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

(DC Comics)

Part I introduced the underlying politics of conflict between superheroes. Part II will use The Dark Knight Returns (1986) to illustrate this dynamic.

In Frank Miller’s world, Batman is more controversial than Superman. In a talking-heads-style television debate, a Batman critic describes him as “an aberrant psychotic force—morally bankrupt, politically hazardous, reactionary[,] paranoid—a danger to every citizen of Gotham!” In the eyes of the critic, Batman is a “kind of social fascist.” Batman’s defender, Lana Lang, describes him “as a symbolic resurgence of the common man’s will to resist . . . a rebirth of the American fighting spirit.” Miller’s Superman is not spoken about at all, having become officially invisible. His exploits are described by a reporter “as an atmosphere anomaly—or a UFO sighting.” Mentioning, or even hinting at, Superman’s existence invites “trouble with the F.C.C.”

Henry Cavill as Superman (Warner Bros.)
Henry Cavill as Superman (Warner Bros.)

Superman defends his decision to submit to government authority. In an imagined dialogue with Batman, he explains:

They’ll kill us if they can, Bruce. Every year they grow smaller. Every year they hate us more. We must not remind them that giants walk the Earth.

He further blames Batman for the shift in public opinion:

You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough . . . “Sure we’re criminals,” you said. “We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.”

He concludes:

I gave them my obedience and my invisibility. They gave me a license and let us live. No, I don’t like it. But I get to save lives—and the media stays quiet.

Ben Affleck as Batman (Warner Bros.)
Ben Affleck as Batman (Warner Bros.)

Batman, not surprisingly, has a different perspective:

you’ve always known just what to say. “Yes”—you always say yes—to anyone with a badge—or a flag.

He blames Superman for the political climate, while also highlighting how the characters’ origins shaped their respective worldviews:

You sold us out, Clark. You gave them—the power—that should have been ours. Just like your parents taught you to. My parents taught me a different lesson . . . lying on the street—shaking in deep shock—dying for no reason at all—they showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to.

The Dark Knight Returns culminates in a battle between the two. In Geoff Klock’s view, Batman plays the role of “[t]he rebel threatening a new hegemony,” while Superman represents “the old hegemony and the status quo.” Klock sees these two conflicting aspects as “inherent in the superhero comic tradition.” From a purely physical perspective, Superman holds a distinct advantage, with nearly godlike powers, while Batman is, in his own words, “just bone and meat,” a man whose extraordinary abilities have degraded with age.

(DC Comics)
(DC Comics)

Batman’s chief weapon has always been his intelligence, which he uses to stack the deck in his favor. In the end Batman wins, asking Superman “to remember . . . my hand . . . at your throat . . . I want . . . you to remember . . . the one man who beat you.” Although he then fakes his own death, Batman triumphs. In Frank Miller’s view, the superhero as rebel trumps superhero as defender of status quo.

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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