Saturday, April 03, 2010

Out of the Vault - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Pt. 4

So here it is, the big climax of Frank Miller's 1986 miniseries, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Previously: Batman returned to Gotham after a 10-year absence, drawn out by a city riddled with violence and corruption, the return of an old nemesis and a world teetering on the brink of war. After bringing Two-Face to justice, Batman defeated the leader of the Mutant Gang just before Commissioner Gordon's retirement. Then the Joker emerged for one last fiendish plot, which Batman had to stop, despite dire warnings from Superman that the federal government would not tolerate his activities and being hunted by Gotham's new commissioner. As issue three ended, the Batman was slumped against the Joker's corpse, bleeding from multiple stab wounds as the police closed in on him.

With the help of some well-placed explosives and the armaments on the Batcopter, Batman escapes the police. Robin takes him back to the Batcave, where Alfred performs emergency surgery to save his life. Meanwhile, the news is full of reports about the effect he has had on Gotham, both pro and con, including the fact that some of the mutants who saw Batman take down the Mutant Leader have now restyled themselves as the Sons of the Batman. They are acting as street vigilantes, in some cases fighting other splinter groups of the former Mutants. The opening of Nolan's "The Dark Knight" was inspired by this, with shotgun-wielding vigilantes in makeshift Batman costumes fighting drug dealers.

Then it turns out that the Soviets aren't giving up Corto Maltese so easily. They launch a nuke.

Superman diverts the missile into the desert, but the bomb is no ordinary nuke. It's called Coldbringer, and it generates a massive electromagnetic pulse, large enough to shut down electronics worldwide. It also throws a huge cloud of debris into the sky, bringing on a temporary nuclear winter, which doesn't sit too well with Superman.

See, one of the changes John Byrne had made to Superman in the reboot was to tie his powers more closely to the sun. Superman didn't just receive his powers from being in the vicinity of a yellow sun; he absorbed power from it like a battery recharging. So Miller, in a brilliant little scene, has Superman absorb the stored solar energy from the surrounding plants to regain his strength for the battle to come. It vaguely resembles the Genki Dama from Akira Torayama's Dragonball three years later, in which Son Goku absorbs chi energy from all surrounding lifeforms to power his attack.

The blackout, meanwhile, has thrown Gotham into chaos. There's rioting in the streets and an army of Mutants has escaped from jail. The police are helpless to stop the anarchy engulfing the city. But to the rescue rides the cavalry, in the form of the Batman on horseback, stitched up and barely alive.

He inspires the Sons of the Batman and the escaped Mutants to follow him and bring order to the chaos. Gotham survives the night.

A week later, it's still dark, and Bruce is preparing for the final showdown when he gets a visitor in the form of leftist radical, eco-terrorist Ollie Queen, a.k.a. Green Arrow.

Yeah, that's right. After three issues in which Batman has battled crime and corruption and the worst of his rogues' gallery, along with the new menace of the Mutant gang, the final showdown of Miller's series is not with another villain, but with Superman, the biggest big gun of the DC Universe, its most incorruptible hero, and (before the reboot at least) his former best friend.

And once again, at least for me, seeing this fight was like seeing something I didn't know I wanted to see until Miller showed it to me. I mean, yeah, comics fans love to speculate on fantasy match-ups, but it was usually something that you knew you would never see--who would win in a fight between Superman and Hulk? Answer: probably Superman, but you never knew, because Hulk gets stronger when he gets madder. Who would win in a fight between Superman and Thor? Answer: pre-Crisis, probably Thor, because Superman is vulnerable to magic, so Mjolnir would crush him. Post-Crisis, who knows? (in the actual crossovers between the two companies, the answer came out Superman, both times).

But I don't remember ever speculating about Batman vs. Superman, because number one, they were buddies so it would never happen, and number two, it was ridiculous. Batman would have no chance. At least, the 70's Batman who relied on his fists and his Batarang on a rope would have no chance. And before the fight, even Batman acknowledges it in his farewell to Robin, which brings us back to the theme of Batman's impending death that has been hanging over the series since page one.

But here was Miller's Batman, smarter, more ruthless, and using his vast fortune to compensate for his mortal limitations. Batman taking on Superman, pulling no punches and actually winning. Good God!

At least until his heart gives out. Batman gets the good death he's been pining for. At the funeral, though, as everyone else is leaving, Clark Kent hears Batman's heart begin to beat under the ground and realizes this was all part of a plan to kill off Batman for good and allow Bruce to start a new life. And with a wink at Carrie/Robin, Clark shows that he's on board.

Bruce ends the book in subterranean exile, with Ollie and Carrie and a force of former Mutants, building an army, establishing a legacy.

All in all, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was a remarkable achievement. On the one hand, it brought a new depth and interest to the character of the Batman, who had grown stale and bland over the years. This new Batman was nothing like the staid Super Friend or camp icon of years previous. And this newer, darker Batman has influenced every depiction of Batman since, from comics to TV to the big screen. It was also a meditation on age and regrets, life and death, the invulnerability of youth and the inevitability of death.

And on another level, it was a story about heroes and myths and the power of symbols. Batman stands outside society, above it, not a god like Superman, but simply a man who refuses to compromise or submit or play by the rules. The villains can't corrupt him, and the police can't stop him ("He's too big," says Gordon, a view that his successor Ellen Yindel comes to appreciate when the blackout hits and the institutions fail and there's only Batman to bring salvation). And it stands in really interesting contrast to Alan Moore's Watchmen, in which Ozymandias similarly sees himself as above and outside the rules.

And then there's the final battle between Batman and Superman. This is not your average hero vs. villain slugfest, but a philosophical debate rendered in punches, Batman's refusal to compromise pitted against Superman's go-along-to-get-along philosophy. And what makes it powerful and tragic is that each man is right in his own way. There's no hero, no villain.

It was a powerful story, a tour-de-force of comics storytelling, perhaps the best thing Miller had ever done, and it helped change the comics business forever.

And then, 15 years later, Miller came out with a sequel. More on that next week.


Bat-Cheva said...

Have you seen Batman Beyond? (I can't recall in our conversations if you have or not.) I rather loved that portrayal of Old Bruce Wayne.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

I had actually forgotten about Batman Beyond. It was obviously inspired by Miller's graphic novel, in terms of depicting an older retired Bruce Wayne training up a teenaged successor (minus the creepy old man with 13-year-old girl in short-shorts vibe). But in execution, it really grew into its own excellent thing that was much better than I expected from its sometimes shaky early episodes.