When the Man of Steel sequel was officially announced at Comic-Con back in July of 2013, director Zack Snyder claimed that the film would be “inspired” by Frank Miller’s classic Dark Knight Returns. Even though Snyder was clear that the film would not be a direct adaptation of the comic, having Harry Lennix (General Swanwick from Man of Steel) deliver Bruce Wayne’s famous “I want you to remember, Clark …. the one man that beat you,” monologue at the Comic-Con seemed to indicate that Snyder was looking at one iconic scene from DKR for influence: the showdown between Batman and Superman in Crime Alley. Since that announcement, the filmmakers have doubled down on the connection by officially calling the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a clear indication that we will be seeing the two characters face off on the big screen. While it is clear why the filmmakers would want to reference one of the most popular –and best– Batman comics, it is a curious choice for a movie designed to introduce the Justice League to the summer moviegoing audience. The cynical view, of course, is that the filmmakers are really only focusing on one familiar scene to get audiences into the theatre. But why, after all of these years, is the notion of Batman fighting Superman still so appealing?
There are a few different reasons why the story –and that scene specifically– endures. The influence and importance of The Dark Knight Returns are hard to overstate, especially when it comes to the popular perception of superheroes. When it first appeared back in 1986, it obviously marked a shift in American superhero comics, and along with Watchmen, it generated countless “BIFF! POW! Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore!” articles. It’s easy to see why the public at large would be shocked by Frank Miller’s grim, violent take on the character since the memories of Adam West were still fresh in the collective memory. Frank Miller’s claim that he “gave Batman his balls back” may ignore the fact that comics’ shift toward “darker” Batman had begun in 1971 when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams began their work on the character, but DKR captured the zeitgeist in a way that appealed to a much wider audience than the monthly Batman titles could. Miller’s comments about Batman’s balls implied that his version was truer to the “original” conception of the Dark Knight, positing the “campy” TV version as an aberration: this is the real Batman. Of course, Miller’s version is more a reflection of the gritty urban vigilante character à la Charles Bronson in Deathwish or Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films –a connection that Miller himself acknowledged– than the character Bill Finger and Bob Kane created back in 1939. While comics fans could see DKR as yet another variation of the most malleable character in pop culture, the myth implied by the book’s title –that this was the authentic, original version of Batman– was one casual fans could latch onto.
Another part of the book’s success, of course, is its ubiquity on bookstore shelves. Since it was published in a collected edition and sold in bookstores even before the trade paperback market was firmly established, DKR became one of the most widely read Batman stories ever published. Its presence in “real” bookstores gave it an air of importance and seriousness, and lapsed, older fans could pick up the collection and enjoy it as a stand-alone Batman story while ignoring the ongoing monthly titles. The fact that DKR exists outside the mainstream continuity –while, at the same time, influencing it for decades– meant that it could be seen as a “definitive” version of the character. Again, whether it was correct or not, the notion that the “original” Dark Knight has returned made the book far more appealing to casual or non-comics fans. It also, in some ways, ossified the popular conception of the character to the point where Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was hailed as a “return to form” largely because of its moody lighting and black rubber costume. The notion that Batman was only a grim, serious, and most importantly, dark character became a widely accepted “fact”. Obviously, the idea that there is one, “true” Batman, or that the character only works in certain narrative or aesthetic circumstances, is nonsense, and the fact that he has remained popular and profitable for 75 years proves as much.
Certainly, the popularly accepted perception of the Dark Knight isn’t solely due to DKR, but its influence played a role. It also popularized the notion that Batman and Superman are fundamentally opposites: one is a dark vigilante, the other is the “big blue boyscout.” While the relationship between the two characters had sometimes been a respectful one, the conflict between the two in DKR is clearly designed to showcase Batman’s integrity by contrasting it with Superman’s dutiful obedience to the status quo. Even though a sense of Cold War paranoia permeates the book, Superman is always presented as more of a government stooge than a defender of the “American way”. Like the gritty older Batman, this version Superman seems designed as a reaction to the character’s popular perception. The friendly, personal Superman of the Christopher Reeve films –especially the pacifist, anti-nuclear weapon version from The Quest for Peace– has become an ineffectual “yes man”. Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation of the character or not, it has remained a part of the popular perception of Superman, so much so that the story designed to reboot the film franchise showed Superman committing murder in an attempt to make him seem more “realistic”. (Interestingly, despite the attempts to distance itself from this version of the character, Man of Steel ends up reinforcing it due to its marketing campaign synergy with the National Guard.)
As a result of these characterizations of Batman and Superman, the underlying message of their conflict in DKR is an ideological one: rugged individualism (and seemingly inexhaustible wealth) always trumps needless government “interference”. This seems to fit with Miller’s avowed conservative worldview, but again, it is simply one way of understanding these characters and their relationship. It’s also part of what makes Miller’s work so interesting. DKR is a showcase for Miller’s skill as a comic storyteller and both the art and his take on the characters are iconic because they were so unique for the time. The story may not have aged well politically, but at least they seemed like a new spin on the old characters. If Batman v Superman portrays them in this way, it will once again be reinforcing this interpretation as the “real” or “authentic” one. Of course, this does not diminish the influence or importance of DKR as a comic, it simply shows the problem of relying too heavily on a single story or version of these multifaceted, complex characters by codifying something designed to be unique and different.
Another problem with using DKR as a basis for the Man of Steel sequel, which we now know will introduce the Justice League, is that it is not an introductory story. In fact, despite the eventual sequel, Miller is actually giving us a possible final Batman: The Dark Knight returns, inspires a new generation of vigilantes so that his war on crime can continue even without him. This theme of the idea of Batman being larger and more important than Bruce Wayne was central to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, which essentially followed Wayne’s journey to become Batman before passing the torch. While those three films were obviously designed to tell that larger story while showing how the character changed over time, Batman v Superman will, assumedly, use this possible final Batman story as a way of introducing the character. If that is the case, the emotional weight of his return and showdown with Superman –which is exactly what makes Miller’s story so interesting– is essentially negated.
Of course, Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer may not be interested in emotions. After all, Snyder’s version of Watchmen reduced a complex and nuanced story to a handful of iconic scenes devoid of any interesting emotional or narrative context. It’s obviously too early to tell, but all signs seem to indicate that Batman v Superman will follow the same plan: a handful of recognizable scenes that comics fans have seen countless times soullessly recreated in hi-def CGI. Again, adapting a beloved classic is a smart marketing strategy, and the promise of seeing the two most popular superheroes in history square off will certainly put some butts in the theatre seats. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine that any of the innovative and inspired spirit of Miller’s comic will show up on the movie screen. Instead, it appears that it’ll just be more the same old story.