Review: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

About two weeks ago the spectacular main trailer for The Batman showed us all which direction the movie franchise is going to take for the foreseeable future. Director Matt Reeves is taking Batman to his noir roots which is no coincidence as Reeves is also involved in the new Batman animated series called Batman: Caped Crusader which puts special emphasis on the noir element. Fascinating to see Batman animation once again champion this direction!

In short: Fans who like to see Bruce Wayne and his alter ego in the noir style are bound for good times! Don’t get me wrong, I hold the Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan in the highest regard. In fact I would consider it a masterpiece. Nolan’s realistic approach brought something new to the table and changed the perception of the character forever. Christian Bale owned the duality of Bruce Wayne and made his use of and struggle with darkness believable.

Before we go any further let me confess that I am not (yet) an expert on the cultural phenomenon that is Batman. I have only casually followed the adventures of the urban crusader since I first encountered him via Tim Burton‘s interpretation. To me Michael Keaton will always be the Batman and I am very excited that he will be revisiting that role in the upcoming The Flash movie. Maybe this time the costume will allow him to turn his head. Again: Good times ahead!

Batman 101

All these exciting developments renewed my lingering interest in the character and apart from rewatching Burton and Nolan I also set out to finally experience other classics which more serious Batman enthusiasts had been urging me to see for years. Starting with a chronological rewatch of the animated series from 1992 proved to be very enjoyable. Beautifully done, intelligently written and just as good as everybody said it is.

Yet somehow I knew that to even begin to understand the phenomenon Batman I would have to read some of the seminal comics. There are a few which are canonically considered to be classics and the one which for many fans would take first place is The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Now Miller is a name most of us will probably connect with his other very noir comic (and corresponding movie) Sin City. Is his Batman just as dark?

I don’t think his take on the caped crusader is just as brutal. Fortunately there is much less sexualized violence to be found in the Batman comic. That doesn’t mean however that we are dealing with light reading. Miller’s vision of Gotham and its society, of society in general, is very grim. Here, like in Alan Moore‘s Watchmen from 1986 , we are dealing with a society which has discarded its heroes for rules and processes which do not seem to work.

Unbowed, unbent, unbroken?

In this flawed world the idealist looks the fool. And yet here we have two aging men, Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, holding on to their ideals and notions of justice. Both of them are trying to arrange themselves with the status quo. One more than the other as Bruce Wayne is still consumed with wild rage about the current state of society. Constantly battling his trauma, he is wrestling with his inner demons which take the form of the Bat. The demons return with a vengeance.

And so does Batman. Creaking bones and stiff muscles do not keep Bruce Wayne from once again donning the suit and thus begins his crusade for justice. Age did not make him gentle and we see him throwing punches and crushing jaws like a young man. Before and after these fights however we also see the toll this takes on him. Bruce Wayne treats himself as unsparingly as he does his adversaries. He gives no quarter and we don’t know whether he will survive this ordeal.

This is as much as I will say about the story of the comic. I would not want to spoil your experience of reading it for the first time. There have got to be some of you out there who, like me before this review, did not get around to reading this old-timer. And although it shows its age in the visual department like its main protagonist it carries the head high. No matter how much time has passed since its glory days. It somehow remains relevant.

Depth of night

The Dark Knight Returns not only showed us a new design of the Batman, a design which has since become iconic, but also introduced to the franchise the darkness and philosophical richness we now associate with the character. Without The Dark Knight Returns Christopher Nolan’s rather heady trilogy would have been unthinkable and we would have been stuck with the entertaining but campy Batman of the 60s.

In this iteration Batman is a bitter, brooding hulk and husk of a man. An old tiger trapped in a concrete jungle. This masked Bruce Wayne many times comes across as an ultra-violent, sadistic madman. Remember the depiction of Gotham as a grim and hopeless place, a place in which the rule of law, democracy and social values are in decline. He is its Batman.

A full descent into anarchy seems a possibility and the tortured city is calling out to Bruce Wayne’s demons, demanding of them to once again transform him into a hero. This pessimistic perspective on society and its corresponding demand for the strong hero-archetype is a constituent element of the story and in itself deserves to be critically discussed. Is this Batman really the hero Gotham deserves?

Deconstruction of the hero

Miller takes the reader on Batman’s journey out of retirement. And while we as readers feel with Batman as he takes punch after punch and gives back in return we would be well advised to reserve some distance. As readers we are permanently left wondering when to root for the hero and when to turn away in disgust. This ambiguity and narrative tension is no accident. It is weaved into the story. Characters frequently throw some light on the issue via dialogue but like the Batman vanishing into the shadows the core of the matter is hard to grasp.

