I had the pleasure of watching the first instalment in the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Produced by Bruce Timm and from director by Jay Oliva, the movie does an impressive job adapting the first two chapters of Miller’s iconic Batman story into an eighty-minute film. Sure, there’s the occasional hiccup. It’s a shame to lose the gritty narration, although the animated adaptation of Year One proved that you need an actor of Bryan Cranston’s calibre to pull it off – perhaps a wise decision. Still, I’m relatively excited about the second volume, which will see release in 2013, and will adapt the final two issues of the miniseries, offering a near-three-hour adaptation of one of the most influential comic books ever written.
However, with The Dark Knight Rises due for a DVD and blu ray release at the end of the month, Christopher Nolan’s “other” Batman ending was weighing on my mind. Nolan’s trilogy is undoubtedly the high water mark of cinematic superhero adaptations, offering a three-act story exploring the roots, the development and the ending of the career of the Caped Crusader. Throughout his trilogy, Nolan has been heavily influenced by Miller. Of course, virtually every writer handling the character can’t help but play off Miller’s massively influential take on the character. However, I find The Dark Knight Rises most interesting in how it contrasts with the other earlier story exploring a retired Batman’s return to crime-fighting, with Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman defying quite a few of Miller’s conclusions about the character, and suggesting that Batman isn’t a nihilistic fatalistic character with one inevitable outcome his career.
That said, it’s fair to argue that Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns isn’t really an ending. After all, the ending was left open enough that Miller could draft a sequel, the divisive The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Even if you discount Miller’s belated follow-up, the moral of the story seems to be that Batman is simply indestructible. You can bury him within the “hollow shell” of Bruce Wayne for years, you can blow up Wayne Manor, you can self-medicate with booze – but Batman will out. The story ends with the Dark Knight vowing to lead the “Sons of Batman” and fashion them into some sort of army for the cause of justice. With Wayne Manor destroyed and Alfred deceased, it seems that Frank Miller suggests that the inevitable outcome of the Batman story is a death: but not the death of Batman, the death of Bruce Wayne.
It’s a sad and tragic take on the character, and it has informed decades of comic book continuity and other adaptations. Even Tim Burton’s decidedly Tim-Burton-esque Batman seemed to acknowledge it, suggesting that Bruce was one of Burton’s trademark “freaks” who could only properly relate to the world in his Batman persona. (It also borrowed Miller’s pearl necklace iconography, perhaps the most oft-cited visual legacy of Miller’s work with the pop culture legend.) The animated Batman Beyond series, with its notion of “Batman of the future”, was clearly heavily inspired by this portrayal of Bruce. When a voice tries to drive him insane, Bruce confesses how he figured out it wasn’t all in his head. “The voice in my head kept calling me Bruce… I don’t call myself Bruce.”
Even the comics themselves have often struggled to escape the impressive shadow cast by Miller’s writing. An impressive early indication of the story’s influence, A Death in the Family saw readers asked to vote on whether to kill off Jason Todd – a stark premise, considering that the death of Todd motivated Batman’s retirement in The Dark Knight Returns. A lot of the “grim-dark” aspects of modern and nineties Batman – including questions about his sanity and his gruff demeanour – are rooted in The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Grant Morrison’s extended Batman run could be seen as a conscious attempt to push the character in directions that have been closed off since Miller’s portrayal came to dominate the Caped Crusader’s persona. Describing his own Daredevil: The End project, writer Brian Michael Bendis has argued that The Dark Knight Returns has become DC continuity “through sheer force of will.” Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? suggests that this pessimistic and fatalistic view of Batman has become part of the myth, with Gaiman’s many alternate Batman stories sharing one constant: Bruce dies, in some form or another, as Batman. He can’t stop. He can’t escape. The details change, Gaiman suggests, but conclusion is inevitable.
It’s inevitable, then, that the definitive big-screen adaptation of Batman should have a lot of Miller’s influence. While Nolan refuses to allow the comics to overwhelm his narrative, his work is heavily influenced by a wealth of iconic Batman stories. The Joker’s motivation in The Dark Knight is that same motivation in The Killing Joke albeit on a larger scale, which also provides the notion of his “multiple choice” personal history. Harvey Dent’s story arc in The Dark Knight is taken from The Long Halloween. The Dark Knight Rises borrows elements from two major nineties story arcs, Knightfall and No Man’s Land. However, all these serve Nolan’s story, which exists as more than just a series of winks and nudges.
