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[Source: Wikipedia] The Dark Knight Returns is set in a dystopian near-future version of Gotham City. A year is never specified, though it has been a full decade since the last reported sighting of Batman, the current American President appears to be Ronald Reagan or someone using his image, and the Cold War is still ongoing. Virtually all superheroes, with the exception of Superman, have been forced 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 terrorizes 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 Kelley 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 Kelley distracts him long enough for Batman to pacify him and Kelley pulls Batman into the tank-like Batmobile. Kelley attends to Batman’s wounds as the vehicle drives toward the Batcave. Once home, Batman takes Carrie on as the new Robin despite the objections of his butler, Alfred. 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. The Mutants disband as a result of his humiliation, forming several smaller gangs, one of which, the "Sons of the Batman," uses extremely violent methods (up to and including murder) to "purge" Gotham of its criminal element in what they see as emulation of Batman's methods.
Meanwhile, the return of Batman causes his oldest and deadliest foe, 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 talk 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. He finds Selina Kyle, and after finding out what he wants from her gags her, beats her, dresses her in a Wonder Woman costume, and binds her with a gold-covered rope. Batman and Robin free her, and track the Joker to a county fair, where he has already murdered many people. Batman defeats Joker in a violent showdown but stops short of killing him; however, the Joker twists his own broken neck, seemingly 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, Gotham is hit by an electromagnetic pulse, and 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 (with the help of Green Arrow and a kryptonite-tipped arrow), but dies from a heart attack immediately afterward. Alfred destroys the Batcave and Wayne Manor and suffers a fatal stroke.
After Bruce's funeral, it is revealed that his death was staged as an elaborate ruse; Clark Kent (Superman) 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. 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."