This week: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s groundbreaking 1986 miniseries that thrust Batman back in the spotlight and served as major inspiration for Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
The Dark Knight Returns plot summary: The time is the mid-’80s. Ronald Reagan is president of the United States, the Cold War is heating up, and the Batman hasn’t been seen in 10 years. Bruce Wayne has aged in more-or-less real time since his debut in 1939, and now a gruff, weathered 55-year-old, he tries to live a life of wealthy leisure while still struggling with the gnawing guilt planted deep in his soul by his parents’ murders. Bruce is compelled to return to action when a healed, seemingly rehabilitated Harvey “Two-Face” Dent returns to a life of crime, signaling the rebirth of Batman and reigniting the media discussion around his vigilantism and the way the government has addressed it. Batman gains a new female Robin in 13-year-old girl Carrie Kelly, and together they take on the mutant gang that terrorizes Gotham City, the police that want to arrest Batman, and the Joker and his goons. After the detonation of a Russian bomb that creates a doomsday scenario for the United States, Batman and the U.S. government’s primary deterrent, Superman, come to blows in Crime Alley. That battle ends with the death of Bruce Wayne, but in classic Batman fashion, the hero has an escape plan that publicly kills Bruce Wayne so the Dark Knight can live on underground.
Oliver Sava: For better and worse, The Dark Knight Returns (DKR) changed the course of superhero comics. Debuting in February of 1986, Frank Miller’s four-part miniseries offered a bold reinterpretation of Batman and his world, one that aggressively worked to shatter the popular perception of the character created by the Batman TV series of the ’60s. Gone was the campy, simplistic do-gooder, replaced by a severe, craggy middle-aged man haunted by his past and forced to become increasingly brutal to protect his dystopian city, and Miller dove deep into the darkest recesses of Bruce Wayne’s psyche to accentuate this character shift. It made Batman a more complex, scary, relevant character, but the success of DKR ushered in a wave of copycats that sent superhero comics spinning down a grim and gritty spiral, sucking the fun out of a genre that was built on the idea of men and women putting on colorful costumes and having fanciful adventures as they fought equally colorful evil-doers.
The iconic cover for the miniseries’ first issue immediately establishes that this is not the vibrant world of Batman’s past, showing Batman in silhouette leaping against a deep blue background, lit solely by the white streak of lightning behind him. The image reminds me of the Thomas Randolph quote popularized by Kurt Busiek in his Thunderbolts run at Marvel a decade after DKR: “Justice, like lightning, ever should appear / to few men ruin, but to all men fear.” Batman is that lightning bolt of justice in Miller’s story, emerging from the darkness to take down criminals with devastating force, and few artists capture the physical power of Batman like Miller, giving him a bulkier frame that compensates for a lack of speed with an increase in raw strength. Batman’s body is more forceful, but so is his mind, and Miller brings all of Bruce Wayne’s personal trauma to the forefront of his character, offering a portrait of a man obsessed with stopping crime because he can’t escape the memory of his parents murders, an event he’ll never be able to stop no matter how hard and how long he fights to protect Gotham.
Joined by the outstanding team of inker Klaus Janson, colorist Lynn Varley, and letterer John Costanzo, Miller makes DKR an extremely confident artistic statement, and there’s no denying the craft on display in these pages. On a structural level, Miller gives himself a big challenge by telling the story on a 16-panel grid, and he uses it create a claustrophobic atmosphere while setting a brisk pace for the hefty amount of story. This series is a dense read, and Miller is able to pack all that material into four 48-page issues because of that tight grid, which provides him the space to explore narrative tangents involving the media’s coverage of Batman as well as his influence on the common people of Gotham. Miller has a clear disdain for the rise of TV news pundits, and he incorporates segment of TV footage throughout the series to inject some humor into the story while also commenting on how these outlets sensationalize the truth when they’re not feeding the public total bullshit. The 16-panel grid offers plenty of space for these jumps to the TV, and the way those small square screens interrupt the action emphasizes the pervasive presence of these shows and their hosts in society, which feels even more timely 30 years later.
