The cover of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’
Heading into its 30th birthday, Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, is preserved in stone on the Mount Rushmore of modern mainstream comic books, right alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Chris Claremont’s Days of Future Past arc in the X-Men books. But Miller recalls a very different reaction to his gritty Batman tale within the halls of DC Comics in the weeks preceding the release of the first issue in February 1986. “They hated it,” the celebrated writer-artist tells Yahoo Movies. “They were very uneasy. I had to argue with them to let me do this version of Batman. Eventually, they relented and let me slip through with my little story. And it broke all their sales records.”
Given the comic’s almost instantaneous success, DC’s initial reaction to The Dark Knight Returns seems unfathomable in hindsight. At the time, though, Miller’s vision of an older, angrier Batman emerging from retirement to bring law and order back to a Gotham City awash in crime pushed the character into darker terrain than previously explored in his nearly 50-year career to that point. It represented a firm break from Batman’s various iterations as the smiling Caped Crusader who fought colorful villains during the comic industry’s Golden Age in the ‘40s, Adam West’s campy crimefighter on the mid-'60s Batman TV show and even the grim, shadow-cloaked detective who patrolled Gotham’s streets under the careful watch of writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in the '70s.
Frank Miller with Robert Rodriguez at Comic-Con in 2014 (Photo by Tonya Wise/Invision/AP)
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The fact that Batman had already been through so many guises over the decades reassured Miller that Gotham’s champion could survive the transformation into the Dark Knight, a version of the character the writer fashioned out of the stories of street-level vigilantism and effects of urban decay that the writer witnessed firsthand as a New Yorker in the '80s. “Batman is part of popular mythology like Robin Hood, and he’s open to different interpretations by different people at different times. And all these interpretations are right! You can bounce Batman from floor to ceiling and off every wall, and you can’t break him.”
Even as Batman’s persona has continued to morph within the main DC Universe, Miller’s version has never really gone away. The fact that he’s speaking with us mere hours before he’s scheduled to start signing copies of The Dark Knight III: The Master Race — the second sequel to his '86 original, following 2001’s poorly received The Dark Knight Strikes Again — is proof positive that DC has, by now, fully embraced the Dark Knight brand. And the impact of The Dark Knight Returns has transcended the comic realm, making its presence felt in the character’s appearances across all media, from toys to cartoon shows to big-budget features, including Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and now Zack Snyder’s upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
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Ben Affleck in ‘Batman v Superman’
From the moment the match-up of DC’s two titans was first announced at the 2013 edition of the San Diego Comic-Con, Snyder has made it clear that Miller is a guiding influence, even inviting actor Harry Lennix up on the Hall H stage to read a famous passage from TDKR as a way to set the tone for what Batman v. Superman would be. And subsequent trailers have riffed on the comic’s iconography as well, from Ben Affleck’s Batsuit to the portrayal of an “older, broken” Batman and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. Miller says that he hasn’t had any creative input into Snyder’s film and that the director — who previously adapted Miller’s 1998 graphic novel, 300, into a 2006 blockbuster — hasn’t granted the writer access to any top-secret footage, but he’s eager to see the finished product. “Zack’s a very talented guy and knows the material inside and out.”
Snyder’s appreciative appropriation of The Dark Knight Returns for Batman v. Superman isn’t just evidenced in Batman’s outfit and greying hair: as early trailers have illustrated, the movie will incorporate elements of TDKR’s equally radical interpretation of the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill), which emphasizes his status as a literal god among men. Miller has continued to evolve that portrayal in subsequent Dark Knight volumes; both The Dark Knight Strikes Again and The Master Race depict a Superman who exists distinctly apart from humanity, instead finding companionship with his equally powerful friend and lover, Wonder Woman, with whom he has a daughter and newborn son. The Amazon warrior (played by Gal Gadot) will have an important part in Dawn of Justice followed by her own solo adventure, and while it’s unlikely that she and Superman will start a family in the DC Cinematic Universe, the long-awaited big-screen union of the so-called “Holy Trinity” touches on the religious element present in Miller’s comics.
“These characters are like gods,” he says simply. “Superman is Apollo, Batman is Dionysus, and Wonder Woman is Athena.” How appropriate then, that The Dark Knight Rises has become the Bible for so many modern day comic books… and comic book movies.