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Superman and 'The Dark Knight Returns' are a bad combination

Published: Thursday, Aug. 1 2013 4:47 p.m. MDT

Henry Cavill, left, and director Zack Snyder on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures action adventure "Man of Steel" a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Clay Enos, Warner Brothers

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"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."

Those were the words of a grizzled, 55-year-old Batman to Superman, who had become a government lackey in his later years. They were taken from Frank Miller's seminal 1986 graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns," and they were quoted by the producers of the upcoming Superman/Batman movie announced at San Diego's annual ComicCon last month. Most fans greeted the announcement with unqualified enthusiasm.

I wasn't one of them.

That's not to say I'm not eager to see everyone's two favorite superheroes sharing the silver screen. And as DC Comics tries to replicate the collective cinematic universe expertly managed by its Marvel rivals, a Batman/Superman team-up is the next logical step. But if DC is determined to use "The Dark Knight Returns" as its template, then it's going to end up shooting itself in the foot.

To begin with, "The Dark Knight Returns" is almost exclusively a Batman story, with very little Superman in it. Considering that this is going to be a direct follow-up to "Man of Steel," it makes no sense to continue Superman's story by making him a supporting character in his own franchise. In addition, the Superman in "Returns" is portrayed as a sellout and a joke, and he only serves as a prop to highlight the author's outdated anti-Reagan sentiments. Both the character and his fans deserve better than that.

Plus it's not as if we haven't gotten enough of "Returns" inspired movies at our local cineplexes these last few years. All three of the Christopher Nolan Batman films borrow heavily from the "Returns" playbook, especially in their vision of a dark, dystopian Gotham City and Batman's bleak approach to fighting crime. In fact, just about every superhero film in the last 25 years owes a tremendous debt to "The Dark Knight Returns," which marked the transition from the lighthearted and often silly Silver Age of Comics to a more real-world approach to costumed crimefighters.

The result is a genre that's more grounded in reality but now lacks much of the playfulness and fun that drew many of us geeks to comic books in the first place. Superman's appeal has always come from brighter places than Batman usually frequents. Where Batman broods, Superman soars. One of the reasons Superman and Batman complement each other so well is that they're yin to each other's yang. Superman serves as the beacon of light in contrast to the grim and gritty Dark Knight. Teaming up these two icons is a tricky business, and I'm not convinced that this creative team fully appreciates that.

Granted, the producers insist that the new movie will only be "inspired" by Miller's groundbreaking comic, and they promise that the storyline won't be a beat-for-beat retelling of that particular tale. But that inspiration only gets them halfway. To do Superman well, it would be wise to look where the light is. Doing justice to both characters requires a deftness and tonal balance that has heretofore eluded Zack Snyder, the director who helmed the overly bombastic reboot of "Man of Steel" and who is slated to direct the sequel. If he's determined to lift all of his next moves from the "Dark Knight Returns "playbook, that all but guarantees he'll be fumbling around in the dark. That will kill the nascent Superman franchise with far more finality than any kryptonite ever could.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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