Caitlin, are there any other elements of DKR that you feel have become even more relevant in the time since its publication? What hasn’t aged as well? And how do you feel about Miller as the defining influence on the modern Batman?
Caitlin Rosberg: I think Miller’s attitude toward opaque government is one of the most evergreen elements of DKR. His absolute disgust with politicians and their handlers oozes off the pages, and his portrayal of Reagan is particularly telling. There’s a lot of hypocrisy to pick apart, places where a lack of transparency and dictatorial attitudes are accepted from some characters but not others, but by and large Miller outright rejects politicians altogether, and I think that’s something to take very seriously in light of where we’re at now politically. There’s also a clear fetishization of the trappings of fascism that I think is important to discuss in the context of modern politics, a desire to let someone else lead and decide in order to fight off the invisible “evil” around us. I went to graduate school specifically to talk about DKR and its role in the shifting attitude toward anti-heroes and how that reflected on political realities and histories at the time, so I could go on about that topic for hours if no one stops me.
The thing that really doesn’t hold up well in DKR and frankly most of Miller’s work, is any character that isn’t a white guy. Female characters are relegated to mother, maiden, or crone as exemplified by Sarah Gordon, Carrie Kelly, and Selina Kyle respectively; every woman, even hypothetical ones threatened by the mutants, is also blatantly used as fridge fodder. Carrie and Commissioner Ellen Yindel are both confused for men and dressed in classically masculine clothing for most of the book, but they are also both on the receiving end of some classic “but she’s a woman, it’s too dangerous” objections. Bruno, I hope it goes without saying, is incredibly problematic and I hope to never see something like that character, or the way she’s treated, ever again. Similarly, the few mentions of people of color, and even fewer actual appearances, aren’t done with any real indication that Miller thinks people of color exist in the same reality he does, with maybe the exception of the racist and litigious man who ends up in a neck brace in the fourth issue.
As for the legacy of DKR, I have mixed feelings about the book but I wouldn’t want to give up the things it inspired. Without DKR, I doubt we would have Batman Beyond or Snyder and Capullo’s excellent but soon-to-end Batman run, which shares more than a few commonalities with DKR. As much as I dislike the truly terrible parts of DKR, I would argue that this book in particular can be credited with helping to establish comic books as a medium to be taken seriously as literature by fans and academics alike.
Shea, with where the industry is at right now, do you think the impact and influence DKR has had on popular culture has increased or faded over time? Do you have an example of something inspired or influenced by DKR that’s a particular favorite?
Shea Hennum: The only thing more influential on modern superhero comics is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. I wouldn’t say that DKR’s influence has faded over the years, but I’d also hesitate to say that it’s increased. I can’t think of another Batman comic so widely and universally recommended and praised and defended, but it’s not as if that adoration is a new phenomenon. Oliver opened us up by saying that DKR changed the course of comics forever, and I don’t think any of us—whether we like the book or not—would disagree. Without this particular brand of superheroics, it’s hard to imagine people like Brian Michael Bendis or Mark Millar or Ed Brubaker having a space for them in superhero comics.
What is irksome about DKR’s influence, however, is what people like to take from it. Frank Miller isn’t Ingmar Bergman, or Alejandro Jodorowsky, or even Kathryn Bigelow—he didn’t toil away in commercial obscurity churning out these amazing, interesting works that only critics or other artists saw. He’s Michael Bay. His comics made such a splash, and so quickly, and in such a populist sphere of the industry, that the only thing publishers were interested in replicating was the sales. And how did they plan to do that? By replicating the superficiality. No one steals DKR’s 16-panel grid or the nuance or complexity of Lynn Varley’s colors or the aggressive, painterly inks of Klaus Janson. No one steals the meta-mediation of the television-as-panel, which is this compelling meditation on the way mass-communication catalyzes and then shapes a discourse.
