When you think of Batman now, an image comes to mind. Gravelly voiced, lurking in the shadows, the Dark Knight is one of the most iconic figures in cinema and literature, but when did he go from the costumed Batman to simply the Dark Knight? Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is genesis.
Created in 1986 Miller’s work is still stunning today. All subsequent renderings of Batman have been influenced by it and the latest trailer for Batman vs. Superman looks to draw from it directly. It begins with a beautiful written statement, reminiscing about the vigilante heroes that used to keep Gotham and the world in check. It goes over various heroes including Superman before stopping at ‘the one they don’t talk about’ The mean one.
This scene setter lets us know what is to come. Before this, the popular vision of Batman was from the successful Adam West series. I am not going to ridicule and run down this series, because in the end, it is what kept Batman in the public eye for many years. It was a product of the time and should be remembered as such. However it was not, what many of us believe Batman to be. What Miller did was add a dose of realism to the story that has remained to this day. If we think about it logically, Batman ,beats his enemies up. If you hit someone in the jaw, there’s a good chance you will break it. This simple truth runs through the story.
The Dark Knight Returns is broken into four sections, each was released as a standalone comic before the collected graphic novel came out. Each quarter is a standalone section, which deals with a different story under the overall arc. The first deals with Batman as he is now. Retired, middle-aged and bordering on passive-aggressive. He sits, watching the ruin that Gotham city has become, but resists donning the cape and redoing his old work. He meets with an old commissioner Gordon and they think back to the old days. He lives the life of Bruce Wayne, but all the while you feel the tension building within him. There is a new street gang, The Mutants, terrorising the city, seemingly because they are the bored, disaffected youth. They carry out increasingly, horrific acts, which are brought to the reader in the way of news reports. In the meantime Harvey Dent has been transformed by plastic surgery and is being rehabilitated into society. These incidents are preying on Wayne’s mind and through cutbacks to his current state we feel the tension building. Finally he snaps and through the imagery of a bat crashing through his window Batman returns.
The best piece of the following section is again the realism that Miller brings to the piece. Batman complains about his joints aching and how he feels too old for this. What we also see is the clearly defined mean streak, that has been present in the latest generation of Batman movies. In Miller’s work, Batman enjoys hurting the criminals he catches. In one early encounter he stalks his prey before revealing his thoughts. He knows many ways to incapacitate the criminal. Most of them are fatal but one hurts a lot. Staying true to character he picks the second option. You see despite the realism Miller injects, he stays true to the character, he wears the same costume as the Adam West show, but now his physical presence makes it a menacing costume rather than a fancy dress.
With the return of Batman we get a build-up to a confrontation with the mutant leader. During this section the news reports start to question if Batman is the cause of these villains or the solution. Again this is a theme that is explored in recent superhero films, not just Batman. Basically, would there be supervillains if there were no superheroes?
Robin is also an interesting relationship Miller looks at. In TDKR the ‘new’ Robin is a young girl who is saved by Batman from the Mutants. In effect he has not only created supervillains, but his own sidekick. She provides a useful foil throughout and is a more effective character than a male Robin. The female Robin never seems petulant or looks to take over from her mentor, like the traditional male stereotype and they form an effective team.
In 1986 the idea of the consequences of a superhero in a city had not been explored fully and indeed is only being used as a recurring theme now in the Nolan Batman films and the Marvel expanded universe. he use of the media in the story angers the reader but it was a forerunner to superhero culture. Here however it has a secondary purpose. It allows, the reintroduction of the Joker.
The Joker as a character is just as important as Batman. Jared Leto’s recent image, of his portrayal as the Suicide Squad’s Joker caused internet meltdown as this Verge article shows. People hold this character very close to their heart as he is a direct reflection of Batman. When Adam West was Batman, the Joker was equally as funny and slapstick. With Nicholson we have the Joker responding to the witty one liners of Michael Keaton’s Batman with his own zingers. Most recently we have the iconic portrayal by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight film. Each time the Joker has mirrored the type of Batman we had. With a Batman as serious and violent as Christian Bale’s, we got the psychotic and hyper-realistic Ledger performance. In Miller’s piece, the Joker has also retired in a way. He is in a mute state in an asylum. Only when Batman starts appearing on the news, does the Joker reawaken and go on a new reign of terror. This time their confrontation is climactic. Batman hunts the Joker down and beats him to the point of paralysis, then in his final act the Joker breaks his own neck to frame Batman for his murder.
In endgame of the story we explore Batman’s relationship with Superman. Superman has a background presence throughout and is the opposing view to Batman. In this case, Superman has become the puppet of the US government. Perhaps in a satire of the time, he is off fighting wars single-handedly while Batman toils in Gotham. In the end Superman is sent to stop Batman but he is ready. This conflict between the two leading DC comics superheroes is borne out of fan loyalty. For me Superman was always an aloof hero who didn’t excite me as a child or interest me as an adult. For this reason I always leant towards the grounded Batman, from this Miller feels the same way. The conflict between the two will hi the big screens next year as DC attempt to expand their universe like Marvel’s. From early trailers this looks to be lifted straight from Miller’s work. It will be interesting to see the evolution of the Dark Knight continue. If not for this masterpiece, there would be no Dark Knight today.
Batman fans, have you read this? If so what are your thoughts?