Over time the storyarc has been retitled by DC as The Dark Knight Returns in modern trade paperbacks.
The Dark Knight is set in a dystopian near-future version of Gotham City. The year is never specified, though it has been a full decade since the last reported sighting of Batman. Society has lost faith in the functioning of justice, and the current American President, named only Dickard, and whose appearance seems to be a reference to Ronald Reagan, constantly tries to keep the social order with optimistic discourses, while the Cold War is still ongoing. Virtually all superheroes, with the exception of Superman, have been forced by governmental authorities into retirement or otherwise driven away by a distrusting populace. Bruce Wayne has voluntarily retired from crime fighting following the death (under unspecified circumstances) of Jason Todd, the second Robin. In the absence of superheroes, criminals run amok, and a gang called the Mutants terrorize Gotham City.
The return of an old enemy prompts a now 55-year-old Wayne to don the Batman costume once again. Despite Wayne's funding his rehabilitation, including plastic surgery to restore his half-disfigured face, Harvey "Two-Face" Dent has seemingly returned to crime. Batman apprehends Dent, but the populace debates whether Batman's brand of vigilantism has any place in society. The media plays a large role in DKR, with the narrative broken up by news reports and "talking head" editorials debating events in the story as they unfold.
After Batman saves her from a Mutant attack, 13-year-old Carrie Kelly buys herself a knock-off Robin costume, and searches for Batman to aid him. She finds Batman at the city dump, where he is fighting the Mutants. The Mutants' leader defeats Batman in combat, but Kelly distracts him and pulls Batman into the tank-like Batmobile . Kelly attends to Batman’s wounds as the vehicle drives toward the Batcave . Once home, Batman takes Carrie on as the new Robin despite his butler Alfred's objections. With the help of retiring Commissioner James Gordon, the Mutants' leader is allowed to escape from jail, and Batman beats him in a mud fight in front of the assembled gang, which then disbands as a result of his humiliation. Some former Mutants create a new gang, the "Sons of the Batman," using extremely violent methods (up to and including murder) to "purge" Gotham of its criminal element in what they see as emulation of Batman's actions.
Meanwhile, the return of Batman has caused one of his oldest and deadliest foes, The Joker, to awaken from a years-long catatonic state at Arkham Asylum . The Joker convinces his psychiatrist, Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, that he is sane and regrets his misdeeds. Seeking to discredit Batman, whom he has crusaded against in the media, Wolper appears with the Joker on a late-night show. While the police, now led by the anti-vigilante Commissioner Ellen Yindel, attack Batman, the Joker murders everyone in the television studio (including Wolper) and escapes. Batman and Robin track the Joker to a county fair, where Batman defeats Joker in a violent showdown. Batman stops short of killing the Joker; however, the Joker finishes the job himself, twisting his own broken neck, with the intent that the police will charge Batman with murder. Batman escapes, but not before another confrontation with the Gotham police, and a citywide manhunt is now on for the Caped Crusader.
After Superman diverts a Russian nuclear warhead which then detonates in a desert, millions of tons of dust and debris fill the atmosphere, and Gotham descends into chaos during the resulting blackout. Batman and Robin train former Mutants and the brutal Sons of the Batman in non-lethal fighting to stop looting and ensure the flow of needed supplies. In the midst of nuclear winter conditions, Gotham becomes the safest city in America; the U.S. government, seeing this as a credibility-undermining embarrassment, orders Superman to take Batman down. Having been warned of the government's plans by Oliver Queen, the former Green Arrow, Batman confronts Superman. Symbolically, their duel takes place in Crime Alley, where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered decades earlier. Batman defeats Superman in a well planned fight, but dies from a heart attack immediately afterward. After his funeral, it is revealed that his death was staged as an elaborate ruse; Clark Kent attends the funeral and gives Robin a knowing wink after hearing Bruce's heartbeat as he leaves the grave site, suggesting his silent approval of what will happen next. Alfred destroys the Batcave and Wayne Manor and suffers a fatal stroke. Some time afterward, Batman leads Robin, Green Arrow, and the rest of his followers into the caverns beyond the Batcave and prepares to continue his fight. His plan, which will take years of training and studying, is to build an army, and to bring sense to a world plagued by something "worse than thieves and murderers". He decides that this will be a good life — good enough.
The original indicia of each issue states that the series was titled Batman: The Dark Knight. Several early collected editions also left out the words Returns from the cover title.
- A homage to The Dark Knight #1 appears in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "The Rise of the Blue Beetle!", appearing on the bedroom wall of Jamie Reyes/Blue Beetle.
- It adapted into a segment of the episode "Legends of the Dark Knight" of Batman: The Animated Series.
- The story was made into a two-part animated feature, see: Part 1 and Part 2.
- Plot points from the comic were referred to several times in the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight Rises:
- During the chase against Bane during his heist at the Gotham Stock Exchange, one of the senior cops after Batman got involved told his partner "We're in for a show tonight!" which was taken directly from the comic, also used during a chase sequence that Batman became involved in.
- Batman's eight-year retirement was similar to Batman's ten-year retirement in the comic. Both times Batman also re-emerged after a grave threat emerged against Gotham.
- Batman's first and second confrontations with Bane were similar to his fights against the Mutant Leader, where Batman's initial attempts at directly overpowering the Mutant Leader resulted in his being nearly killed, and his second attempt had him fighting in a more strategic manner and overpowering his nemesis.
- In both the film and the mini-series, Batman fakes his own demise and has Gotham, with the exception of those close to him, believing that Bruce Wayne is dead.
- The 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice features several more references:
- Bruce Wayne is middle-aged.
- Robin's costume is on display in the Batcave as a memorial. In the miniseries, Batman refers to the Joker being the killer of his partner while in the film the costume is covered in what is presumably Joker's graffiti.
- The Batsuits Bruce wears in the film are based on the designs from the miniseries. The default suit features a large Bat-emblem across the chest and a cowl with short ears. In both stories he dons an exoskeleton for his showdown with Superman. Weaponized kryptonite is utilized during the confrontation with the Man of Steel.
- There is a line of dialogue from Alfred where he refers to the next generation of Waynes, and then subsequently voices doubt that there will be one (due to Bruce's dangerous life as Batman and the absence of any female companionship).
- When Batman comes to the rescue of a captive (a toddler from a wealthy family in the comic; Martha Kent in the film) a captor vows to Batman that he will kill the hostage. Batman utters "I believe you" and then shoots the captor to free the victim.
- Superman comes into contact with a nuclear missile and is severely incapacitated when it explodes.
- Batman: The Dark Knight (1986), comicbookdb.com
- January, 27 1986 DC 'DARK KNIGHT' press release, ProgressiveRuin.com
- Howe, Sean (August 20, 2014). "After His Public Donwfall, Sin City's Frank Miller Is Back (And Not Sorry)", Wired.com. "That anxiety would fuel Miller's Dark Knight, which reimagined Batman as an embittered, bristle-haired 55-year-old ready for punks to make his day. Published in 1986, the year Miller and Varley married, it became a pop culture phenomenon, garnering lavish coverage from Rolling Stone and Spin. Reviewers and readers were particularly drawn to the dark reinterpretation of its campy source material. Along with Alan Moore's Watchmen, released the same year, Dark Knight gave comics a new respectability and gave the medium exposure beyond the dingy confines of news-stands and specialty stores."