What makes the book so worth revisiting are these textural things, these little details that Miller fills his Gotham City with. For example, re-reading the book for this, I was amazed at how quickly and effectively Miller was able to sell the Joker having a physical, sexual obsession with Batman. It’s one word and one drawing, but it works so well. It’s frustrating how little people look to what makes this book actually compelling, instead opting to use the colors brown and grey a lot or uncritically riff on its violence and brutality. It’s not dissimilar from how everyone read Watchmen and thought “A-ha! What this Challengers of the Unknown comic needs is more sexual violence!”
My favorite reflection on DKR is Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law: Kingdom of the Blind because of that. In Kingdom of the Blind, Mills and O’Neill hit on a lot of the criticism you had of Miller’s Batman, Caitlin. Their pastiche is a sadomasochistic sociopath who explicitly lauds fascism, and they hyperbolize Batman putting children in danger by having their character drain his wards’ blood to stay young. They took that now-archetypal Batman and talked about him in a critical and compelling way.
J.A., I mentioned my love—or at least my fascination—with Miller’s choral, television-as-panel refrains, but people usually cite this is an aspect of the book that hasn’t really aged well. For you, does this technique, or the density of Miller’s storytelling in general, elevate or the stymie the book?
J. A. Micheline: I won’t lie. Reading The Dark Knight Returns is a slog and a lot of it has to do with the structure. I can appreciate Miller’s critique of mass media and its role in society, but panel after panel of text-heavy reporting does not make for a great comics experience. It’s tiring to read. And maybe some will say that I’m just not hardcore comics enough to either get what Miller was trying to do or stick through the exhaustion to understand his point, but to be blunt, if I wanted to read 16 text-heavy panels 200 times over, I’d just skip straight to prose. Or actually, I’d just watch the cartoon.
My first experience with The Dark Knight Returns was maybe four years ago and I was just as tired reading it in 2012 as I am now. But not too long after that, I also watched DC’s two-part animation. It’s definitely an imperfect adaptation, but I immediately noticed how much better the media critique came across in the animated format. It works better because that’s the way we consume the type of media DKR was critiquing. It’s much more natural than blocks of text that don’t really mimic the actual experience. Much less tiring.
Of course there’s a conversation here about the work required to enjoy a piece of art and whether that work is worth it. After all, this element’s ultimate point—which is, as Oliver says, that television networks are part of the arsenal used to subdue the populace and reinforce a particular status quo—is one that not only stands but has become increasingly relevant as time has gone by. But the problem is that the additional work required doesn’t contribute to the overall experience. If I’m working harder than usual to read a comic, there’s got to be a thematic or narrative reason. Why are you making me do this? It can’t just be “well, the content is good.” There’s got to be a point in making me work if the same points can be conveyed in a more streamlined format. Complexity for complexity’s sake is both frustrating and boring.
Shea, you’re right in that there’s a lot of untapped wealth in DKR, but I wouldn’t count either the sixteen-panel grid or the extensive adaptation of television among them.
We’ve talked a lot about influence on the present comics landscape, but I’m actually interested in the role of this comic as an ahistorical entity. I can see what it did for comics going forward, the good and the bad, but let’s abandon the legacy and influence for a second. Time is linear but, as Rust Cohle would tell you, it’s also a flat circle. DKR exists now, at the same time as the comics it’s influenced do, which means that many readers will get to those well before they ever get to this. I certainly did.
The comics community often lauds DKR as a must-read because it changed the shape of superhero comics forever, but now I’m wondering. Oliver, what do you think DKR accomplished that makes it so untouchable? What did it do that later comics haven’t done better?
OS: It’s all about subtext. Miller dives deep into the underlying themes that define Bruce Wayne and Batman (as well as Superman and assorted key villains) and pulls them up to the surface, making DKR a comprehensive character study that is aligned with what came before, but far more ambitious and severe in how it approaches the psychological material. It’s one of the earliest attempts at superhero deconstruction, and it’s still one of the strongest, largely because that heavy narration really puts you inside Bruce’s head. That’s not a pleasant place to be, and I do wonder if Miller intended to exhaust his audience with how oppressive Bruce’s mindset is.
