I’ve wanted to write about the Clark Kent-Bruce Wayne relationship in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns since before I ever started blogging. Miller published his 1986 tale of Gotham-under-siege by criminals with no superheroes to save it as a four-book miniseries in 1986. The trade paperback went 80s-viral in 1987.
There are tons of themes to pick at in The Dark Knight Returns. There’s a critique of big media. There’s criticism of the 60’s counterculture deciding that the struggle was over and settling for comfort when they should have never abandoned the streets. There is much questioning of government authority. There’s the fact that finally, after all these years, Robin gets to be played by an actual girl and grows into a perfect Robin by the end of the story. There’s the twisted Joker-Batman relationship on full display with very little ambiguity about just how co-dependent they are.
For my money, though, the relationship between Wayne and Kent is the most important theme. Early on we learn the U.S. government suppressed all the D.C. superheroes a decade before the story opens. The Dark Knight Returns reads like a futuristic dystopian novel, but the setting is contemporary to the late 80s. The Cold War is on and the President is clearly Ronald Reagan, even though he’s not named as such.
Wonder Woman has returned to her island, Green Lantern has left the planet, and Green Arrow has been “persuaded” to retire. Superman has become a covert agent of the United States. Batman has simply disappeared. The tension between the latter two drives the story. The Man of Steel has allowed himself to be reduced to the role of supersolider, though not without reason. The Dark Knight is past 60 and forced to come out of retirement by his implacable, idiosyncratic code of justice.
Miller’s tale emphasizes the worst excesses of late 20th Century American society: Violence for the sake of violence, a famous psychiatrist pronouncing two of Batman’s worst nemeses cured and releasing them to kill again, the cynical news media sensationalizing it and allowing the doctor to frame the criminals as victims, do-nothing politicians pronouncing all this – the disorder – someone else’s responsibility.
It is these excesses that awaken the Bat and impel Bruce Wayne back into action. The idea that Batman is the real person and Wayne is the disguise is very clear in this text. I don’t know that Miller originated the idea, but he certainly popularized it. Pretty much every depiction of Batman in movies since this book was published owes some debt to Miller’s concept of the character and to his dark vision of Gotham City. Continue reading