This may be an unexpected admission for someone who teaches a course on popular culture, but there are certain cultural phenomena that I just don’t get. I’ve never liked a single Quentin Tarantino film…not even a little. I never saw what was so revolutionary or brilliant about the 2011 return-to-silent-films homage The Artist. I can’t get into any reality singing or dating competition. I’ve tried all of the above but I just don’t like them. The exact same can be said of my relationship with Frank Miller’s 1986 seminal classic The Dark Knight Returns. But, before fandom begins the crucifixion, let me try and explain why – and it’s not just because I’m not a DC guy.
As a casual glance at this blog (or the posters adorning the walls in my home (or the t-shirts hanging in my closet (or the comics filling all my long and short boxes))) will attest, I’m a Marvel guy through and through. My heart beats for and belongs with the Marvel Universe. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never tried any DC comics nor does it mean I’ve never liked any DC comics. Case in point – The Killing Joke, which I’ve written about before. To me it stands not just as an artistic achievement in the field of comic books but as a masterpiece in the broader field of literature. The book is horrifying and disturbing at the deepest level…but it may be the single greatest artistic depiction of evil I’ve ever seen. So there are DC stories (and some Batman stories) that affect me and resonate with me. But The Dark Knight Returns just doesn’t rank as one of those books. In fact, I find it more than a little troubling.
I first read the book a few years ago, looking for an assignment for my students. I teach a course called Christianity and Popular Culture where the focus is a) to deconstruct all manner of works of pop culture for their spiritual insights and/or influences and b) to help the students become more skillful at and comfortable with noticing and deconstructing symbolism in art. We watch a lot of movies; we explore episodes of TV shows; and we listen to all manner of music in the course. I originally envisioned the class having a literary component when I first created it. However, the government order of text books didn’t arrive so the first year of the course I had no novels to give my students. They told me, at the close of the class, how appreciated that was. While their writing and in-class discussion was always of the highest caliber, they admitted, heavy with the workload of their other honors and IB classes, reading for an elective would have been a casualty in the term. I respected their honesty and I wanted to respect the schedules of my students as well. But I still wanted them to read…and then I had an idea.
Recalling that classic Boy Meets World episode where Mr. Turner assigns an issue of the X-Men to his class for homework (it was Uncanny X-Men #316, Part One of “The Phalanx Covenant” if memory serves me correctly) an intriguing solution presented itself. Watching that episode, Past Michael was blown away at the thought of a teacher giving a comic book as homework. Now, Present Michael realized it might be the angle his Pop Culture class could take! So I began to read a bunch of graphic novels, critically acclaimed and beloved by fans, classic as well as present ones, in an order to discern the best choice for class discussion and deconstruction. My very first read was, naturally, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
I’d heard so much about the book for years, I was excited to give it a read (and have that count as doing research for work too). Upon completing it, I wasn’t impressed. As a dark, hopeless, brooding piece of dystopian literature, I can see its appeal. But even as someone who enjoys dystopia, I didn’t like this. This Batman wasn’t a mythic hero, meant to teach and inspire us. This Batman was as bad as the criminals he battled. The only interesting ideas in the book that could have been helpful in my class were also in Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight…and that story was simultaneously epic and intelligent on every level. But Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns? I don’t see why people love it.
It’s set ten years after the Batman disappeared. Most high school students think he was a myth, those younger have never heard of him. Those old enough to remember still debate the morality of his one-man war on crime. But, as Gotham plunges into darkness, the Batman (now nearing his sixties) returns…and it didn’t work for me. As I explore my problems – both morally and narratively – with this book, spoilers will abound. Yes, I know it’s a classic but I still wanted to give the head’s up. So you’ve been warned.
Let’s get this out of the way first. THERE IS NO PLAUSBILE SCENARIO WHERE BATMAN COULD EVER BEAT SUPERMAN IN A FIGHT. EVER. I’ve thought about it from every angle but my suspension of disbelief just isn’t that good. (And I’m a guy who can believe that exposure to gamma radiation or being bitten by a radioactive spider can result in super powers and not just cancer and death.)
The battle’s setup in Book Three when Clark comes to tell Bruce to stop. “These aren’t the old days Bruce…world’s got no room for… It’s like this Bruce. Sooner or later somebody’s going to order me to bring you in. Somebody with authority. When that happens…” Bruce replies, “When that happens Clark – may the best man win.” Sure…I totally believe this aging nutcase stands a chance against a godlike being like Superman.
“But wait,” people will say, “Batman’s the greatest scientific mind on the planet!” Sure, deductions helps a lot…when Superman’s impervious to just about everything. “But wait,” they’ll continue, “Batman has plans to take out every member of the Justice League! He even has Kryptonite bullets!” That’s awesome…if his opponent wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet. Coupled with super hearing allowing him to know the second the gun’s cocked, there’s no way Batman has a realistic chance at hitting him. What of Kryptonite gas? Sure, that’s fine…except that Superman doesn’t need to breath like a normal human being. And if they were to really fight…Superman could just fly through Batman’s chest at super speed before he even got one shot off.