I don’t completely agree with J.A. on the structure, and while I do definitely find it laborious at time, there are moments where it works very well to show just how tormented Bruce is by his childhood trauma. I’m primarily thinking of the mostly silent two page sequence in issue #1 where Bruce remembers his parents’ murder, a scene we’ve seen over and over and over again in Batman stories, but rarely with the impact Miller brings to it in both DKR and Batman: Year One. The two page DKR sequence emphasizes how Bruce has dissected every little detail of that event and relives them so often that they haven’t been dulled at all in his memory. The pacing doesn’t always work, but Miller clearly has a very specific idea in mind for what the pace should be, and for me that’s the best influence of DKR on superhero comics. The one-two punch of DKR’s 16-panel grid and Watchmen’s 9-panel grid inspired creators to start paying more attention to how panels are laid out and how that affects the storytelling, inspiring them to put more effort into the structure of their books.
As Shea mentioned, a big problem with the superhero comics that arrived in the wake of DKR was that they mostly imitated the superficial elements of the story; artists redesigned characters to give them an edgier appearance, violence became more graphic, and tortured heroes became the norm. Miller’s Batman stood out because other major Marvel and DC superheroes hadn’t been interpreted with this level of darkness and grit before, but that grim transformation lost impact as more and more heroes went through it. I think the ultimate failed imitation of DKR is Kaare Andrews’ Spider-Man: Reign, a comic that is probably most famous for having Mary Jane Watson-Parker die from cancer after being exposed to her husband’s radioactive sperm. Andrews mimics DKR’s art style and bleak, overtly political story, but he’s just hitting the same beats as Miller and company with Spider-Man characters, making the whole endeavor feel hollow no matter how much Andrews tries to shock the reader.
This is my third time reading DKR after being introduced to it in high school and revisiting it in college, and the biggest change I’ve noticed in my reaction is that I don’t side with Batman in this story anymore. He may not kill, but violence just begets more violence, and Miller’s refusal of rehabilitation as a viable solution to Gotham’s problems says a lot about the U.S.’s broken mental health care system. Caitlin, how do you feel about this aspect of DKR? Do you see any merits in Batman’s approach to dealing with Gotham’s criminal element?
CR: I joke that my theme song should be “Unpopular Opinions and Complicated Emotions”, but DKR and in particular its portrayal of violence and mental illness could make me write a whole musical score. I want to believe that Miller was trying to say something about the way that Reagan-era politics criminalized mental illness, in particular for homeless veterans and marginalized populations, but I honestly don’t believe he’s capable of that kind of empathy. DKR is just deeply, cripplingly cynical about everything. He portrays mental illness as incurable, believing people either revel in like the Joker or succumb to it despite themselves, like Harvey Dent and Batman. Even the hero is obsessive and emotionally stunted in much the same way Dent is, but because his inner demons help people (for the most part) he has enough support, or at least enough people turning blind eyes, to keep doing what he’s doing. His behavior is just as driven by fascistic instincts and cult of personality as the head mutant’s or Harvey’s, but it’s O.K. because he’s a hero.
This cynicism is one of the weakest parts of Miller’s work overall, not just in DKR. When I first read DKR at 19, this belief that everything was irrevocably broken seemed grown up and sexy. The idea that there was always death waiting and the only difference was if you got a “good” one or not was powerful. A decade later I just feel sad for both Miller and his Batman.