Appropriately here are all manner of nods to Miller’s comics in Nolan’s work. Despite the fact that it owes a considerable debt to Miller’s Year One, David Goyer has argued that Batman Begins is not a simple adaptation. “Our story is not Year One,” he replied when asked about it. Still, there are quite a few areas of overlap. The portrayal of Jim Gordon as the single honest cop in a department rife with corruption might be toned down, but it’s an area that is shared between both stories. The character of Loeb is carried over. Batman’s “back-up” in Arkham should seem familiar to any comic book fan. The movie even ends with a call-forward to the Joker’s inevitable arrival.
Similarly, there are all manner of references to The Dark Knight Returns seeded throughout The Dark Knight Rises. The notion that Batman has retired due to a grave personal loss, with Bruce Wayne refusing (or unable) to move on provides a handy starting point for both stories. The exo-skeleton seen briefly in The Dark Knight Rises seems similar to Batman’s suped-up suit in The Dark Knight Returns. The cops borrow some of Miller’s dialogue (paraphrased) during the chase sequence. “Oh boy, you are in for a show tonight son!”
Bane seems like a spiritual successor to Miller’s mutant leader, the embodiment of the next generation of terror to upset the establishment. “Don’t call us a gang!” the mutant leader protests, as if to argue that they are simply the future given form. Like the mutants, Bane seeks anarchy in Gotham, creating a society where the strong rule through force – what he argues is “the next era in Western civilisation!” The city winds up literally cut off from the rest of the country in The Dark Knight Rises, but the sense of dread in the face of nihilistic violence seems quite similar to that presented in The Dark Knight Returns.
The biggest challenge facing Gordon isn’t the heavily armed mercenary army, which admits that it doesn’t have the power to hold an entire city hostage – it’s the apathy and terror of the people of Gotham who refuse to stand up for what’s right. Until Batman offers a symbol that they can stand behind. In a way, that idea is the strongest thematic connection between Miller and Nolan’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader – the notion that Batman is more than just a man. In The Dark Knight Returns, the man is mentally unbalanced and almost psychotic. However, the symbol provides the glue to hold Gotham together during its longest and darkest night. I think it’s fair to argue that this is the point where Nolan and Miller most firmly overlap in their portrayal of the Caped Crusader.
However, I’d argue that there’s a more fundamental disagreement between the two over the character of Bruce Wayne, something I’d been mulling over for a while, but became clearest to me while watching the animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. I’d argue that one of the strongest aspects of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is the way that it provides an alternative to Miller’s vision of Bruce, and that it suggests that there isn’t one inevitable conclusion to the dynamic between Bruce and Batman. It dares to suggest an ending to the character that is different from the one that has become so influential that it has practically been etched in stone.
There has been a great deal of debate over the final few minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, and what it says about the ultimate fate of Bruce Wayne. Although the evidence does lean in one direction, I accept that there’s some element of disagreement about what literally happened, as opposed to what we saw happening on screen. Nolan is a director who likes to play with that disconnect, and I’m not entirely sure that there is a definitive answer as to the fate of Bruce Wayne at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. I’m non-committal. I’ll accept an argument for one side or the other, although I do tend to favour one outcome over the other.
That said, I think we’ll all agree that the final few minutes of the film are built – no matter what ultimately happened – on hope. Lucius Fox discovers the auto-pilot was fixed, and so he hopes that Bruce survived. Jim Gordon discovers a restored Bat-Signal on top of the MCU and so is given hope about the fate of Batman. Alfred is coping with the way he failed Thomas and Martha Wayne in his duty to their son, and see something that give him hope. While Frank Miller’s vision suggests that Batman and Bruce Wayne are locked in a life-and-death struggle that will only end with one killing the other, Nolan dares to hope that there might be something better. Both Bruce and Batman can live on, in their own fashion.
