Did Batman Actually Kill Anyone in The Dark Knight Returns?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Batman killed people in The Dark Knight Returns, which inspired Zack Snyder to have Batman kill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Many times over the years, we have seen filmmakers struggle with maintaining the correct tone and aesthetic for their films. In the case of the original Toy Story, the film came very close to being canceled entirely due to its initial dark tone. The original version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestial was so dark that it was basically split into two films, the family-friendly E.T. and the darker Poltergeist. In the case of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, director Zack Snyder had a distinct blueprint from the beginning that he was following to maintain the tone and aesthetic he wanted in the film. That blueprint was Frank Miller’s classic 1986 comic book series, The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder has spoken about that influence a number of times, including just a few weeks ago, noting:

When I read that comic book series, you know, in ‘86 I was floored by it because I felt like it promised me something. It challenged…my fundamental notions about Batman. It sort of inspired me to reconnect with Batman the character and comic book in general.

and

I sort of wanted to homage the comic book in this movie as much as possible was to say thank you to Frank for sort of giving me back Batman in a way that I could understand as modern…Even though we don’t follow that story, necessarily, the imagery that I chose to try to emulate in the movie was a way of me saying ‘thank you Frank’ for making my aesthetic.

This influence also explains why Snyder has Batman so willing to kill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Snyder again referenced Dark Knight Returns in regards to his version of Batman being willing to kill:

I would say that in the Frank Miller comic book that I reference, he kills all the time. There’s a scene from the graphic novel where he busts through a wall, takes the guy’s machine gun… I took that little vignette from a scene in The Dark Knight Returns, and at the end of that, he shoots the guy right between the eyes with the machine gun. One shot. Of course, I went to the gas tank, and all of the guys I work with were like, ‘You’ve gotta shoot him in the head’ because they’re all comic book dorks, and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna be the guy that does that!’”

Reader Dan M. wrote in to ask, though, is that actually true? Does Batman even kill at all in Dark Knight Returns? Lets’ take a look…

A closer reading of the book doesn’t appear as thought that’s actually the case.

Snyder references a very famous sequence in the second book, “Dark Knight Triumphant”

where Batman attacks a couple of thugs who have a little kid hostage. Batman does, indeed, shoot one of the thugs. But there is definitely no head shot. In fact, it seems pretty clear that he does not actually kill said thug at all.

We know this for two major reasons.

One, a few pages later, new Gotham City commissioner Ellen Yindel, notes that she will be pursuing Batman as a criminal. She states, “My first act as police commissioner will be to issue an arrest warrant for the Batman on charges of assault, breaking and entering, creating a public hazard…” Notice that she does not say murder. That would almost assuredly be the first thing that she would mention if Batman had actually killed the thug earlier.

Two, and this one is a lot more important, we see Batman attack a gathering of the gang known as the Mutants in his tank-like Batmobile, being careful to use “just” rubber bullets on the gang members. When he sets his sights on the leader of the gang, Batman thinks to himself (well, he is actually speaking to an absent Dick Grayson, but you know what I meant):

But there he IS, Dick– the Mutant leader…a kind of evil we never DREAMED of…there he is…square in my sights. And there’s only one thing to do about him that makes any sense to me — just press the trigger and blast him from the face of the Earth. Though that means crossing a line I drew for myself, thirty years ago…I just can’t think of a single reason to let him live.

There, Batman plainly states that killing the Mutant Leader would cross a line. A line he clearly has not crossed yet.

Further evidence regarding this issue comes up in the third book, “Hunt the Dark Knight,” when Batman and Joker have their final confrontation, and in the end, Batman cannot bring himself to kill the Joker. The Joker even mocks him over it and then seals Batman’s fate in the view of the public by twisting his own spine, killing himself in such a way that makes it look like Batman did kill him.

And then, in the final book in the series, “The Dark Knight Falls,” we see that the police now add murder to the charges against Batman once they find the Joker’s body.

Batman doesn’t kill anyone in the rest of the last book, so yes, as Dan suggested when he wrote in to me, Batman does not actually kill anyone in the entire Dark Knight Returns.

So, the legend is….

STATUS: False

Thanks to Dan M. for the suggestion! And thanks to Kofi Outlaw and Rob Keyes for the great Snyder quotes!

Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of films. Click here for more legends specifically about superhero films.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

6 Replies to “Did Batman Actually Kill Anyone in The Dark Knight Returns?”

  1. That doesn’t really answer the question of how the heck we’re supposed to read that first sequence. The only alternative I can see to “head shot” is “machine gun fire into the thug’s shoulder that somehow so immediately incapacitates him that he couldn’t possibly still shoot the kid.” I *guess* that’s supposed to be the answer. But when I read the scene, I just can’t convince myself that that’s what I’m seeing.

  2. And I believe this was the same director who made a big stand saying that if we didn’t like his movie, it was our fault because we don’t understand the characters like he does.

  3. Further proof that Zack Snyder doesn’t know a thing about superheroes and has no business making movies about them.

  4. I don’t think it’s false, just that Frank Miller deliberately, or accidentally, didn’t make a big deal out of it. Possibly, he regretted doing it and glossed over it and hoped for the best. There is no other explanation as to why the mutant went down, and there was a dark, blood shaped smear on the wall, and the mutant didn’t try to shoot back. I doubt after the entire affair, the mutant would have surrendered because a bullet was fired over his or her head. Possibly Frank Miller wrote it, and after publishing they received negative feedback, or some moron editor hot his panties in a bunch and demanded it retconned. But that is definitely a confirmed kill.

  5. I always thought he killed her but you are right about him not getting charged with murder till later on.

    Actually there is another possibility. Look where the bullet hole is. It is where she was holding her gun at the child in the previous image. Batman must have shot it out of her hand.

    The fact that the mutant is a girl is important too. It is out of character for him to shoot anyone but it’s unimaginable for him to execute a girl.

  6. It’s a shame actually that nearly every movie about Batman takes the easy way out and makes the character a killer, in some capacity. They completely miss the opportunity of showing the conflict and reasoning of a man committed to violence but draws the line at killing. It’s one of the defining things about the character.

    That said, the panel and Batman’s following word ballon can quite easily make one think he shot the dude in the head. Kudos to Brian for taking the time to look into it a bit more. Perhaps Snyder’s films would have worked out better if he had done the same.

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