MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Batman killed people in “The Dark Knight Returns,” which inspired Zack Snyder to have him kill in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
Many times we’ve seen filmmakers struggle with maintaining the correct tone and aesthetic for their movie. For instance, “Toy Story” was nearly canceled due to its initial tone, and the original version of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” was so dark that it was essentially 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 blueprint he followed to maintain the tone and aesthetic he wanted: Frank Miller's seminal 1986 comic book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns.”
The filmmaker 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. […] 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.”
That influence also explains why Snyder portrays Batman as so willing to kill. He again referenced “The Dark Knight Returns” in regard to Batman’s willingness 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 to ask whether that’s actually true. Does Batman even kill at all in “The Dark Knight Returns”? At closer reading, it doesn’t appear as if that's actually the case.
Snyder references a famous sequence in the second issue, "Dark Knight Triumphant," in which Batman attacks a couple of thugs who have taken a little kid hostage. Batman does, indeed, shoot one of them, but there’s definitely no head shot. In fact, it seems pretty clear he doesn’t actually kill the thug.
We know that for two major reasons: One, a few pages later, new Gotham City Commissioner Ellen Yindel, declares will pursue Batman, saying, “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 she doesn’t say murder. That would almost assuredly be the first crime she would mention had Batman actually killed the thug.
Two, and this one is a lot more important, we see Batman attack a gathering of the Mutants gang in his tank-like Batmobile, being careful to use "just" rubber bullets. When he sets his sights on the gang’s leader, Batman thinks to himself (well, actually to an absent Dick Grayson):
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, which means he hasn’t done so yet.
Further evidence regarding this issue comes up in the third issue, "Hunt the Dark Knight," when Batman and The Joker have their final confrontation. In the end, Batman can’t bring himself to kill his arch-nemesis. 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 as if the Dark Knight did it.
And then, in the final issue, "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 remainder of the issue, so yes, as Dan suggested when he wrote in to me, Batman doesn’t actually kill anyone in “The Dark Knight Returns.”
So, the legend is....
Thanks to Dan M. for the suggestion! And thanks to Kofi Outlaw and Rob Keyes for the great Snyder quotes!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.