The Dark Knight Returns is about Bruce’s doomed struggle to suppress the Batman, a personality that reasserts itself so completely that it can even shave his moustache. It berates him, erodes him, destroys him… until there’s only Batman left. Miller hints that Bruce never left either that old well on the Wayne grounds, or that alley following the murder of his parents. Since then, the Batman has been in control, like some raging consuming beast inside. Bruce has never been free, never been able to escape the monster in his subconscious. It’s certainly a grim portrayal, and it was the more powerful because it was a lot bolder than any take on the character up until that point.
The Dark Knight Rises reverses that dynamic. It works because it’s in stark contrast to everything since The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce tasked with pulling himself out of the Pit – a prison clearly designed to evoke both (a.) the well and (b.) the Lazarus Pit. Alfred can’t do it for him. Bruce has to pull himself out of that bleak dark hole, and climb into the light. Not Batman, but Bruce. Bruce has to decide that he wants to live. Bruce has to embrace fear, and allow it to humanise him.
“Sometimes the pit throws something back,” Alfred notes at one point, and he’s talking about Bane – Batman’s shadow counterpart, a mythological persona which has so effectively cannibalised its human host that he can’t even remove the mask. However, he could also be talking about Bruce. Bruce was trapped down that well with those bats for a long time – even after his father rescued him. He has lived in darkness, to the point where Alfred questions whether he is really living at all.
The Dark Knight Rises is the story of Bruce reclaiming his humanity, of taking back his life. One of the most powerful moments of the film, and one frequently overlooked as Gordon’s admission of culpability and guilt in The Dark Knight (“We have to save Dent! I have to save Dent!”), sees Batman confronted with a broken and twisted Talia Al Ghul, a woman who has sacrificed everything to live up to her father’s legacy and to accomplish his goals. Arguably knowing Ra’s better than he knew his own father, Bruce recognises the folly of all that. Ra’s Al Ghul would not want his daughter to die like that, given the sense of loss and personal guilt that drives him.
Christian Bale manages to capture the moment perfectly, even under a mask that covers half his face. In that one moment, with no clunky exposition, no awkward melodrama, we see that Bruce is finally realising that his parents would not want this for him. Seeing Talia die for nothing seems to be the moment that Bruce makes the decision to live. Up until that moment, he clearly intended to stay in Gotham after he vanquished Bane. When Blake thanks him for his assistance, Batman defers, expecting to be around later. “Don’t thank me. Not yet.” He seems a little surprised when Blake responds, “I may not get another chance.”
The Dark Knight Rises offers a version of Batman that doesn’t have to end in Bruce Wayne’s death. Maybe it does, but Nolan makes it clear that it doesn’t have to. He suggests that, unlike Miller, Bruce Wayne is not a person so fundamentally broken that he’s completely beyond redemption, that he can’t yet pull himself out of the darkness. I actually really like that aspect of the trilogy. There are a lot of reasons that Nolan’s decision to end the trilogy in a relatively optimistic and upbeat fashion feels earned. Given the outside tragedies surrounding The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, a hopeful ending feels strangely appropriate. However, I also like that it offers a fundamentally humanist and hopeful take on one of the great pop culture icons.
One of the most obvious differences in the iconography of Nolan and Miller concerns the aforementioned pearl necklace, one of the great visual elements that Miller added to the murder of the Waynes. In The Dark Knight Returns, the necklace is ripped from Martha’s neck. The pearls are scattered, sent falling through the air, landing in muddy water. The necklace is completely destroyed, like Bruce’s innocence and his humanity.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the pearls are recovered and intact, they are simply locked away in a secure safe. However, they are not gone. If they do symbolise Bruce’s humanity and personality, there’s something very heart-warming about seeing them on full display towards the end of the film. Miller believed they were lost forever. Nolan simply argues they were safely compartmentalised, and are not beyond recovery.
Interestingly enough, this week’s Batman & Robin 14 (from Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Mike Gray) ended with the revelation that Damian had been searching Gotham’s sewers in an attempt to recover Martha Wayne’s lost pearls. It would seem that Tomasi agrees with Nolan. Some things need not be lost forever.