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What on Infinite Earths is: The Dark Knight Returns

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on March 21, 2016

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You may have heard about a new film that is coming out that features a couple of minor characters from comic books: Superman and Batman. At a first glance it looks like it is falling back on the old “let's you and me fight” cross-over nonsense that characterised the meetings of comic book heroes in almost every instance. For some reason editors at the major comic publishers in the early days must have decided that the most pressing issue that would come up when two wildly different characters from different settings and possessing diametrically opposed outlooks met was which one could punch the other in the face most effectively. The comic that a great deal of the ideas and imagery of this new blockbuster have been cannibalised from was considered by many to be a classic of the superhero genre, alongside Watchmen. A story that could be picked up and read without ploughing through years of back-issues while still perfectly encapsulating the essence of the characters. The Dark Knight Returns.

The story begins many years after Batman has gone into retirement along with the vast majority of the other superheroes and his entire rogue's gallery. He is an old man with a bad heart and his regression into the persona of Batman is treated for the most part like a mental illness or an addiction. He returns to being Batman in this future world and he is treated much like he would be in our own, as a freak and oddity except by the villains who defined his career and the new generation of brutal street thugs known as the Mutants gang. In turn both Joker and Two-Face return from their own states of gradually improving mental health when confronted with their old nemesis, with the Joker striking the final blow in the court of public opinion by killing himself and framing Batman for the crime. Combined with his eventual defeat of the leader of the mutants this marks Batman as a dangerous figure in the futuristic setting. One that is entirely too popular with the population while flaunting the word of the law.

The ultimate symbol of the law is brought in to remedy this situation by a Presidential request. Superman and Batman fight and thanks to a great deal of planning on the side of Batman and a great deal of reluctance to murder an old friend on the side of Superman, Batman wins. Then immediately suffers a seemingly lethal heart attack. Superman returns to his role of government stooge with a thin veil of plausible deniability and Batman goes underground with a vigilante army comprised of the disenfranchised youth of his city.

You can feel the weight of history between these two characters throughout their conflict, the respect and love that both men feel for each other, that is what makes the final battle dramatic. That is what gives the story its emotional punch, that pain to be hurting someone that they care about but are ideologically in conflict with. Please try to bear that in mind before you go see Ben Affleck punch Henry Cavill in the face for two hours.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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