Are we reading a critique and deconstruction of a fascistic vigilante or are we witnessing his glorification? It’s hard to say. The Dark Knight Returns presents such a dark and uncompromising story, a setting so full of twisted and depraved characters it is hard to imagine what a hero would even look like in this world. Several of Batman’s key sidekicks and supervillains get mentioned throughout the story and none of them make us think of a world in which a hero saves the day. Again we could ask: Depravity or deconstruction?

And just as one is about to give up on superheroes altogether The Dark Knight Returns presents us another iconic hero as an alternative approach to the hero concept. Only to pull the rug under out from under our feet yet again. Everything in this story is firmly rooted in the noir mindset: The world a merciless pit, heavily flawed heroes and few truly innocent people left. This Bruce Wayne definitely is not among them.

A serious dilemma

Thinking about the very dubious character of Batman and the many ways this story could be read, some of them highly unsavory, my mind immediately jumped to the fact that the author himself is highly problematic. Any discussion of his work in my opinion has to at least acknowledge this fact. The debate around Miller continues and he only recently was disinvited after a public outcry. Although the scope of this article only is to review a particular comic I felt I had to at least make readers aware of these facts.

While reading the book and writing this review several questions kept coming up: How does one read Miller in 2021? Or rather: Should one read Miller in 2021? I find this to be a very difficult question. Some elements have stood the test of time while others have aged poorly. The quality of the art and the writing still stand out and could be very much enjoyed in the year 2021. The comic is frequently listed among the best of the franchise and this isn’t without reason.

As to whether one should read The Dark Knight Returns given the knowledge of the debate around the author it comes down to the question whether one should or wants to distinguish between a work of art and the author. Another very deep question way beyond the scope of this article and maybe even beyond my capacity to solve. I would be however honestly interested in hearing my readers takes on this!

A Batman to talk about

All I can offer at this point is that The Dark Knight Returns, though containing controversial content, does not contain any hate directed at real human beings. I therefore would never question the moral integrity of a person just because they read and liked the novel. I wouldn’t even find it questionable if someone told me that this is their favorite interpretation of Batman.

What I would do however is start discussing some of the main themes. Once you get into a conversation with people it usually is quite easy to determine whether one would want to stay and discuss some art or politely part ways because of yucky opinions. It is unfortunate that it is not possible to discuss The Dark Knight Returns without also discussing the darkness of the author but as another writer aptly said: Frank Miller gave us the best Batman – and the worst.

As a story and work of art The Dark Knight unquestionably stands as a contribution of great cultural impact. The visual style is distinctive and the original drawings are now being traded as art and I bet more Batman NFT will soon follow. From board games to tabletop miniature games to the aforementioned movie or the many stylistic references to be found in Batman movies – The Dark Knight Returns has cast its long shadow.

Where to go from here?

As said my interest in Batman was reignited by the trailer for Matt Reeve’s The Batman. According to the information we have on that movie it will show a very young version of Batman, still quite early in his crime fighting career. It seems also to be the case that we will be seeing a more disturbing and violent Batman than we are used to. Christian Bale’s Batman was an impressive fighter, but as a physically and mentally trained martial artist he was disciplined and calculating in his approach.

The major inspirations for The Batman apparently come from the equally iconic Batman comics Batman: Year One, Ego and The Long Halloween. Having now put a toe into the Batman-Comicverse I don’t think I will be able to not read all three of them before the end of the year. To me this is very surprising as I, with a few exceptions, never considered myself to be much interested in comics. Lately I get the impression that this is about to change to some degree.

Still my plan is not to add bingeing comics to the already quite extensive catalogue of my other nerdy hobbies. Instead I aim to do some cherry-picking, reading only those works which are universally considered to be serious literature. In this endeavor I will count on the help of some of my more comic-knowledgeable friends and my dear readers. Feel free to recommend me great comics or graphic novels anytime. While I can’t promise that I’ll read them all you will definitely get a reply from me.

Waiting for the new Batman

If you like me are getting pretty excited about next year’s fresh take on Gotham city and are looking for a way to shorten the wait I can only again recommend giving the animated series a try. It really is that good and then some! If you however have no inclination to binge yet another series and cringe at the thought of buying a comic book yet still found this article interesting the solution is very simple: Go watch the movie version of The Dark Knight Returns.

This epic in two parts respects the original story while subtly modernizing it. It is the most gentle introduction to the nerdier and less mainstream side of Batman I can think of. If you have to persuade your partner or friends just casually mention that currently holds a 100% critics and 93% audience score at Rotten Tomatoes. If you have any tolerance for violent, middle aged millionaires in spandex pants this is the way to go!

Having now spent an awfully long time sitting at the desk and writing about a grown man dressing as a bat I have the urgent need to go out for one of my extended walks with my headphone providing a fitting soundtrack for the spooky season. Wishing you all a good time wherever and whoever you are and let’s all cross our fingers that Pattinson’s Batman will not disappoint. But who am I kidding? Catwoman will steal the show anyway!