What’s always struck me about Batman isn’t actually that he’s alone or dour or even particularly dark, it’s that the character is founded not on fear, but hope. He wants to scare criminals into not doing crime anymore, but Batman is at the heart of things a scared little boy, frozen in time, hoping desperately that he can change things for the better so no one has to suffer the way he has. More so than many other comic book characters, Batman builds himself a family, a supporting cast that happily and readily takes on his mission to cure his city of violence by not stooping to the same level as everyone else. While Miller does keep the character’s distaste for guns, he wallows in orgiastic violence, forgetting that Batman is first and foremost the world’s greatest detective, not the world’s greatest brawler. Arkham Asylum exists and continues to be populated because Batman and his Bat-fam believe that there is a chance for everyone to be redeemed, but Miller is stuck obsessively insisting that there is no cure for mental illness or crime (perhaps that they’re one in the same), and that the only way to succeed is for Batman to live forever. I don’t think Batman himself would believe that, on his good days.
I’m not entirely sure I understand what it is about this character that lends itself to cynicism. Miller clearly puts his own stamp on Superman, and later Wonder Woman as well, but they’re not nearly as bitter and distrustful as his Batman. Shea, why do you think Batman is the character of choice, not only for DKR but this continuing trend of dark, pessimistic storytelling?
SH: For this book specifically, I think Batman represented a character who was perfectly suited to Miller’s own sensibilities. Here, Batman is an out and out fascist character, but it’s not Miller bringing that to the table. Batman’s history is one that explicitly privileges law and order over things like individual liberties, trial by jury, due process—all the hallmarks of a liberal, democratic criminal justice system. Even the Batman of Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come has as his superheroic telos the mass surveillance nation state policed by incorruptible and ever vigilant robots.
More emblematic of Miller’s politics, though, and what sets this book apart from other works that explicate that subtext, is that his Batman isn’t wrong. His Batman is right and good and just what the world needs. DKR is full of these little moments that not-so subtly deride anyone who would criticize Batman’s means or ends. Anyone who thinks Batman is the cause of his villains’ mental illness is killed. Any innocent bystander who thinks Gotham City needs to have more faith in democratic institutions: ”Oh, well, I would never live in Gotham City.” And this is a theme that recurs throughout Miller’s body of work—this militaristic right-wing fear/disgust/loathing/hatred of the unknown or the unwillingness to risk harm by allowing the unknown to persist.
So the very subtext of the character gives Batman a certain facility to parse certain subjects. I’m sure Christopher Nolan, whose Batman is similarly a Platonic Philosopher King, felt that same tug that Miller felt. On the other hand, I think writers and cartoonists (filmmakers like Tim Burton, too) have introjected this pablum about Batman having these sadomasochistic tendencies or about how he and his rogues gallery are these complex psychological case studies, which ascribes the characters far more depth than they’ve ever really been written with. Your question is difficult for me to answer because of that, because I do think a long period of self-mythologizing has turned public perception of Batman into this thing that can really only function, or exists to function, in this one mode. And so people keep telling these stories in that mode. It’s like asking why so many people put ketchup on french fries, I guess. Someone started doing it, and now everyone just pairs the two in their mind without even thinking about it, and that leads to them engaging in this behavior that further cements in their mind and perpetuates this pairing.
Part of it goes back to what I was saying earlier. This book was so hugely successful and influential that it essentially created the modern Batman archetype. Now, because Frank Miller found a suitable avatar for his interests and ideas, people (or too many people, at least) can only think within that framework.
J.A., Superman has been alluded to a couple times but we haven’t really talked about him. What do you make of Miller’s inclusion of Superman (his asides taking us far afield of Gotham City and the main Batman thread) and this particular Batman/Superman dynamic?
JAM: I’m not as well versed in comics history as others, but if DKR is the reason we got grim and gritty takes on comics, I’m willing to bet it’s also the reason so many people (people who don’t read comics regularly, even!) decide they aren’t into Superman. It’s an inherited thought, like the way you’re talking about ketchup and fries, and it’s actually a combination of all the stuff you guys just talked about. All of these elements—extreme violence, distaste/lack of empathy for mental illness, cynicism, and general grimdark—produce a narrative environment in which it is very difficult for a Superman-like character to exist without seeming either hollow or naive. And that’s exactly the critique you end up with in DKR; per the creative team, Clark is not just naive, but the pawn of an empty government. He is purported to be more interested in the image of justice than its practice, provided you agree with Bruce’s take as being justice. He exists in the comic to be beaten and broken, to be found wanting in comparison to a Batman who is more in tune with what the world actually is. Once again, provided you agree with that take to begin with.