I’m just going to say it – the only reason Superman ever loses any fights to Batman in the comic books is because PEOPLE THINK BATMAN’S COOL. Even in this comic – the comic by the way, that people always use to justify how Batman could beat Superman – the victory is contrived. Frank Miller has to jump through so many narrative hoops to get to the point where the reader could begin to believe that Batman could win.
The Russians fire a nuclear missile; Superman diverts it so it explodes in the desert and the world is plunged into the dark of nuclear winter. As a result, Superman’s powers are sapped. Being solar powered, he withers. Between the lack of solar energy and being at the heart of the missile when it blew, this is the weakest Superman Miller could present. Clark takes what he can from plants…but he (obviously) is still significantly weakened for their fight. Batman then attacks him with a metal suit and Robin and a military grade Batmobile and the Green Arrow and acid and a Kryptonite-filled arrow. As they struggle, Batman delivers one of the most famous lines in all of comic books, “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.” Spoiler – he couldn’t. And he didn’t! Even in The Dark Knight Returns‘ contrived victory, he needed a lot of help to (sort of) beat Superman.
While this issue has (clearly) always bothered me, it wasn’t my biggest problem with the book. Nor was it the reason I’d never consider using it for a class discussion. The book has serious issues with violence, misogyny, hate speech, child abuse, lack of respect for mental health, and a protagonist who isn’t a hero…much less a super one. Rather, Miller’s Batman is as dangerous as the villains he fights.
Batman returns with a violent vengeance. A rookie cop calls him out as he takes down robbers. “You’re under arrest, mister. You’ve crippled that man!” Batman replies coldly, “He’s young. He’ll probably walk again. But he’ll stay scared…won’t you, punk?” All the kid can do is mutter, “Jesus, sweet Jesus…” There’s too much violence, too much darkness here for me. This is not what superheroes should do. This isn’t who they should be. It does beg the question though – is Batman, with his methods, a hero? Or is he just a vigilante?
Batman seems unhinged (as do his enemies). In Miller’s story, he seems to enjoy hurting and torturing his adversaries. Comparatively, The Killing Joke‘s darkness stems from the narrative’s desire to present the true nature of evil. It is uncomfortable and nauseating. Batman stands opposed to it and the story wrestles with whether or not compassionate justice can triumph over chaos without conscience or cause. But The Dark Knight Returns just gives us a future of darkness. There’s little hope here – especially in the form of the Batman.
On the note of seeming unhinged, the book’s depiction of the mental health treatment of both Harvey Dent and the Joker paint a picture of therapy as a pointless, clueless profession. There is no respect given to the mental health community in The Dark Knight Returns. Rather it is viciously mocked. Therapists are the bumbling pseudo-doctors who can’t see the truth and let the monsters loose. In presenting therapy in such a fashion it also presents the idea that human beings are incapable of being healed or transformed. That turns my stomach. It’s as erroneous an idea as it is a dangerous one. When we stop believing we can change all that’s left is hopelessness and despair.
One of the most disturbing parts of the story for me (although not the worst) is Carrie Kelley – the thirteen year old girl Bruce takes on as his new Robin. Carrie has taken up the mantle of Robin, on her own, because Batman’s inspired her. And Bruce thinks this is okay…
Alfred protests Bruce’s inclusion of Carrie, “Very well, sir. I shall come right out with it. Have you forgotten what happened to Jason?” Bruce replies, “I will never forget Jason. He was a good soldier. He honored me. But the war goes on.” Bruce’s insane. He and Alfred are talking about children, not soldiers. Yes, the Robin thing’s always been a weird part of Batman – bringing a kid into all this. But it’s presented here as one more sign that Bruce is as deranged as his rogues gallery. He almost died fighting the mutants. Now he thinks he can win by taking a teenage girl into danger with him. Is this a superhero? Is this a model? I don’t think so. Don’t worry, Bruce makes sure she’s passed the “weeks” of training required for her to enter active duty. She’s thirteen!!!
Bruce and Carrie come to face the Joker at a county fair. Upon their arrival they see he’s already murders scores of kids with poisoned cotton candy. When Carrie sees this Bruce reflects, “…a tiny hand tightens its grip on my arm…a girl of thirteen breathes in sharply, suddenly, her innocence lost…it ends tonight, Joker.” Except, the thing is, Batman is more responsible for this happening to Carrie than the Joker is. He brought her into this.
