Released in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns was the comic book that dared to ask "What if Batman retired?"
Forced by the government to retire ten years earlier, Bruce Wayne lives out his middle age an empty shell of his former playboy self. When not drinking himself to death, he races prototype race cars, also with the apparent intent of killing himself. Clearly, retirement is not going well for the former Batman. On the tenth anniversary of the last night Batman appeared in Gotham city, we find Wayne and Commissioner James Gordon, who is facing his own retirement in the coming weeks. They talk about old times, both men pretending that the comic book will end without Batman kicking somebody's ass. Next thing you know, Batman has shaved his epic mustache. Then he flies off into the night, taking in the cold night air, as he once did, in his youth. He hears of a bank robbery, criminals escaping in a car. Seeing two cars speeding past he chooses one, woe to those he chooses. Causing the driver to wrap his car around a telephone pole, Batman engages in battle with three of the thieves from the bank heist. There are seven working defenses from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three of them kill. The other-- [KRAKK] --hurts.
After breaking some bones and not being killed by thugs with machine guns, Batman discovers that the "reformed" Two-Face is behind the bank robbery he attempted to foil. Two-Face sets a bomb atop Gotham City, holding the citizens hostage if his demands aren't met. Cue awesome rooftop battle. Batman captures Two-Face, his face appearing unmarred, thanks to the plastic surgery paid for by Bruce Wayne. But, peering into his soul, Batman sees that Harvey Dent is gone, and only Two-Face remains. Seriously, Frank Miller felt that it wasn't obvious enough that a little plastic surgery couldn't cure a major psychosis, he actually had to draw it and literally spell it out for us.
In the next chapter, a young girl, Carrie Kelly, dons a Robin costume and begins her vigilante career in Gotham City. Batman, recognizing the Mutant menace, and feeling overconfident after his defeat of Two-Face, takes the Batmobile (which had been turned into a modified tank, firing rubber bullets) into the city dumps, the headquarters of the gang. After ruining the shit of the average gangbanger, Batman spots the leader, a giant, overly muscled monster with filed teeth. Instead of turning his rubber firing chaingun at the leader, he decides "Eh, I can take him." Batman hops out of the Batmobile and promptly gets his ass handed to him. Carrie Kelly, outdoing all the criminals in Gotham, manages to successfully stalk Batman to the dumps to watch him get stomped. Then she knocks out some Mutants with a wrench, and drags Batman's near corpse into the Batmobile, driving back to the Batcave.
Meanwhile, the President (clearly Ronald Reagan) talks to Superman about what to do to get Batman to stop being a dick and go back into hiding, like he's supposed to be doing. We also get to see the Mayor fail in negotiations with the Mutant leader, when the Mayor gets his throat ripped out by the Mutant's teeth. Clearly, we need more Mutants in American politics.
Batman, having sufficiently recovered from the brutal beating he received earlier, calls up the Commissioner, to ask him to let the Mutant leader "escape." He also has Robin, dressed as a Mutant, spread the word about the planned rematch between the Mutant leader and the Batman. Batman leads his enemy through a series of drainage pipes, dumping them out into a giant mudpit. You don't get it, boy... this isn't a mudhole... it's an operating table.
And I'm the surgeon. Batman uses the weight of the mud to even out his opponent's strength against his own. After a brutal fistfight, the Mutants realize that filing your teeth down may make you an obvious madman, but it doesn't make you a badass. For that, you have to wear leather, tights, and a mask and grapple with other men in the deep dark of the night.
Gordon has retired, being replaced by a young female officer, Ellen Yindel, the first female Commissioner in Gotham. As she promised when she was announced as Gordon's replacement, she immediately issues orders for Batman's arrest. The former Mutants, now the Sons of Batman, begin a spree of extraordinarily violent vigilantism, killing criminals for even misdemeanor offenses, as well as sometimes killing victims of crime, for not being proactive enough to stop criminals. Reagan orders Superman to stop Batman, whatever the cost. Seeing Batman on the news again, the Joker recovers from his catatonia, and his psychiatrist (the same one who said Two-Face had been cured) now declares Joker to be rehabilitated.
The Joker is allowed to go on a late night talk show (clearly Letterman), where he kills all of the audience and everyone else in the studio, with a poison gas. Batman is on the rooftop, fighting the police, who staged a sting, realizing that Batman couldn't resist trying to recapture the Joker at his television appearance. The battle goes sour, requiring Batman to escape in the Batcopter. Joker then goes to an amusment park, poisoning the cotton candy and murdering hundreds of children. Batman and Robin follow him, too late to save the children.
