superman, who in this instance is forced to fight him although he is coerced by Lex Luthor instead of the U.S government as in the comics and the Batsuit and the armored suit both closely resembling the ones shown in the comic. There are also a few shots in the film directly taken from the pages of Miller's work.
The talk show host David Endochrine from The Dark Knight Returns served as inspiration for the character Murray Franklin in the 2019 film Joker, played by Robert De Niro. His interview with the Joker is somewhat similar to the one in the comic.
The 2021 film Zack Snyder's Justice League featured a version of the Batmobile similar to the one from The Dark Knight Returns. In the film's epilogue, Batman is seen standing on a Batmobile (as it is seen in Miller's miniseries) after apprehending the Mutants.
The 2018 animated film Teen Titans Go! To the Movies had Robin dream up a sequence which seems to parody The Lion King, where he is lifted up by the Batman from The Dark Knight Returns continuity. Later on, Robin appears in a musical sequence where he parodies the iconic Dark Knight Returns cover where Robin poses against a lightning effect with the title: "Robin: The Dark Hero Returns".
Carrie makes her first canonical appearance in the mainstream DC Universe in The New 52's Batman and Robin (vol. 2) #19 (titled Batman and Red Robin). She is a college student and the late Damian Wayne's drama instructor. As a homage to The Dark Knight Returns, she wears an imitation Robin costume as a Halloween costume in her first appearance.
Batman/Bruce Wayne and Carrie Kelley/Robin appear in a one-page article in Comics Collector #8 (Krause Publications, summer 1985), predating their first comic book appearance.
In 1996, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the graphic novel, DC released a new hardcover and a later softcover release. These included original rough script text for issue #4 with some sketches by Miller. There was also a limited edition slipcased hardcover that included mini poster prints, collected media reviews, and a sketchbook by Miller. DC Direct released a limited edition statue of Batman and Robin designed by Miller. It was released in full size and then later as a mini sized statue.[unreliable source?] DC Direct released a series of Batman action figures based on The Dark Knight Returns in 2004. It included figures of Batman, Robin, Superman, and The Joker. Later, a Batman and Joker Gift Set was released, including both characters with new color schemes to reflect earlier points in the story, and a 48-page prestige format reprint of The Dark Knight Returns #1 was also released. An action figure of Batman as he appears in The Dark Knight Returns was released by Mattel in 2013, as part of their Batman Unlimited line of action figures.
In 2022, Cryptozoic Entertainment released a Batman: The Dark Knight Returns board game designed specifically for solitaire play. The game uses extensive amounts of art from the graphic novel and play follows the story of The Dark Knight Returns, including 4 games mirroring the books as a campaign.
In the episode "Girl Meets the New Teacher" of Girl Meets World, the new English teacher Harper Burgess gives out copies for her class to study, which creates controversy with the principal who disapproves of the comic.
In the Rick and Morty season 6 episode "Solaricks", The Dark Knight Returns is mentioned by the original version of Jerry Smith as one of the books he read at a Barnes & Noble to overcome the grief of losing his family.
^Miller, Frank. The Dark Knight Returns - Volume 4. DC Comics. p. 45.
^ abManning, Matthew K. (2010). "1980s". In Dolan, Hannah (ed.). DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle. Dorling Kindersley. p. 219. ISBN978-0-7566-6742-9. It is arguably the best Batman story of all time. Written and drawn by Frank Miller (with inspired inking by Klaus Janson and beautiful watercolors by Lynn Varley), Batman: The Dark Knight revolutionized the entire genre of the super hero.