So then fast-forward a couple of decades and you get strangers telling you “they don’t really get Superman” and poorly-lit movies proving that Superman can be gritty too. And what people don’t realize is that the problem isn’t Superman. The problem is us. We messed a lot of the narrative world up by embracing these grimdark takes—although, to be fair, I think there are a number of social, political, and economic reasons as to why we (not just within comics, but the wider society) embraced them in the first place—and now we’re saying that it’s Superman that’s wrong. Hell, I don’t even care for Superman that much myself and I’m pretty sure that’s my mess, not his. Maybe the mess was originally Miller’s, but regardless, I’m the one still putting ketchup on my fries, you know?
As for the intratextual Batman/Superman dynamic, I really wanted to say that what I liked about the take was that the two of them were friends even despite the narrative condemnation of Clark’s methods. But actually they aren’t. It’s less that they’re friends and more that Bruce specifically relies on Clark’s naivete without any sense of respect for his ethos. Clark is not a friend so much as a chess piece to be maneuvered for his convenience. His kindness is not to be appreciated so much as taken advantage of, and Bruce is positioned as being right for doing this. I am somewhat merciless with regards to harmful naivete but I’ve got to say that does not sit well with me. Apparently, out of all the fascist and outright bad things Bruce does in DKR, the one thing I really can’t forgive is how he treats Clark as a means to an end. How… puzzling. But, I guess it’s the logical conclusion, right? Discard the unnecessary; respect only The Truth.
Is this what we’re doing now, though, Oliver? Are SuperFights™ a part of the DKR legacy? Does that explain Civil War, Civil War AGAIN, Captain America 3: Civil War, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice… or were we always going to arrive here?
OS: DKR wasn’t the first superhero comic to have heroes coming to blows with each other, but it was the one that showed publishers the commercial appeal of having the good guys take each other on, which made the practice more common. I do think we were always headed in this direction, and as the distinction between good and evil becomes less black-and-white for superheroes, it makes sense that they would start turning on each other. This is another change that Watchmen played a big part in proliferating, and Alan Moore’s story is rooted in how philosophical differences between superhero teammates damage their relationships over time. DKR and Watchmen weren’t just popular; they were also greeted by considerable critical acclaim, which further influenced publishers to turn to them as inspiration for future stories.
It feels like SuperFights™ are especially prominent this year, and watching Daredevil’s Punisher-centric second season in the same month as Batman V Superman has me pretty exhausted already. Looking at these stories as a reflection of the culture they’re being told in, I don’t think it’s coincidental that they’re all debuting in a year where the United States is becoming increasingly divided along political lines, with both major political parties currently engaged in some intense in-fighting. The country is fractured, and its popular entertainment is reflecting the growing schism by having heroes turn against each other.
I watched Batman V Superman between rounds, and one positive side effect of the movie is that it makes me appreciate DKR’s Batman much more in comparison to what Ben Affleck portrays on screen. The fault doesn’t lie with Affleck, who is saddled to a script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer that has a fundamental misunderstanding of Batman and his mission. DKR is a clear influence on the film, and while I liked how the talking-heads of Miller’s story were incorporated into the script (even if I didn’t agree with the content they were delivering), I felt like Terrio, Goyer, and director Zack Snyder ultimately took the wrong lessons from DKR. That’s something that’s come up over and over in this discussion, and when it comes to bastardizing Miller’s work, Batman V Superman does one hell of a good job.
Oh, how I longed for Miller’s scene of Batman breaking a shotgun over his knee and denouncing it as “the weapon of the enemy” as I watched Batffleck gun down his opponents. Frankly, I found it disturbing to see Batman pushed so far into Punisher territory, and it made me angry that I was being asked to accept killing as a viable crimefighting solution, from the goddamn Batman of all characters. How we depict our heroes says a lot about our culture, and superheroes that kill help promote a worldview that says it’s alright to kill bad people, which is extremely problematic because personal opinions on what is “bad” vary so greatly.
