Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns casts a long shadow over the Batman mythos. Not only is it considered paradigmatic for the character, it’s also considered part of the larger comic book canon. I very much doubt DC is interested in challenging that status with a reboot of the premise.
But they should.
Batman isn’t just a comic book character. Not anymore. He is, like Hercules or Robin Hood, a legend. He has entered our cultural mythology, and as such, our enjoyment comes — as with any myth — from the telling and re-telling and re-re-telling, just as Jesus’s story has been told and retold in different media for centuries: painting, stained glass, books — each the same, but each also subtly different.
I love reboots. I love seeing the familiar played out in new ways. I like original stories, too. Saying you like something isn’t the same as saying you only like it. So while everyone else seems to groan and roll their eyes when someone announces a reboot, I squee and clap like a little girl.
That being said, some are definitely better than others. With Batman, you have to respect the myth. I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises when it came out, but I haven’t returned to it like I have The Dark Knight Returns (and the other two films in the cinematic trilogy) because, for me, it broke the myth.
“Breaking the myth” is not changing continuity or putting a character in a new role (or new gender). Those things are part of the fun! I love seeing familiar characters shuffled into a new “slot” and suffering new setbacks. Rather, breaking the myth is breaking the structure of the story, which at its heart is a cycle: The Eternal Return.
The Eternal Return is the only story. It’s is the story of life, the story of the universe, the annual cycle of the seasons. For mere mortals — who are praised in “serious” literature rather than myths and comics — there is birth, marriage, and death and that’s the end. For us, everything is comedy (you find a mate) or tragedy (you die).
But for gods, there is one more step after birth, marriage, death: return. Osiris dies and is brought back by his wife. Jesus dies and returns to redeem mankind. Odysseus is lost coming home from war and returns to save his wife. The story of Gilgamesh was read aloud at the Babylonian new year to ensure the repetition of the annual cycle — the return of spring, which is life conquering death. Even though we know in time it will succumb again to winter, there is always hope, always the eternal return.
Batman isn’t mortal. Batman is a god, and gods don’t quit. They don’t get laid and ride off into the sunset like some petty outlaw. They return. They must return, for the story must be retold, over and over, so that the world — and our soul — is renewed.
The cycle of the Batman is simple: He beats back evil (usually at the last second) through his intellect, his will, his sheer human potency. (I always loved that the Batman had no superpowers.) In so doing, he experiences acts so depraved they would haunt a mere mortal like you and me for the rest of our lives. He returns home bruised. He gets a little rest. And the next night he’s back on the rooftops solving new crimes, facing new horrors. A silent guardian. A Dark Knight.
Incidentally, his mythical, god-like nature is the reason why Bruce Wayne is not all that interesting. Batman doesn’t change. We don’t want him to. A big part of what makes the Batman mythos so enduring is his gallery of rogues — the Joker, for example, a man who faces a psychological shock like young Bruce, but who, in not being a god, in being mortal like you and me, cracks under the strain and goes mad. The Joker has always been more human (although certainly not humane) than his counterpart, the silent, stoic, unchanging hero.
Batman returns, just like Jesus, Odysseus, Osiris, and every other god-like hero in the great stories of mankind. Batman always returns. That’s the myth. Miller understood that where Nolan apparently did not. The story is not The Dark Knight Retires. Batman can retire, but if so, it must have already taken place in the mythic past, where the story we’re told is of his return.
Miller ends his opus with Clark lingering at Bruce’s funeral and that wonderful, wonderful heartbeat.
He’s not dead. It was all a ruse, all part of a plan to carry out his work unhindered by politicians and the press. You thought the return mentioned in the title was Old Man Bruce coming out of retirement at the beginning of the story. But it wasn’t. The return was at the end. I still get goosebumps!
The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986. I think it’s time for a reboot, a re-re-telling. Let me give you my version of the return of the Batman. Call it Eternal Knight.
The year is 1991. After a long career fighting crime, Batman looks out on a city reborn. Saved. Bad things happen, of course. We’re still human. But it’s not like before. Organized crime has fled to other shores. The major maniacs are all dead, missing, or locked away. No one’s heard from the Joker in years. And under Commissioner Gordon’s patient reforms, the police force is competent again.
Who needs the Batman?
Jim is the first to go, and although Bruce mourns his friend and lifelong partner in the war to save the city, he also knows that Gordon made a difference. His life mattered. He leaves behind a family. His legacy continues.
Bruce has no family. And he’s getting older.
After returning home from another quiet night where there was little for him to do, Bruce finds Alfred dead in a chair, a feather duster in his hands. He had stopped to take a rest from cleaning the house he’d tended his entire life and passed away peacefully.
The house is empty. It’s quiet. Bruce is alone. He won’t take another Robin. Not after what happened.
So he comes up with a plan. (Bruce always has a plan.) He puts his public affairs in order. He seals himself inside the Batcave. He sends a note to his best and only friend.
