The Influence of Dark Knight Returns on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

What can we learn about the most anticipated movie in fandom from this comics masterpiece?

“I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come…in your most private moments…I want you to remember my hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you.”

With those words, Harry Lennix (the actor who played General Swanwick in Man of Steel), quoting directly from the pages of The Dark Knight Returns, sent fans at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con into near hysterics. He isn’t quoting Lex Luthor or General Zod gloating over Superman’s defeat…he’s quoting Batman. And, with that, the sequel to Man of Steel was announced.

Later that day, screenwriter David Goyer said, “We don’t know if it’s going to be titled Batman vs. Superman or Superman vs. Batman, but yes…it’s that combination, the two guys onscreen, and that’s what’s happening.” Now, despite the famous quote from The Dark Knight Returns, and some very DKR-inspired visuals in the trailers, it’s obvious that this film won’t be an adaptation of that famous work. Director Zack Snyder even stated, “We’re not adapting this thing, but it is the thing that will help us tell that story.” 

So what can we learn by revisiting Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley’s 1986 Batman masterpiece? Somewhere between the pages of The Dark Knight Returns and what has been established in Man of Steel, there might just be a few things that actually will make it into this movie in 2015.

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The Role Reverasl of Superman and Batman

The Superman of Dark Knight Returns is an operative of the United States government. In Man of Steel, we have already seen the beginning of a tentative, uneasy relationship between Superman and the U.S. Army. One of the more perplexing things in the trailer is the inclusion of strange scenes in the desert, with armored soldiers wearing uniforms emblazoned with Superman’s “S” symbol, seemingly bowing down to him.


That may be a dream/nightmare sequence, but even so, the image of a Superman who answers to a government power rather than his own conscience is a powerful one that seems inspired by the fears inherent in Dark Knight Returns.

The root of the Batman/Superman battle in Dark Knight Returns came down to an authority figure Superman cracking down on a wild card Batman at the government’s insistence. In Batman v Superman, it seems like it’s the other way around. It’s the emergence of Superman that influences Batman to come out of retirement, and from the trailers, it’s because Bruce Wayne witnessed the collateral damage in the Metropolis battle that climaxed Man of Steel.

You might be a little disturbed by that, too. But it could still play both ways. Both of these heroes need a motivation to fight each other. 

With that in mind, Superman could be manipulated by people in charge (especially in an attempt to prove that he’s trustworthy after all the damage done in Man of Steel) to investigate a wild card like Batman might translate quite well to the DC Movie Universe.

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In the world of The Dark Knight Returns, superheroes have been outlawed, making Batman’s return to action politically inconvenient. Superman, despite all of the death and destruction brought on by his first public appearance in Man of Steel, operates in the open, wears bright colors, and doesn’t wear a mask. Since we know that the Batman of Batman v Superman has been retired for years, and since there wasn’t much mention of costumed adventurers in Man of Steel, then his career as a crimefighter is either “urban legend” status, or the public was never all that comfortable with him to begin with.

Speaking of which, there’s a great scene in Dark Knight Returns that plays on exactly that “urban legend” status, using two police officers as our POV characters into how Batman is viewed.

In The Dark Knight Returns, a comic which obviously has influenced this movie quite heavily, when Batman first returns to action he lends a hand to two cops in pursuit of suspects, one who isn’t old enough to remember Batman in action, and one veteran who advises him to chill out and enjoy the show.

It looks like this is a take on that scene from the comics!

In a broader sense, it also appears that there are laws in the works to regulate superhuman activity, another holdover from DKR.

At the very least, they’re investigating Superman.

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Which brings us to that fight and the title of the movie…

Bats hands Supes his ass in the comics. Sure, he cheats a little, and Superman was already weakened by a nuclear explosion, but nevertheless, this is where that “my hand at your throat” line comes from.

They obviously got the armored bat-suit right on screen:

In the comic, Batman promptly croaks thanks to a heart-attack, and even in defeat, Superman maintains respect for his former pal, even attending his funeral, where it’s revealed that Batman’s death wasn’t so permanent after all. That’s not likely to happen here, although there are some increasingly substantiated rumors making the rounds that make it sound like we might see something even stranger. I won’t spoil them here, but there has to be a reason for Wonder Woman to join this fight, too

Here’s the thing: The Dark Knight Returns relies on what was, back then, over forty years of fans understanding that there was a friendship between these characters. The upcoming film not only doesn’t have that luxury, it positively requires the heroes to eventually patch things up enough to make a Justice League movie happen.

The Superman/Batman fight was the climax of The Dark Knight Returns. In this film, in all likelihood, it probably will have to take place in the second act in order to give them time to team up and wail on whoever manipulated them into fighting in the first place. Who would that be? The trailers have shown us how Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor is making generally anti-Kryptonian statements in the media, and he’s clearly got enough money to wield some political influence, as well.

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Luthor also has a mysterious element called Kryptonite at his disposal, and that was certainly used to Batman’s advantage in DKR.

Face it, folks. Batman doesn’t stand a chance against Superman…unless he levels the playing field. In chapter four of The Dark Knight Returns, Batman uses a Kryptonite arrow (courtesy of a one-armed Green Arrow…who almost certainly won’t be in this film) to make Superman a little more approachable. And it’s not like someone with Bruce Wayne’s resources wouldn’t be able to afford it, too.

No, we won’t be seeing Green Arrow in this movie. But what about other heroes?

Well, even though this is a fairly “new” superhero universe, the existence of Batman in its past indicates that there have been some heroes and villains operating for some time. The Suicide Squad movie and it’s rather weathered looking Joker are both proof of that. But the evidence of Batman’s career also hearkens back to Dark Knight Returns, with the presence of a Robin costume enshrined in the Batcave.

It isn’t clear yet which Robin costume this is. In Dark Knight Returns, it’s intended to be Jason Todd’s costume (something that was later brought into main Batman continuity), with Alfred’s reminders to Bruce about “what happened to Jason,” something that was left intentionally vague until it was fleshed out in A Death in the Family. The design of this one, however, is similar to Tim Drake’s. That’s probably just for practical purposes, though.

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The death of Robin was one of several factors that ultimately forced Batman to face his mortality and the futility of his crusade, and enter retirement. The costume was kept on display as a reminder of this. It’s obviously part of this world, too.

Which brings up the possibility that Jena Malone is playing Dark Knight Returns Robin, Carrie Kelley, although there’s also speculation that she’s Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. Whether this character is relatively new to superheroics or dates back to Bruce’s earlier crimefighting days remains to be seen.

As for the others? 

Wonder Woman obviously has a fairly substantial role to play, although she was only mentioned in passing in Dark Knight Returns. While this may be her first public outing as a superhero, the implication would seem to be that she’s been operating in secret well before this. Aquaman will make an appearance, although we seem to understand that’s more of a cameo.

So perhaps the ultimate infuence that Dark Knight Returns has on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is how it slightly subverts the continuity dynamic of that story. Intended as an “end of the DC Universe” tale, one that wasn’t intended for sequels, DKR played on decades of DC continuity to tell a daring story that required little set-up other than the familiarity audiences had with the characters in other media.

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Batman v Superman, while set at the beginning of a public DC Universe, is also going to play with the idea that aspects of it are much older. It’s an interesting gamble, and one we hope works.

Note: A version of this article originally appeared on August 24th, 2013. It has been updated to reflect recent revelations about the movie.