Bruce’s actions with Carrie change from simple child endangerment to actual emotional abuse. He sees “a good soldier” who’s there to fight with him when he should see a child, needing protection. According to the US Human Society, emotional abuse of children includes (but is not limited to) ignoring the child, where the caregiver may refuse to call the child by name (among other things). In The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce is constantly talking to Dick Grayson (who isn’t even in the story) and never calls Carrie “Carrie.” To him, she’s Robin. He ignores her actual personhood. He rejects her, which is “the active refusal to respond to a child’s emotional needs.” Bruce ignores the effects his war on crime has on Carrie, her emotional landscape, and her development. We see this as he never talks to her after what happens on any of their missions. He isolates her, clearly preventing her from having normal social interactions for a girl her age. He exploits and corrupts her, by leading her to break countless laws and engage in a violent war against whomever the Batman deems as dangerous. There are mild forms of verbal assault as he constantly corrects her posture, language, and demeanor (in less than compassionate ways). Bruce obviously terrorizes Carrie as he places her in dangerous and chaotic situations. Lastly, there is unquestionable neglect. He pays no attention to nor does he care at all for Carrie’s emotional state, feelings, school work, friends, or her family. He ignores her mental health, refuses to acknowledge (let alone deal with) the psychological trauma this lifestyle brings.
Batman, child endangerment/abuse aside, also decides to abandon his moral code. As he drops into battle with the Joker he thinks, “Can you see it, Joker? Feels to me…like it’s written all over my face. I’ve lain awake nights…planning it…picturing it…endless nights…considering every possible method…treasuring each imaginary moment…from the beginning, I knew…that there’s nothing wrong with you…that I can’t fix…with my hands…” He’s excited about what’s coming. Soooo yay for the idea of redemptive violence? Yay for denigrating mental health? Yay for solving all problems with violence and blood? How is this heroic??
Batman battles the Joker in the Tunnel of Love. At first he just breaks the Joker’s neck, leaving him paralyzed. But as the Joker continues to taunt him, telling him he lacks the nerve, Batman finishes twisting his neck until the murder of the Joker is complete. As should be expected in a tale like this, Batman’s willingly relinquished the last (perhaps only?) thing that makes him a hero. Problematically, at no point in the narrative is Bruce held up to intense criticism. Those who do critique the Bat are proved to be wrong.
The most disturbing and unforgivable part of the comic for me though is how violence towards women is an overwhelming part of the narrative. The Mutant Gang talk of rape and mutilation and of “curing” the “frigid bitch” that is the new police commissioner. It’s all a little much. Yes, we have a female Robin and yes we have a female Commissioner, but the rest leaves me a little unsettled. Our world already easily and disgustingly excuses violence towards women – we don’t need it so obviously a part of a mythic hero’s tale.
Continuing the unacceptable depiction of women, Batman battles Bruno – a topless woman with swastikas tattooed over her nipples who also happens to have the ass cut out of her pants. There’s horrible hate speech tossed around towards homosexuals through the book as well. It’s never presented in an admirable light, but it’s needless all the same. Again, in a world of hate and violence, how does the casual inclusion of this help anyone?
Furthering the sadistic portrayal of women in the book we have Carrie’s fight with one of the Joker’s henchman at the fair. This, for me, was the worst part of the entire book. It is completely unacceptable. The scene is written in a way where, without the illustrations, it would be a clear depiction of a rape. As he climbs on top of her Carrie thinks, “…he starts breathing on me…then he’s right…right on top of me…so much of him he’s all over me…his hands…they’re all wet…they scramble down my face…to my neck…I can’t breath…he’s giggling…can’t…” and then her attacker falls to a brutal death, ripped apart by the ride they’re fighting on. There is a single shot of Carrie, crying from both the assault on her as well as watching a human being ripped apart in front of her. What the hell?
Again, by comparison, there is a vicious rape implied in The Killing Joke. However, in The Killing Joke the rape is presented in a way that makes it atrocious. There is no dialogue on the page and the reader is uncomfortable and horrified. It is presented as deeply disturbing. In The Dark Knight Returns however, the scene is simply part of the action. I don’t get the sense from the layout that the scene of Carrie dealing with her attacker (regardless of the language used to describe it) is supposed to stand out from the rest of the battle sequence.
How is this one of the definitive Batman tales of all time? I just don’t get it. I know the book has legions of followers and I’m not trying to take away from that. Art is subjective. Certain things resonate with certain people and others don’t get it. That’s me. I just don’t get this comic. What bothers me is the tone. I don’t mind a look into the darkness but I want my superheroes to be heroes, to be full of light, to represent hope. That is their JOB as contemporary myths. This story doesn’t do that. It doesn’t even attempt to. Rather, it’s whole narrative comes from a hero on the edge, letting the violent part of his personality out. What is unacceptable to me is the violence towards women, the depiction of the mental health community, and the fact that Batman is presented as a violent, murdering monster – more deranged than those he fights – who gets a thrill off of hurting those he wishes to and is comfortable taking a child into this warzone. So yes, there are some DC comics, characters, and films that I like. There are some I really enjoy too. I can even appreciate an artistic depiction of the darkness as evident by my respect and appreciation for The Killing Joke. But this? Nope – I just don’t get it.