A tiny hand tightens its grip on my arm...
A girl of thirteen breathes in sharply, suddenly her innocence lost...
It ends tonight, Joker.
Batman, violating his rule against firearms carries a gun into battle against the Joker. Unfortunately, it serves him poorly, and he discards it. He does, however, throw a Batarang into Joker's eye. While Batman chases the Joker into the Tunnel of Love (you know what's going to happen), Robin has to disable a bomb on a rollercoaster. When Batman catches up to the Joker, Joker shoots and stabs him as Batman bludgeons him with his fists. Batman defeats the Joker, finally ending his years long rampage. As he snaps Joker's neck, paralyzing him, Batman stupidly decides not to kill the Joker. Joker, proving once and for all he's the bigger badass, twists his own neck, killing himself, smug in the knowledge that Batman will be blamed for his death.
Upon hearing of the murder of the Joker, Superman decides he can wait no longer to stop the madness Batman has brought down on Gotham. The Soviet Union launches a nuclear weapon, designed to deliver an enormous EMP throughout the country, and Superman flies off to stop it. Unable to redirect it out of Earth's atmosphere, he manages to send it into the desert, preventing physical damage from the missile, and saving countless lives. But being caught in the center of a massive nuclear blast takes a vast toll on Superman's health. Due to his now zombie-like appearance, I immediately thought this story was about to turn awesome. So I was slightly disappointed when DC didn't beat Marvel Zombies by about 20 years. But Miller did this next part pretty okay. The EMP takes out all the lights in Gotham, and people completely lose their minds, as is typical when there's a power outage in any major urban center. The Sons of Batman hit the streets, murdering anybody they think are behaving inappropriately, until Batman and Robin enter the city, riding horseback.[Ed. note: [horseback] is not a portmanteau of "Hung like a horse" and "bareback"] To the apparent dismay of the current leader of the Sons of Batman, Batman assumes leadership, offering to teach them his ways, and ordering them to follow him and protect Gotham. This loud, clumsy, stupid thing -- this is the weapon of the enemy. We do not need it. We will not use it.
Our weapons are quiet -- precise. In time, I will teach them to you. Tonight, you will use your fists -- and your brains.
Tonight, we are the law.
Tongiht, I am the law.
After the Dark Knight's Dark Night (Yeah, I said it, still less clumsy than Miller), he is shown meeting with the Green Arrow, apparently devising a plan in his battle against Superman. Superman burns the word "Where?" into the ground near Wayne, and he replies "Crime Alley." This will be the stage of the final battle between Superman and Batman, and the greatest thing in the whole graphic novel. Flying into Crime Alley, six rockets fire at Superman, some of which connect. Then the Batmobile fires on Superman, who easily rips it open, revealing a grinning Carrie Kelly. Superman makes a joke, then gets attacked by Batman, firing a sonic blast at Superman's head. Struggling, Superman manages to reach Batman, and destroy the sonic device. Still talking -- keep talking, Clark... you've always known just what to say.
"Yes"-- you always say yes -- to anyone with a badge -- or a flag -- no good. What didn't hit you -- and me -- fed this suit, Clark -- It's way past time you learned what it means -- --to be a man... Then Batman and Superman begin pummeling each other, Batman having his own strength enhanced by a super suit of his own design. While in their brawl, Green Arrow appears on the rooftop, fighting federal agents (presumably something the crazy hippie is forced to do regularly) so he can fire an arrow at Superman, which Superman catches. Just before it explodes, irradiating him with synthesized kryptonite. Batman, now more than Superman's equal, begins to pummel him within an inch of his life, putting Superman in a similar stranglehold to the one he had the Joker in, in the previous issue. You're beginning to get the idea, Clark... this...is the end... for both of us... we could have changed the world... now look at us... I've become a political liability... and you...
You're a joke...
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... Superman realizes that Batman's heart is stopping, while the reader realizes what that pill Batman took before the Crime Alley fight was: a suicide pill. Batman collapses in a curious triumph, and Superman cries over the corpse of his old friend.
Wayne Manor is burned to the ground at the exact moment of Batman's death, and, with the mansion, Alfred Pennyworth also dies. At the funeral of Bruce Wayne, some old faces show up (those who survived the novel), including Carrie Kelly and Clark Kent. As Clark Kent leaves, he hears a faint noise, which brings a smile to his face. He knows Bruce's heart still beats. The novel ends with Batman and Robin training His army, the Sons of Batman live on.