The Dark Knight Returns - Plot

Plot

The Dark Knight Returns is set in a dystopian near-future version of Gotham City. A year is never specified, though it has been a full decade since the last reported sighting of Batman, the current American President appears to be Ronald Reagan or someone using his image, and the Cold War is still ongoing. The author also alludes to the deaths of Bruce Wayne's parents as being on the night of a movie theater showing of Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro, a movie with a release date of November 8, 1940, a time when Bruce was a youth. Virtually all superheroes, with the exception of Superman (who operates covertly), have been banned by the government or otherwise driven away by a populace that envies what they represent and disapproves of them. Bruce Wayne, now 55, has voluntarily retired from crime fighting following the death (under unspecified circumstances) of Jason Todd, the second Robin. In the absence of superheroes, criminals run amok, and in Gotham a new breed of criminals known as the Mutants terrorizes Gotham City.

Coming to a ten year realization, Wayne's internal instincts realizes he cannot deny who and what he really is as the incessant level of rampant crime prompts Wayne to don the Batman costume once again. Part of this internal instinct is demonstrated when Wayne unconsciously shaves off his mustache in service to the face of the Batman. Batman faces Harvey Dent who was believed to be cured after Wayne paid for plastic surgery to repair his disfigured face, but his ailment was not physical nor cosmetic but deeply rooted psychologically. Dent is suspected of returning to crime holding the city for ransom with a bomb. Batman confronts Dent, whose face is swathed in bandages, and realizes that his old foe, while physically cured, is still disfigured in his own mind.

The city is saved, but the populace debates whether Batman's brand of vigilantism has any place in society. The media plays a large role in DKR, with the narrative broken up by news reports and "talking head" editorials debating events in the story as they unfold.

After Batman saves her from a Mutant attack, 13-year-old Carrie Kelley buys herself a knock-off Robin costume, and searches for Batman to aid him. She finds Batman at the city dump, where he fights the entire army of Mutants. Though Batman defeats the Mutant army he is defeated in combat against the Mutant leader, but Kelley distracts him long enough for Batman to pacify him and Kelley pulls Batman into the tank-like Batmobile. Kelley attends to Batman’s wounds as the vehicle drives toward the Batcave. Once home, Batman takes Carrie on as the new Robin despite the objections of his butler, Alfred. With the help of retiring Commissioner James Gordon, the Mutants' leader is manipulated by Batman to escape from jail, and Batman beats him in a strategically selected location in front of the assembled gang. The Mutants disband as a result of his humiliation and follow instead the higher animal seen as the Batman and the mutants then form several smaller gangs, one of which, the "Sons of the Batman," uses extremely violent methods (up to and including murder) to "purge" Gotham of its criminal element.

Meanwhile, the return of Batman stimulates The Joker to awaken from a years-long catatonic state at Arkham Asylum. With new purpose from the Dark Knight's return, the Joker convinces his psychiatrist, Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, that he is sane and feels remorse for his crimes. Seeking to discredit Batman, whom he has crusaded against in the media, Wolper appears with the Joker on a late-night talk show. While the police, now led by the anti-vigilante Commissioner Ellen Yindel, attack Batman, the Joker murders everyone in the television studio (including Wolper) and escapes. He finds Selina Kyle, and after finding out what he wants from her gags her, beats her, dresses her in a Wonder Woman costume, and binds her with a gold-covered rope. Batman and Robin free her, and track the Joker to a county fair, where he has already murdered many people. Batman defeats Joker in a violent showdown, breaking his neck but stopping just short of killing him with surgical precision. The Joker twists his neck willingly until his spine breaks completely, taunting Batman as he dies with the knowledge that he will be charged with a murder he couldn't bring himself to commit. Batman escapes, but not before another confrontation with the Gotham police, and a citywide manhunt is now on for the Caped Crusader.

After Superman diverts a Russian nuclear warhead which then detonates in a desert, America is hit by an electromagnetic pulse, and descends into chaos during the resulting blackout. In Gotham, the "World's Greatest Detective" immediately deduces an EMP wave has hit the country and in response Batman and Robin turn the Mutants and the Sons of the Batman into non-lethal fighting thus leading them to stop looting and to ensure the flow of needed supplies. In the midst of nuclear winter conditions, Gotham becomes the safest city in America; the U.S. government, seeing this as an embarrassment, orders Superman to take Batman down. Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, predicts to Wayne that the government lacky Superman and the maverick Batman will have a final confrontation, and thusly Superman demands of Batman when and where they should meet. Knowing that he, the Batman, may in fact die, Wayne symbolically chooses Crime Alley, the place where the Batman was born. Before the battle begins Superman tries to reason with Batman but Batman strikes first by utilizing his own technological inventions against Superman and employing his mastery of hand-to-hand combat. During the battle Superman compromises Batmans war-suit but in the end Batman defeats Superman (using Green Arrow as an accomplice and a kryptonite-tipped arrow which Waynes' scientific mind concocts), however dies from a heart attack immediately afterward. Alfred destroys the Batcave and Wayne Manor, and dies from a fatal stroke.

After Bruce's funeral, it is revealed that his death was staged as an elaborate ruse by way of Batman's brilliant chemical engineering that suspended his own body's life signs; Clark Kent (Superman) attends the funeral and gives Robin a knowing wink after hearing Bruce's heartbeat as he leaves the grave site, suggesting his silent approval of Batman taking his advice and of what will happen next. Some time afterward, Bruce Wayne leads Robin, Green Arrow, and the rest of his followers into the caverns beyond the Batcave and prepares to continue his fight. He acknowledges Supermans advice of being "too loud" as a legend instead of operating secretly. His plan, which will take years of training, is to build an army, and to bring sense to a world plagued by something "worse than thieves and murderers". Wayne shows contempt that this will be a "good life – good enough."

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