Home / Comics / ‘The Dark Knight Returns’: a scholarly analysis (Part I)

‘The Dark Knight Returns’: a scholarly analysis (Part I)

(Cover by Frank Miller/DC Comics)
(Cover by Frank Miller/DC Comics)
[Editor’s note: Part II can be viewed here.]

As Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice swoops into movie theaters around the world, this is an opportunity to analyze the comic miniseries that inspired it, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns  (1986). This article is adapted from a paper I presented at the 2009 Midwest Popular Culture Association Conference.

The genre of superhero comic books often portrays simplistic conflicts between heroes and villains. But the conflicts in comics are not always this simple; occasionally the storylines pit superheroes against one another.

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

As with Watchmen (1986-87) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and Marvel Comics’ more recent Civil War (2006-07) by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, DKR presents a conflict between previously-aligned superheroes driven by public concern over the role of superheroes in society. We see a power imbalance in each work that tilts in favor of those superheroes who serve as agents of the United States government against superheroes who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. These texts explore issues that go beyond the fictional worlds in which they are set. In the context of a democratic society, these works question whether force can be legitimately exercised by actors outside of the government, the proper role of civil disobedience and the ethics of compromise. The battles between superheroes show that fantasy worlds are more complicated than they appear.

DKR and Watchmen are widely considered the most literary examples of the genre, what Sean Carney calls “two towering monoliths that changed the face of the superhero.” DKR describes a dystopic alternate reality in which all of the superheroes have either retired (Batman), been driven underground (Green Arrow) or been co-opted by the government (Superman). The Cold War features prominently, with Superman intervening in a proxy war, the “Corto-Maltese Crisis,” which causes the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack against the United States.

These texts are all considerably more political than the average superhero story. Carney argues that the publication of DKR and Watchmen permanently altered “the political function of the superhero.” As a result of “the anxiety provoked by” these germinal works, future comic book authors were pushed to “contend with themes that are inherently historical and political.” Marvel’s Civil War is a prime example of this trend.

One reason these books are so compelling is that they ask more questions than they answer. Carney wonders, “what is the social function of the superhero?” John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett ask the more important question, why “do we so often relish depictions of impotent democratic institutions that can be rescued only by extralegal superheroes?” In asking these questions, scholars are echoing the real-life enemy of the superhero, Fredric Wertham, who claimed, “Superheroes undermine respect for the law and hardworking decent citizens.”

In Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, Peter Coogan describes a superhero code, a set of unwritten rules governing the conduct of superheroes. One element of this code is “reactivity,” the idea that superheroes only use their incredible powers in response to active threats. In the rare occasions where a “superhero attempts to be proactive, he essentially becomes a villain.” Coogan argues that a proactive superhero, one who attempts “to better the human condition” in the absence of a direct threat, “risks becoming a ruler, savior, or destroyer.” The traditional role of the superhero is a vigilante loosely allied with the police. Those who deviate from this role by taking active role in government violate the superhero code and risk crossing the line into villainy.

(DC Comics)
(DC Comics)

This is the source of the conflict between Batman and Superman in DKR. The two characters have long epitomized the superhero in the popular imagination, but Batman has always been darker and more rebellious. David Leverenz compares him to Tarzan: “An avenging hero, half animal and half human, fusing beast and patrician, descends into an evil underclass to save a helpless bourgeois civilization.”

Superman, on the other hand, has long embodied Truth, Justice and the American Way. In Carney’s view, “Superman has always functioned as a flag, as a myth.” Umberto Eco describes him as “kind, handsome, modest, and helpful; his life is dedicated to the battle against the forces of evil; and the police find him an untiring collaborator.” Eco further agues that Superman is almost solely concerned with crimes against private property but never government corruption. He thus represents the political and economic status quo.

Frank Miller (Photo: Vera Anderson/Getty Images)
Frank Miller (Photo: Vera Anderson/Getty Images)

Miller heightens the dichotomy between these characters in DKR. Superman becomes “the prime supporter of the dominant power,” “an order-obsessed Reagan-tool,” “the mere lackey of corrupt officials.” At one point in the text, the Gipper condescendingly refers to the Man of Steel as a “good boy.” Batman, on the other hand, is “libertarian,” combating “the forces of rigidity and anarchy, which have unwittingly combined to make the life of the Everyman oppressive and terrifying.”

In Part II, I will explore how the differences between the two superheroes determine the outcome of The Dark Knight Returns.

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About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.

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