Saturday, March 20, 2010

Out of the Vault - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 2

Continuing a four-part look at Frank Miller's seminal redefinition of Batman from 1986, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

When judging an adaptation of a character from one medium to another--say, a movie adapted from a novel--one criterion that is often brought up is how true the adaptation stayed to the "spirit" of the original. It is a simple fact that adaptations, by their very nature, cannot be too slavish in their copying. In order to stay fresh, potent, an adaptation must be "the same, but different."

Miller's Batman definitely hit the sweet spot on the "same, but different" scale. And it should be emphasized yet again that Miller was not working in a vacuum here. Alan Moore's Swamp Thing had ignited an interest at DC in freshening up all their franchises, which led to the massive Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity reboot, which then led into John Byrne's Man of Steel miniseries in 1986, rebooting that continuity as well.

So even though Miller's Batman tale was supposedly outside continuity, taking place in an alternate future, rather than being a proper reboot, it still felt consistent with what DC was doing on their other books, which may be one reason fans embraced all the big changes Miller made to the character so readily.

In issue 2, Batman confronts a wave of violence being committed by a gang called the Mutants (whose symbol is a red visor resembling that of Cyclops of the X-Men), and we see that as the enemies he faces become more savage, Batman responds in kind.

Holy crap! Yeah, it was jarring enough to see Batman carrying a rifle last issue, but that was just a harpoon gun. Batman gunning a guy down with an M-60? Dude.

Batman also inspires some crazies, people who dress up in copies of his costume in order to settle some personal scores, as well as a young teen girl who decides to dress up as Robin.

So Batman first tracks down the source for the military weapons the Mutants are using, applying a bit of persuasion that will look pretty familiar to anyone who saw "Batman Begins."

The trail leads to a U.S. Army general, who commits suicide rather than face the public disgrace. Next Batman decides to confront the leader of the Mutants, who is conducting a huge "Can You Dig It?" rally in a dump. Batman heads there in Miller's vision of the Batmobile, which became the inspiration for the movie Batmobiles to come.

Yeah, it's a tank, carrying heavy armament, inspiring the machine guns and bombs of Burton's version, and even more explicitly, the military-prototype Tumbler of "Batman Begins." Batman uses the Batmobile to scatter and demoralize the Mutants, then faces the Mutant Leader in a one-on-one, man-to-man slugout.

Which he loses. Seven years before Batman's back was broken in a lost hand-to-hand fight with the powerful Bane, Miller showed Batman being humiliated by the Mutant Leader in similar fashion. Batman's arm is broken, and his costume is slashed to ribbons. He only escapes death through the intervention of Carrie/Robin and a pellet of sleep gas from his utility belt.

Carrie manages to get Batman back into the Batmobile, which drives itself back to the Batcave (the entrance to which is concealed by a hologram, which inspired a throwaway moment in Burton's film). Batman limps off into the darkness and sheds his ruined costume to reconnect with the Bat-Spirit of his youth. When he returns, naked and revitalized, young Carrie leaps into his arms in a joyous, yet creepy, hug.

Meanwhile, the ruckus stirred up by the Batman's return has attracted the attention of Washington, where the President expresses his concern to a certain blue-clad hero with a big red "S" on his chest. Batman takes on the new Robin to train as his new sidekick, and the first order of business is to lure the remaining Mutants down to the spot where a sewer pipe empties into the river. Batman and Gordon organize the Mutant Leader's escape through that pipe, where Batman, now in a new, darker costume--gray and black rather than gray and blue, without the familiar yellow spotlight on the chest--publicly defeats the Mutant Leader in front of his gang.

The book ends with Commissioner Gordon retiring and Bruce enjoying his new life, unaware of the storm that will soon descend on him from all directions.

Next week: Hunt the Dark Knight

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