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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a two-part animated superhero film, an adaptation of the 1986 comic book The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. It was directed by Jay Oliva, who worked as a storyboard artist on Man of Steel, Batman: Year One and Batman: Under the Red Hood. Several other Batman veterans were also involved in the film. Part 1 was released September 25, 2012, and Part 2 was released January 29, 2013. A deluxe edition combining parts 1 and 2 was released on October 8, 2013. It is the 15th film in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series.
After the death of his protégé Jason Todd, billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne was forced to retire from his Batman persona. Ten years later, Gotham City is overrun with crime and terrorized by a gang known as the Mutants. The 55-year-old Wayne maintains a friendship with 70-year-old retiring Police Commissioner James Gordon, while the Joker (Batman's archenemy) has been catatonic in Arkham Asylum since Wayne's retirement. Arkham inmate and former district attorney Harvey Dent undergoes plastic surgery to repair his disfigured face. Although he is declared sane, he quickly goes into hiding following his release. Dent's disappearance, news stories of the crime epidemic throughout the city and the memory of his parents' deaths drive Wayne to become Batman once more. He combats serious crimes, rescuing 13-year-old Carrie Kelley, but now struggles with the physical limitations of age.
Public reaction to his return is divided; Dent's psychologist, Bartholomew Wolper, blames Batman for creating his own villains. Dent resurfaces, threatening to blow up a building unless he is paid a ransom. Batman defeats Dent's henchmen, learning that the bombs will explode even if the ransom is paid; he realizes that Dent intends to kill himself. Batman disables one bomb, and the other detonates harmlessly. He defeats Dent, who reveals that although his face was repaired he still thinks of himself as Two-Face. Kelley dresses as Robin and looks for Batman, who attacks a gathering of the Mutants with a tank-like Batmobile (incapacitating most of them). The Mutant leader challenges Batman to a duel; he accepts, to prove to himself that he can win. The Mutant leader (who is in his prime) nearly kills Batman, but Kelley distracts him long enough for Batman to subdue him. The leader and many gang members are arrested. Injured, Batman returns to the Batcave with Kelley; he allows her to become his protégée (despite protest from his butler, Alfred Pennyworth).
Batman has Carrie disguise herself as a Mutant, and she lures the gang to a sewer outlet at the West River. At the Gotham City Police Department, the Mutant leader murders the mayor during negotiations. Commissioner Gordon deliberately releases the leader, providing an escape from the building, which leads to the sewer outlet. Before the amassed Mutants, Batman fights the leader in a mud pit; the mud slows the leader, removing his physical advantage, and Batman overpowers him. Seeing their leader's defeat, the Mutants divide into smaller gangs; one becomes the "Sons of Batman", a violent vigilante group. Batman's victory becomes public and the city's inhabitants are inspired to stand up against crime. Gordon retires after meeting his anti-Batman successor, Ellen Yindel. In Arkham, televised reports about Batman bring the Joker out of his catatonic state.
Feigning regret for his past, Joker convinces Wolper to take him on a talk show to tell his story; he makes plans for his escape with an old henchman, who supplies him with mind-controlling lipstick. Meanwhile, Superman, who works as a government operative in exchange for being allowed to covertly help people, is asked by the President to end Batman's vigilante activities. Framing these events is a growing hostility between the USA and the Soviet Union over possession of the island of Corto Maltese. As Batman's continued presence humiliates the national authorities, Yindel becomes commissioner and orders Batman's arrest, and Superman warns Batman that the government will not tolerate him much longer.
Joker makes his talk show appearance as Batman fights with the GCPD on the studio roof; while they fight, Joker kills Wolper, gasses everyone in the studio to death and escapes. He finds Selina Kyle and uses one of her escorts and his lipstick to take control of a congressional representative, who calls for a nuclear strike on the Soviets before falling to his death. Batman's investigation leads him to Kyle, whom he finds bound and dressed like Wonder Woman. Kelley notices cotton candy on the floor, and Batman deduces that Joker is at the fairgrounds. There Kelley accidentally kills Joker's henchman while Batman pursues the Joker, who indiscriminately guns down dozens of people. As Batman corners a wounded and partially blinded Joker, he admits to feeling responsible for every murder Joker has committed and intends to stop him permanently. In the ensuing fight, Joker stabs Batman repeatedly, and Batman breaks Joker's neck in front of witnesses.
Content that he made Batman lose control and that he will be branded a murderer, the Joker finishes twisting his neck, killing himself, ultimately brings an end of their conflict. The GCPD arrive and Batman, bleeding profusely, fights his way to Kelley and escapes. After Superman deflects a Soviet nuclear missile, he is hit with the blast and badly injured; the detonation creates an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out all electrical equipment in the United States and causes a nuclear winter. As the city descends into chaos, Batman, Kelley and Gordon rally the Sons of Batman and the citizens of Gotham to restore order, and Yindel accepts that Batman has become too powerful to take down. While the rest of the powerless U.S. is overrun with crime, Gotham becomes the safest city in America, embarrassing the President's administration and prompting them to send Superman to finally stop Batman. Batman and Superman agree to meet in Crime Alley.
Wearing a powerful exoframe and supported by Kelley and former Green Arrow Oliver Queen, Batman fights Superman, using various tactics to make the fight even. When Superman gains the advantage, Queen hits him with an arrow made with synthetic Kryptonite, severely weakening him. Batman defeats Superman, and claims that he intentionally made the Kryptonite weak, to defeat Superman without killing him. Batman then apparently dies of a heart attack, while Wayne Manor self-destructs, and Alfred dies of a stroke. In the aftermath, the world learns that Wayne was Batman; all of his secrets are destroyed with the manor and his finances disappear. As Superman leaves Wayne's funeral, he gives Kelley a knowing wink after hearing a faint heartbeat coming from Wayne's coffin. In underground caves, Wayne is revealed to have faked his death and makes preparations to continue his mission more discreetly, allied with Kelley, Queen, and his followers.