Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read/watched all of The Dark Knight Returns or seen all of The Dark Knight Rises, you may want to stop reading this piece right now and return when you’ve taken in both stories in their entireties.
This week Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics released Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II on Blu-ray and DVD. The film completes the adaptation of arguably the most popular and influential Batman graphic novel of all time, which definitely played no small part in the formulation for the story of this past year’s blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. Both films posit a situation in Gotham City where Bruce Wayne has been off the streets for several years and it’s not until a vicious threat presents itself that he feels compelled to once again don cape and cowl and return to the streets as Batman.
Given their similarities, I thought it might be interesting to ask a question: which story presents a better ending for Batman? To try to figure this out, let’s take a closer look at each story.
“This isn’t a mud hole… it’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon.”
When I say that The Dark Knight Returns may be the most influential Batman story of all time, it's not hypberbole. When it was initially published in 1986, very few people knew what to make of what writer/artist Frank Miller did with the world of Gotham City. Miller envisioned a Gotham rampant with corruption, a city so extreme and on the brink of complete chaos that, 10 years prior to the beginning of DKR, Batman retired at about the worst possible time. As a result, crime began to fester, growing like a cancer until the murderous emergence of the Mutant Gang.
In the 10 years of his absence, which was brought on by a multitude of factors (a government crackdown on superheroes and the death of the second Robin among them), Bruce Wayne began to live a much quieter, slower life. The lifelong teetotaler began to imbibe alcohol, and do so rather heavily. He was still involved in philanthropy and his name and wealth carried with it a lot of weight, but the moment Bruce Wayne started to cage the beast that was Batman, it was writhing inside him trying to escape once again. In all of this time, the Joker remained quietly catatonic, his reason for living having vanished. Superman began to play ball with the government, becoming little more than a lackey that made Bruce sick.
The continued writhing of that inner beast and a new, Mutant crime wave finally gave the opportunity for the Dark Knight to return, and he did so. Hard. Batman punished the Mutants by viciously beating and humiliating their leader in front of the entire gang, inspiring a splinter group to form in the name of the Dark Knight. When the beast came back, though, so did some old acquaintances. The Joker returned, and Superman was dispatched by the government to try and convince his one-time friend to stand down.
The end of The Dark Knight Returns, in truth, isn’t really an ending at all. It’s a new beginning. With an army at his disposal and his old empire crumbled, Batman found a new mission and a new purpose, and in a lot of ways the ending is a surprisingly happy one for the man behind the mask. The cost of that final goal, though, is very high, with his family legacy and his oldest friend both dead by story’s end.
Although I constantly qualify myself as a huge Batman fan, I’m not as heavily devoted to this story as many other people are. The film adaptation, though, helped give me a new appreciation for the original story, and although it’s still not quite perfect, it completely deserves its reputation and stature, and as an ending for the Guardian of Gotham, it’s pretty damned satisfying. I still get goosebumps every time I read it and got them even more watching it in high definition, and for a story that I and so many others are so intimately familiar with, that’s definitely saying something.
“Tell me where the trigger is! Then… you have my permission to die.”
It’s hardly a secret that one of the greatest comic book influences on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy finale was The Dark Knight Returns, though it was only one single element of a grand cinematic story with a tall order of goals in front of it. Coming off of the heels of the critical and commercial juggernaut that was 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan, his brother Jonah, David Goyer and star Christian Bale were resolved to tell a story that finished this Bruce Wayne’s journey. Drawing from Returns was a natural choice as far as source material was concerned. After enduring heavy personal and emotional losses in The Dark Knight and propping up the image of Harvey Dent, Batman was able to disappear, feeling that his victory was attained and that he would be able to move on with his life.
The only trouble was that he hadn’t. Losing the woman he loved and having no mission to fight sent Bruce Wayne into seclusion for eight years until his family legacy, company, and city are all threatened by the terrorist known only as Bane. While this drives Batman back out onto the streets, he’s out of practice and too weak for the sheer fierceness and brutality of his new adversary, and is nearly crippled while being forced to watch his city burn in his absence. It is then that he builds himself back up: the Dark Knight rises from the pit in which he was thrown to take his city back from the clutches of Bane and his mysterious benefactor.
The main difference between Returns and Rises is that the latter is a definite end for the character where Returns would prove not to be. The differences don’t end there, though. While both stories have an immense size to them, they’re very differently scaled. Both travel to a few different places around the world, but I think only Rises proves to be more of a timeless tale than Returns does. Both stories were polarizing to fans upon release, but are both very popular with the fans at large.
Can either story truly win as an ending for the Dark Knight? Maybe not, but for me, I am going to pick one.
Sizing Up the Endings
In The Dark Knight Returns, after faking his death, blowing up his home and the Cave, and going underground, Bruce Wayne has resolved that his newfound army of young people will help him take his mission to lengths he never dreamed of, while remaining forever in the shadows. Where at the beginning of the story he was always in search of “a good death,” it was only here that we see a good-natured smile play across the old man’s lips when he decides that this new evolution of Batman’s mission would prove to be, “a good life… good enough.”
In The Dark Knight Rises, after faking his death but preserving his secret, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle travel across the world in anonymity, with only one brief meeting with Alfred Pennyworth who sees what he’s always wanted from his son: happiness. Leaving Gotham in the capable hands of Commissioner Gordon and sending John Blake to find the Batcave, the world keeps spinning. The only difference is that this time, Batman found a way out that he was truly, and finally, satisfied with.
For me, in my very humble opinion, the winner is The Dark Knight Rises.
In Returns, there’s certainly a romantic notion and a true-to-character belief that Bruce Wayne would never truly be able to hang it up. That beast within him, as Miller treated it, would never truly be silenced and his mission would always be at the forefront of his keen mind until the day he truly did die. The caveat with that is that The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the exception to the rule of endings for Batman, it was the innovator.
Since 1986, the vast majority of stories depicting the end of Batman’s career have always ended with continued obsession or death. Batman Beyond, the animated series detailing an elderly Bruce Wayne continuing his mission vicariously through a successor, is just one piece of evidence. There’s a list of comics longer than my arm that dealt with that story in similar or even darker fashion.
The Dark Knight Rises stands apart as an ending for Batman that dares to be happy, and I found that both unexpected and even a bit refreshing. When reading (or now watching) Returns, sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in how mean-spirited it can be. In some places this is completely appropriate, but in others, it doesn’t quite strike the right chord. Seeing Rises both as its own film and in the context of the entire Dark Knight Trilogy, I feel more satisfied in knowing that my favorite fictional character not only found a way out of what could be a vicious cycle, but he found a way to finally start living. And because of that, if it can be quantified at all, I think Rises ends on a higher note.
But again, this is only one man’s opinion. I love both stories, but what do you think? Do you prefer Batman to be forever lurking in the shadows, watching as a general to an army of protectors? Or, do you prefer him to have found a way out so that he can finally start living? Sound off, and let us know what you think!
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and retailer, and geeky contributor to GeekNation.com, Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his comic reviews and podcasts at BOF and MMM, regular blogs at GeekNation, as well as his weekly pieces The Geek Beat every Tuesday and the Star Trek Into Darkness Countdown right here at Movies.com every Tuesday. Check out his blog and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.