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How to Make Nerds Rejoice

7:05 AM, Jul 24, 2013 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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5) All of which set the stage for Frank Miller’s wholesale reinvention of the character in 1986 with the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Every part of Miller’s Batman is formed in reaction to the murder of his parents, creating a character whose complications all arise from a stripped-down, yet coherent, set of motivations. He is, in increasing order of importance, a vigilante, a hero, and a monster.

Miller’s Batman was so evocative and powerful, that it has undergirded just about every depiction of Batman, in every medium, for 35 years. But not just Batman. You could argue that The Dark Knight Returns influenced just about every superhero comic written over the last two generations and that it is, alongside Siegel and Shuster’s creation of Superman in 1938, the most influential comic ever written.

(You can see Miller’s brush strokes in what might be my favorite Batman moment. In Brad Meltzer’s series Identity Crisis, Batman attempts to explain his existence, saying, “People think it’s an obsession. A compulsion. As if there were an irresistible impulse to act. It’s never been like that. I chose this life. I know what I’m doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn’t that day. And tomorrow won’t be either.” There are a number of deep truths wrapped in this bit of self-justification, but the overarching conceit, of course, is a lie.)

6) Miller’s Batman was the definitive version of the character until Christopher Nolan cannily created a new one. With his cinematic Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan gave us a Batman that was superficially similar to the Miller Batman. He was angry and vengeful and obsessed with his parents’ murder. But beneath that was a weary man who was desperate to lay down his burden and run away to find love and a new life. Both the Miller and Nolan Batmen were created the night their parents were gunned down in Crime Alley. The rub is that Miller’s Batman can never change; and Nolan’s Batman desperately wants to. This may seem like a small distinction, but it creates an enormous difference.

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So those are the Batmen available to pair with Superman for Zack Snyder’s new movie. History suggests that only one of them would be dramatically satisfying.

Superman and Batman have been teaming up since 1941, the minute DC Comics realized that it could put its two best-selling titles together and create a third book. They called the team-up “World’s Finest," and it utilized, at different stages, the first three iterations of Batman. The results were frequently embarrassing. Sometimes, unimaginably so.

The fourth version of Batman was paired with Superman throughout the ’70s and early ’80s both in later issues of World’s Finest and in the series Justice League of America. Using this slightly grittier Batman helped remove the rot of the camp era, but the stories were entirely forgettable, with no real substance or dramatic heft.

Thematic success didn't come until Jeph Loeb mixed the two in 2005 with a series titled, simply enough, Superman/Batman. Loeb begins with a short, 2-page, prologue showing a near-meeting of young Clark Kent with young Bruce Wayne. In just eight panels, it establishes the future dynamic of their characters and the tension that must always exist between them. For his part, Clark Kent admires Bruce Wayne and wishes only that he could find a way to help him overcome his demons. Batman, on the other hand, instinctually distrusts Superman’s power, and realizes that someone ought to be prepared to stop him.

Loeb, of course, was using Miller’s Batman. Because The Dark Knight Returns, didn’t just create a definitive Batman. It also established a philosophical conflict between Batman and Superman.

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