I need a favor, he says.
When its time, he says.
Then he climbs into Mr. Freeze’s box, the original cryogenic chamber where the villain held his wife frozen for decades and which Bruce kept — after freeing her years ago — with his other trophies: the T. Rex skeleton, the giant penny, the rainbow batsuit.
Bruce closes the chamber, the only one of its kind, and it clicks on.
The year is 2086. A heavy seal is broken, but it’s moved like a pebble in the ocean. There are footsteps in the Batcave. Bruce wakes and looks into the face of his best and only friend.
It’s time, Clark says. Two alien empires are clashing, and their war threatens to consume the earth.
Bruce asks what Clark needs.
Nothing, Clark says. The war just means he doesn’t get to come around much anymore. Not like he used to.
Bruce — ever the detective — notices the heavy dust in the cave has been disturbed in places and then covered again by time. This isn’t Clark’s first visit. Or his second. Bruce wonders how many times his friend has come to check on him.
I can handle everything up there, Clark says. There’s a new Lantern. She’s helping. That’s not why I woke you. It’s your city. Gotham needs you. Cyborg street gangs terrorize the people. Protection rackets have sprung up in place of the ineffectual police force. The city has swollen to 50 million inhabitants and grown on top of the ruins of the past. A vast underground network exists, lorded over by a mysterious messianic cult ruler.
They need a beacon, Clark says. They need hope.
But why now, Bruce asks.
Clark says he suspects Brainiac had something to do with it. With him.
He explains that people wear computers now: screens on contact lenses in their eyes, or implanted inside their retinas; processors under their skin running on bioelectric power. Everything’s wired. Someone — something — has been whispering to the people through those devices, driving them mad, making them do horrible, awful, unspeakable things… A cyberintelligence that calls itself The Joker.
Clark stops. He listens to the air. Lois is in trouble, he says. My great-granddaughter. I have to go. Bruce doesn’t say thank you. Clark doesn’t say you’re welcome. They don’t have to.
Bruce is a stranger in the city. He doesn’t know it’s pulse like he used to. It’s a different beat. He gets into trouble quick and barely gets away. The cyborgs are strong, fast. And he’s not as young as he used to be. His old suit won’t cut it. He needs something new.
He has to get inside Wayne Enterprises, now a tech giant, but he’s not ready for the world to know about him. He hears about a sharp but struggling network security consultant, Evelyn Nygma, a young woman desperate to grow out of the shadow of her notorious (now deceased) grandfather, Edward — The Riddler.
Evelyn has been working in her spare time to track down “the twins,” the anarchist hacker duo known as White Hat/Black Hat. She doesn’t believe the man before her really is Bruce Wayne, but he’s obviously handy in a scrape, so she agrees to an exchange: they’ll help each other.
Evie reminds Bruce of Barbara, especially in her role as Oracle, and he feels better having the young woman’s help. He starts to train her.
The pair hack the personnel files of Wayne Enterprises. Bruce doesn’t find anything useful at first, but then he sees a name: A. Fox, PhD. Fox is in his sixties, thinking about retirement rather than revitalizing the war on crime, but he remembers his grandfather’s stories of the Caped Crusader, and after a nocturnal visit to his home, he signs on. Wayne Enterprises has a few things he can put together. I can make a suit, he says, but it’ll be ridiculously expensive.
My investments have been growing for nearly a century, Bruce tells him. How much do you need?
Meanwhile, the cyborg bikers roam the streets. The underground cult’s genetically-enhanced biomutants attack the people on the surface. Lords of organized crime play all sides off each other through their twin tools, corporations and organized crime. The cops are crooked. Feeling hopeless, many people turn to drugs or escape into complex virtual realities.
Then the creature known as The Joker strikes again. This time it’s the police. Inside their workroom at police headquarters, members of the special task force set up to catch the killer have turned on each other, turned cannibal, torn each other to shreds with their teeth. Only one woman survived, and she’s stark raving mad.
Bruce visits her in Arkham. He breaks in through an old, forgotten door. When he hears her laugh, he knows. The creature, the cyberintelligence, it isn’t some replica. It’s not a program. The Joker found a way to become immortal. Bruce has to stop him.
Fox tells him the suit isn’t ready yet. Bruce says it will have to do. With Evie in his ear, the new Oracle — a kind of cyber-Robin — he takes to the streets.
In the wake of the massacre at headquarters, the old police commissioner has been sacked by the mayor. Newly-appointed Commissioner Jane Grayson has had a helluva first day. Someone stole the three-ton statue of the Batman right off the steps of City Hall, almost like it came to life and flew away. And now there’s some commotion upstairs.
She joins her people on the roof of Police Tower. There’s a crowd. Someone has installed a new light on the roof. It points to the sky. A symbol is reflected on the clouds. A promise and a warning.
The Batman has returned.
art by Jim Lee