Caitlin, what was your main Batman V Superman takeaway in regards to its relationship to DKR? Do you think that pulling inspiration from DKR is part of the main problem with the film?
CR: To put this on the table, I haven’t watched a trailer in almost 5 years and it’s completely changed the way I experience movies for the better. I walked into BvS knowing only it was a Snyder movie starring the trinity. That complete lack of expectation meant that I spent most of the movie pleasantly surprised. As Shea said on Twitter, I walked in prepared to lean into the skid and I had a hell of a fun time doing it. Snyder and Goyer are both cynical creators, and they were working with cynical source material. I hated that Batman was using guns, but the first five minutes were the best live-action Batman I’ve ever seen. A man, no suit, no Batmobile, nothing but fierce determination flinging himself into the maw of horror the likes of which he’s never seen before because his people are in danger, that’s the absolute best of what Batman has to offer. If Snyder and company had stuck to that vision who the characters is, I think other people might have enjoyed the movie more, but I had fun.
That being said, BvS did an incredible job of displaying the mania, the obsession, and the paranoia that many writers have layered on top of Batman in DKR and its wake. I find this incredibly compelling, I like the layers that Shea mentioned. Exploration into Batman’s psyche feels like professionally crafted fanfiction, and I’m all about that. I appreciated Batman saying out loud that he’s always been a criminal; though parts of the movie were heavy handed (another Snyder staple) and the slow motion shots excessive, I think the movie fails Superman far more than it does Batman, and for a lot of the reasons Shea and J.A. said.
People have this warped idea of who Superman is because of what they’ve read in Batman books, particularly DKR. It’s the Aquaman problem: In the context of someone else’s story or a team book, they’re always going to look like losers. At least this SuperFightTM made sense (as opposed to Civil War), pitting two men with fundamental disagreements about who is better positioned to protect people against one another because they don’t know or trust each other, with an implied ‘yet.’ I think ultimately BvS’s biggest failing isn’t relying on DKR but instead the fact that Zach Snyder thinks he’s smarter than everybody else and is addicted to a too-dark visual tone. He suffers from a lot of the same ego issues Miller and Miller’s Batman do, and unfortunately they all compounded; to Shea’s earlier point, both Miller and Snyder are Michael Bay with a gritty lens filter attached. The problem was that a lot people walked into this movie expecting an Avengers film or wanting Paul Dini and Bruce Timm Batman… that was never going to be the case, regardless of the influence of DKR.
The other thing I walked away from BvS feeling was that there were definite strengths that overcame some of the biggest weaknesses in DKR, particularly when it came to the female characters. Shea, was there anything in BvS that you feel left DKR behind, anything changed for the better by the 30 years between the two?
SH: I wouldn’t say “left DKR behind” per se, because I wouldn’t argue that one is necessarily better than the other, but I appreciated that Snyder wasn’t beholden to Miller when it came to his characterization of Superman. Some people obviously had a revulsion to the Superman they saw in Man of Steel—myself included (at the time)—but Snyder was inarguably approaching the character in a way that other storytellers hadn’t (or at least, not to the degree that Snyder was/is).
In Dark Knight Returns, Miller is condemning Superman. He’s become the interventionist tool of a neoconservative, neocolonialist superpower, which Miller contraposes to Batman’s isolationist fascist (brothers on the far-right family tree, as it were). In Miller’s eyes, Superman represents the unerring adherence to an impotent Democracy, the blind belief that Democracy is good and therefore always results in the morally correct course of action. He’s not grim and gritty; he’s wrong. He’s mistaken. He’s the failure of a system that passes the buck instead of acting. But Miller frames him as wholly secular (the light Randian rejection of superstition bubbling to the surface).
