Revisiting ‘The Dark Knight Returns” three decades after

Back in the 80s, the "dark and gritty" remake didn't just work, it was ground-breaking.

Tristan Zinampan

Published: 10:59 AM July 28, 2018

Updated: 11:49 AM July 29, 2018

Photo from DC Comics website

When I think about comic books, or even superheroes in general, I think about Batman.

Growing up in the 90's, it was a weekly ritual to plop myself in front of the television on Friday nights to catch Batman: The Animated Series. He was a go-to favorite for kids; dark and mysterious, had awesome gadgets, always kicked ass.

It was only natural that when I graduated from toys and cartoons to actual comics, the first book I decided to get my hands on was the one called the greatest Batman story of all-time: The Dark Knight Returns.

Going ‘dark and gritty’

Before writer Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the image of a brooding and tortured Batman was but a distant memory. Though designed to fit the noir spirit of the 1930’s, what people knew of Batman in 1986 was that of the 60’s colorful and campy Adam West show.

Their Batman was one with painted eyebrows, one who jet-skied and jumped over sharks, the guy who danced the “batusi.”

The Dark Knight Returns set out to reinvigorate the character, bring it back to its darker, more grounded roots.

At that time, “the dark and gritty reboot” was near unheard of. (Unlike today where the likes of Sherlock Holmes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Power Rangers get edgier and literally darker-colored when adapted to the big screen.)

“I felt that superhero comic books had really been held back by a misconception that they were just for kids,” said Miller.

Miller knew though that more “adult” stories didn’t just mean violence, sex, and cursing. No, he knew that maturity came through thematically.

Miller presented a vision of a Blade Runner-esque near future — grimy, media-saturated, and neon-drenched. Batman, 10 years retired, is aged, weary, and — though haunted by the death of Robin — is compelled after all these years to prowl the night. Miller created a rich world which explored themes such as escalation, crime’s cyclicality, media manipulation, and even the Cold War.

Widespread recognition

Reading the 1986 classic in my early teens, what drew me was the fun of it all: good vs. evil, Batman fighting Superman, a new female Robin.

Revisiting the book in my adulthood though, you get to appreciate the complexity and just how layered The Dark Knight Returns’ story could get. Because as much as the book was about elevating the comic book medium through mature storytelling, it too was about critiquing the world back in the 80's.

And many of The Dark Knight Returns’ commentary holds up today. For one, It featured a Greek Chorus of media personalities reshaping the news. Another, it questioned the notion of heroism given Batman’s extra-judicial means. (Though personally, given today’s political climate, I’m not sure if I agree with all the arguments the book posts.)

Because of its iconoclasm, word of The Dark Knight Returns soon spread even outside of geek spheres. It was also the perfect jumping on point for new readers as it didn’t require familiarity with comic books. (Comic books usually have, up to this day, continuity spanning decades.)

The Dark Knight Returns was a finite story, closed-off. It was, as it was billed, “The Last Story of Batman.” And, finally, it was relatable.

Legacy Today

The Dark Knight Returns set a standard not just in comic books but in literature as a whole. Comic book writing was no longer a “lower” form of entertainment. I was now capable of eliciting profound insights.

One may even say that a large part of today’s pop culture can be traced back to this and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. They set a precedent. And today — In TV, movies, and video games — many take inspiration from the deconstruction set forth by these books. (e.g., Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and 2018’s God of War, just to name a few)

The “dark and gritty remake” is too widespread, too trite, nowadays. It’s completed its course, from groundbreaking to cliche. But revisiting The Dark Knight Returns shows you how potent the treatment may be, as long as given proper thought. -

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