Why 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' Endures as a Comic Book Classic

What makes Frank Miller's 1986 Batman story so beloved 30 years later?
Frank Miller/DC Entertainment

Three decades after its original release, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns remains one of the most popular — if not the most popular — Batman stories ever told, a fact perhaps underscored by this week's release of DC Entertainment's Dark Knight III: The Master Race. But what is it about the original four-part series by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley that made it so beloved?

Part of the appeal, particularly at the time of its release in 1986, was its novelty. While there's an argument to be made that The Dark Knight Returns — or The Dark Knight as it was originally called; each of the four issues had different subtitles during its serialization: The Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Falls — is a combination of different elements, with Miller continuing the work he had done in Marvel's Daredevil and DC's Ronin with the addition of both the near-future setting and media satire of independent comic series American Flagg and a tone reportedly inspired by the Dirty Harry and Death Wish movies, there's a lot that The Dark Knight Returns offered fans that they hadn't seen before.

Alongside the first no-holds-barred fight between Batman and Superman — characters more traditionally portrayed as best friends by DC throughout their half-century history at the time — Dark Knight Returns served up the death of both faithful butler Alfred and the Joker, the first female Robin, and an explicitly political take on two of DC's most famous franchise stars, with Superman being portrayed as a naive agent of the status quo and Batman a more cynical force of anarchy and chaos, loyal to a sense of justice more than the law. (It also retired Comissioner Gordon and "cured" Two-Face, amongst other memorable moments; the less said about Selina Kyle running an escort business, the better, perhaps.)

For all that Batman had been portrayed as a "dark" character prior to this series, this was the darkest and most adult take on the mythos yet — and one that resonated with readers and creators alike, judging by its reception and the way in which elements from the "alternate future" world have crept into Batman's core mythology ever since.

In many ways, The Dark Knight Returns also gained strength from the fact that it was, essentially, a stand-alone experience; it wasn't just that it was disconnected from the monthly adventures of Bruce Wayne's alter ego and those of his Justice League co-stars, but that anyone with only a passing knowledge of the character — which, given the popularity of the character outside comics thanks to the 1960s Adam West TV show and his subsequent ubiquity on Saturday morning cartoons like Super Friends, was a lot of people — could pick it up and enjoy it.

Moreover, it provided the Batman mythos with an ending. Not a definitive ending, obviously (The fact that we're about to get the second sequel makes that plain), but The Dark Knight Returns can, and does, act as a satisfying conclusion to the Batman story for those who want to enjoy it as such. Given that superheroes are traditionally intended to exist as perpetual story machines, that too was novel. (In later years, that novelty wore off through overuse; Marvel had a short-lived imprint called "The End" which specialized in alternate timeline stories that closed off careers in a way inspired by The Dark Knight Returns.)

In subsequent years, the status of The Dark Knight Returns has changed; it has gone from novelty to being the source material for much of what followed, both inside the comic book industry — alongside its contemporary DC series Watchmen, Dark Knight is credited with ushering in an era of "grim and gritty superheroes," as well as the aforementioned slate of alternate world versions of familiar characters — and out. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, for example, is clearly indebted to the series visually and narratively, as, to a lesser extent, are both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies.

What started as an outsider became not just part of the mainstream, but a cornerstone of it. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (and its immediate successor, Miller and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One, which retells Bruce Wayne's origin as a costumed crime fighter) has become a core comic text because of the ways in which it redefined the parameters not only of a Batman story, but of the superhero genre itself, almost entirely by accident. Its importance to the genre cannot be easily overstated, which explains why it remains a constant presence in sales charts, lists of fan-favorite stories and influences alike.

The first issue of Dark Knight III: The Master Race will be released Wednesday, Nov. 25.