In Snyder’s world, Superman doesn’t just bear the comically superficial signifiers of Richard Donner’s character. Snyder sees Superman as a Messianic figure, in a deeply religious, and deeply Judeo-Christian context. We’re not seeing Superman through the eyes of Frank Miller, we’re seeing him through Snyder’s, and he actually contrasts an Absurdist Batman against a Jesus Christ unsure of his own efficacy. (And like Saul of Tarsus, Batman converts.) Snyder’s Superman is constantly referred to as divine and angelic, but Snyder also inundates the audience with crosses and crucifixion imagery. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is Pontius Pilate, the non-believer concerned only with proving his victim’s fallibility. The climax of Batman v. Superman is Superman martyring himself to save mankind, and the final shot is a tease of a resurrection. After his death, Lois cradles his body in a pieta—a convention of Byzantine and Renaissance art wherein Mary cradles the corpse of Jesus Christ. The epitaph on Superman’s grave is even a double reference to the one on Sir Christopher Wren’s grave (Wren was an architect who literally designed churches) and the Biblical aphorism that the Kingdom of Heaven is “among you.” We’re even given a Batman who functions as John, the author of the Book of Revelations, an older man stricken with shocking and confusing visions of a world consumed by hellfire and populated by demons.
It’s arguable whether Snyder’s Superman works or is enjoyable, but it’s undeniably his—distinct even from the Superman of DKR that Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman are so obviously indebted to.
DKR is, at this point, a book that’s woven into my DNA. J.A., as someone without those particular biases, do you think we should leave DKR and the landscape it begot in the past? Is it time to end the epoch of imagining superheroes in the real world and begin a different era, whatever that era’s obsessions and interests may be?
JAM: As exhausted as I am by most of DKR, there’s no way that I’d have a lot of the comics that I love without its influence and I’m not sure what it means to leave a landmark like this—and it is a landmark, even if I don’t care for it—behind. I think it’s different than the choice to leave, say, The Killing Joke, behind. TKJ made some specific choices that did not just specifically mess with a character but also reinforced something very particular when it comes to the narrative use of sexual assault. To me, leaving The Killing Joke behind means leaving behind and burying a specific vein of character history that does not ever need to return. When it comes down to it, it’s not the aesthetics or the themes or anything like that that has to go—it’s the goddamn plot! I have no hesitations about this. That story has got to go. Bury it six feet under. Never to return, never to be referenced, never to be spoken of again.
But The Dark Knight Returns is different. And as we’ve discussed, it’s not that the comic is necessarily A Problem so much as what many creators seem to have taken from it. So what I’d like to leave behind is the superficiality and the shortcuts. I don’t want to completely erase DKR’s influence on comics so much as see creators dig into why DKR works, why it doesn’t, and interrogate the hell out of the assumptions it makes as they go on to make something new. Because the thing is, I love the hell out of the grimdark aesthetic! I’m personally working out a lot of things when it comes to the intersection of violence, justice, and morality, so these ugly questions and ugly choices and ugly people are important to me.
And what’s more, Miller’s take isn’t just that; you can’t read the issue that’s written basically as a father’s letter to his son, Dick Grayson, and still think that Miller is only about gloom and doom. I read too much affection and emotion in how he approaches the Robins mentioned—Dick, Jason, and Carrie—to think that that’s all he is.
The Dark Knight Returns is a mature comic, but not in the sense that film or video games ratings boards use them. It’s a conflation of terms. DKR is a mature comic because it is a thematically and emotionally rich work. It’s matured like cheese or wine; it’s flavorful. The violence and cynicism isn’t what makes it mature, or, if you want to go by the ratings boards, for adults.
What I’d like is for superhero comics, and their adaptations, to move into an era where that kind of maturity is expressed. I don’t mind if some of the grimdark stays—honestly, I need it too much—but it cannot be everything. So for this new era of superhero comics, let’s leave behind DKR’s legacy of surface-level essentialism. Let’s embrace DKR’s legacy of nuance, theme, and above all, ambition.
You heard it here first: DKR is dead. Long live DKR.