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How to Do It: Batman 3/The Dark Knight Returns

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(How to Do It’s primary objective is to create serious discussion on how to adapt various properties to the silver screen. It is not about my dream cast for a Great Lakes Avengers television show. But seriously, Ellie Kemper IS Squirrel Girl.)

The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller is easily one of the best Batman stories ever written. It manages to completely encapsulate the spirit of who Batman is and how his world works while simultaneously reinventing him for his eighties audience. For those of you that haven’t read it, Bruce Wayne, after ten years of forced retirement, has watched Gotham City descend into ruin. Reluctantly, he dons the cape and cowl as Batman once more into a world that has changed, almost too much for him to cope with, and as he returns, old enemies and new allies start coming out of the woodwork. Cool, huh? As such, it seems like a great jumping off point for 2012’s Batman 3.

That said, Batman 3 should not be an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, but it should pay a lot of mind to it.


The important thing to remember about all of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies is that none of them are adaptations. Batman Begins and Dark Knight both carry influences for specific Batman stories on their sleeves, from Batman: Year One to The Long Halloween to The Man Who Laughs, but the important thing to remember is that they aren’t, strictly speaking, adaptations.  Hell, even The Tumbler is basically DKR’s Batmobile minus the large gun on the top. The same can be said for pretty much all live-action superhero movies, really. So let’s hit the trenches. What can Batman 3 take from DKR and what should it push off the cliff like Homer Simpson?

THE SETTING AND OPENING ARE NEARLY PERFECT

The Dark Knight ends with Batman being hunted by the Gotham City PD in order to save Harvey Dent’s reputation. For the good of Gotham, he has become a criminal in the eyes of the law. Hell, Jim Gordon’s ending monologue says it better than me. 

Also, typography is cool. By contrast, The Dark Knight Returns picks up ten years after Batman, sick of being hunted by the government, hangs up the cowl and stays Bruce Wayne full time. As such, he’s bored, disillusioned, and he’s spent years watching his city go to hell. I’m not saying we cut forward ten years, requiring new actors and all that jazz, but let’s say, after a year of being hunted by Gordon, the Nolanverse Batman decides, in a fit of rage or after he makes a mistake that costs a life, that he’s doing more harm than good now that the people of Gotham no longer trust him. He goes into exile, and once word goes out that Batman’s gone, the mob comes back. Roving gangs of kids hopped up on performance-enhancers start ravaging the cities. A few straggling members of the Joker’s gang continue to wage a small war of terror on the populace, though without the Joker’s mad leadership, they mostly just blow up cars and rob banks.  A little older and wiser, though still wracked with guilt for all the lives he couldn’t save, Bruce reluctantly decides to take back his city.

THE MUTANTS ARE COOL AS HELL!

I think this dude’s nips could cut diamonds. Seriously, though, roving gangs of youngsters filing their teeth and wearing visors? And the leader totally kicks Batman in the balls! And Batman basically breaks him out of jail just to break most of the bones in his body in a mudhole in the rain. Totally cool.

NEW JOKER? NO PROBLEM!

Ok, this one requires a bit of a larger timeline jump. In DKR (and shown above), the Joker is shown completely catatonic in Arkham Asylum. The moment Batman reappears on TV, however, the trademark grin busts back out. It’s a little moment that perfectly encapsulates the relationship between Batman and Joker. While the one exists, the other must as well. Within the comic, after his re-awakening, the Joker instantly begins hatching a plan to get himself released from Arkham and back into what he loves most: getting Bats’ attention. From a casting/continuity standpoint, it also makes it very easy to A)cast a new Joker and B) allow Heath Ledger’s amazing performance to stand on its own. An older, craftier Joker would be completely different from the nihilist madman of The Dark Knight. Also, after laying siege to an amusement park following an appearance on Letterman, the Joker finally meets his end, yet again testing Batman to his limit before ending his own life. It would make for a fitting end to the way Nolan chose to portray Joker.

NOT JUST ROBIN, BUT A COMPLETELY NEW ROBIN

Another thing DKR gets recognized for is Carrie Kelly, the female Robin. Out of a desire to help people like Batman does, Carrie Kelly dons a homemade Robin outfit and fights minor street crime before bailing out the big man during a fight with the Mutant leader gone wrong. Using this incarnation of Robin, a teen girl inspired by Batman’s return to help out in her own little way, could go a long way to softening the Batman we saw in Dark Knight that believed all he could do was go it alone.

OBVIOUSLY, THERE ARE PROBLEMS

If Nolan were to borrow heavily enough from DKR to even consider calling it an adaptation, there’s a lot that needs to be removed. Pretty much all of the television satire stuff needs to go. It has no place thematically in Nolan’s universe, and at worse, it’ll come across as half-baked as setting Watchmen in the mid-eighties so Zack Snyder doesn’t have to have an original idea. While the Superman fight finale is thrilling and a fantastic conclusion, Nolan has clearly stated that there’s no room for other superheroes in his universe, which is fine. That kind of dramatic conclusion could be replaced by something as simple as a standoff between Commissioner Gordon and Batman. And in the end, when Batman fakes is death and goes underground, it’s a perfect way to cap off this line of stories. There’s no reason that it has to be the last Nolanverse Batman movie; it can just be showing how this story ends. People often forget that, although most studios seem to think of franchises in threes now, there’s always room to tell the stories that come between the movies, or, God forbid, be a little more like comic books, where even when the status quo changes, we can still do something different the next story.

There’s also been an important thing I’ve missed here: the plot. What I’ve described here is less of a plot, because it would suck as I’ve described it, and more of a series of important details to include in something taking large cues from DKR. Ultimately, what Christopher Nolan has demonstrated a lot of respect for previous stories while completely understanding that lots and lots of things need to get thrown out to fit in with his artistic vision. This is the key rule to adapting any property. You have to love what you’re adapting, but you have to remember that you’re not just putting it up on screen page-by-page or panel-by-panel. That has worked ONCE, and that’s ultimately the point of these articles: how to adapt the properties we know and actually make them work.