Why Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns' Should Be the Next Live-Action Batman Movie

Why Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns' Should Be the Next Live-Action Batman Movie

Jul 17, 2012

It is undeniable that Christopher Nolan’s stint as puppet master of the Batman franchise marked a tremendous shift in the standards of quality in superhero cinema. This was a character who, cinematically, was limping into a gutter to die after having been stricken of all dignity and beaten bloody with stupidity. Batman Begins picked Bats up by his leather bootstraps, straightened the cowl (or righted the ship, if you prefer nautical idioms), and gave us the origin story we always wanted. The Dark Knight took the severe themes that canonize the character to the next level and reintroduced us to Batman’s greatest foe. Now The Dark Knight Rises promises to provide the legend’s end.

Now that Christopher Nolan’s departure from the franchise is all but assured, a daunting question looms: Where do we go from here? There has been talk that Warner Brothers will simply reboot the character yet again under another director. This could not be a more ill-advised decision. Nolan already gave us a definitive origin story, or at least one strong enough as to preclude the need for another for the next 20 years. So why not accept that audiences have embraced Batman’s backstory and move on with a more unique storyline? However, if the studio is hell-bent on rebooting again, my hope is that they will not do so immediately following The Dark Knight Rises. If I may offer this suggestion to Warner Brothers: do The Dark Knight Returns.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Dark Knight Returns, be forewarned that I am about to spoil a few of its finer points. It was Frank Miller’s graphic novel that presented a Gotham City in the not-so-distant future (or rather Cold War past, but that’s neither here nor there) in which Bruce Wayne, now in his mid-50s, has retired from his role as Gotham’s protector, inspired by growing public and governmental pressure for all heroes to hang up their capes. But a series of sinister events prompts him to don the cowl once more. It’s a story that deals with the seeming mental instability of vigilantism, the influence of the media, and the very nature of superheroes and villains themselves.

Now, I am well aware of the animated version of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that is currently in production. While I am thrilled the book is getting at least that much attention, I don’t think it goes far enough. I firmly believe it should be the next feature film in the Batman series.

So why would this story, one that seems to fly in the face of all things commercial, make a suitable follow-up to The Dark Knight Rises? First and foremost, the studio has to make a clean break from Nolan’s universe before even thinking about delivering another Batman ascension story. If we go from Batman’s fall right back to his rise, we’re going to get nauseous. The bold, unusual plotline of The Dark Knight Returns offers a fantastic palate cleanser that will not only challenge audiences to consider deeper comic book subtext, but also seeing Batman at, essentially, the end of his career and still kicking ass, will effectively whet their appetites to see him in his prime again.

For many, the biggest resistance to adapting this book is that it requires the casting of a near sexagenarian actor to play Batman. We’ve only known Bats to be a young man, a millionaire playboy by day whose physical prowess allows him to easily pummel bad guys at night. So why would we want to see “Old Batman” in a studio superhero movie? The advantage here is that there are plenty of actors pushing this age, and some who have even surpassed it, who are still wholeheartedly believable as bruisers. Not that I’m necessarily suggesting he be cast, but Bruce Willis still fully owns at the tender age of 57. In addition, movies like The Expendables have shown us that action heroes do not always have expiration dates. Stripping away the traditional Batman/Bruce Wayne model will also intrigue viewers and give them a reason to be interested in the franchise again in a way that simply chucking another reboot at them could never match.

Again, about to spoil a major story element of The Dark Knight Returns so proceed with caution. After Heath Ledger so astoundingly reinvented the Joker, and nailed nearly every aspect of that dastardly baddie, serious doubts were cast on the studio’s ability to revisit that character after the actor’s death. How could anyone else possibly match the power of his performance? What’s great about The Dark Knight Returns is that it creates a world in which a much older Joker has been in a coma for some time and awakens for one last battle with Batman. Not only does it give us an older, and therefore vastly different looking Joker demanding of a new actor, it also lends a staggering note of finality to their relationship.

When Burton killed the Joker in 1989’s Batman, he committed one of the cardinal sins of comic book movies. In comics, great villains aren’t introduced and then immediately killed off. That contradicts the longevity and character development that made these villains iconic. Burton is not the only transgressor in this regard, but the crime seems all the more heinous when we’re talking about the Joker. What’s great about The Dark Knight Returns is that you can artfully and epically destroy the Joker without removing him from the franchise picture entirely. The chronology is such that he could logically return in subsequent films that would take place in the years leading up to that final showdown.

The Dark Knight Returns is a distinctive superhero story that would create a stark division between Nolan’s universe and the inevitable re-reboot of the franchise. It takes a fresh approach to familiar characters and delves deeply into complex and fascinating comic book themes. Plus, dare I say, this could potentially open the door to a Batman Beyond movie.

But while I’m campaigning for The Dark Knight Returns, fellow Movies.com writer Chris Clow has different aspirations. Read about which Batman story he'd like to see next later this week.

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