The Dark Knight Returns and Moral Relativism

Absolute Dark Knight Cover

Cover to Absolute Dark Knight

I don’t know why, but I’ve had a big mental block against doing this post. In our quest to review books and comics, the next one on my list was The Dark Knight Returns. However, I don’t think I can just review it. For one thing, we already have an excellent review of this comic, in two parts:

  1. Batman, retired? Are you kidding me?
  2. The Dark Knight v. The Man of Steel

Thanks again to our guest blogger Gene’O of Sourcerer and Just Gene’O for those!

So I don’t want to just re-do something that’s already been done well. However, it’s in part because of reading these reviews that I read these comics in the first place. As the PBS Idea Channel says, there can be advantages to reading something with spoilers, like I did with this. It was a ton of fun. Great comic.

I thought about writing a LitFlix, but I feel like it boils down to “yep, Nolan’s Dark Knight series relied on these comics a lot.” But instead, I’ve decided to focus in on one aspect, and one which is by no means unique to The Dark Knight Returns, but which is laid out plain as day in the comic: Moral Relativism. What I mean by this, at least in the context of this comic, is the idea that if we can find the psychological cause to their actions, then they are no longer responsible. Onward!

Moral Relativism

I definitely see this come up in media a lot. It’s a common theme in Law & Order, for instance, especially in SVU. Saw one recently where this came up, maybe this season: there’s a person breaking the law, but it’s because they were a victim themselves. The cycle perpetuates.

I would say I saw this theme most recently, however, in this last week’s episode of The Blacklist: season 2, episode 4, “Dr. Linus Creel.” This doctor was sure he had found a genetic marker for the “worrier” gene, and that individuals with these gene were more likely to flip out and become violent with no prior indication.

He proves it by pushing people over the edge by hitting them where it hurts (as their psychiatrist, he knows all their fears and secrets) and people proceed to snap.

And he argues, after doing this to people, that it’s not their fault. That it was in their genes, and basically that he knew that what he did would make it happen. So whose fault is it? The individuals who became violent? The good (bad) doctor’s fault? Their genes? As he puts it in the episode – the sins of the father.

There’s no good answer to the question. He maybe shows why we tend not to run our experiments on humans… or without supervision. And without his interference, none of these people would have done anything like this. When they did. But who’s to say they wouldn’t at another time?

DKR  cover

Cover to The Dark Knight Returns

But okay. Back to the comic, now that I’ve framed Moral Relativism.

The Villains of Dark Knight Returns

Throughout the events of The Dark Knight Returns, not one but two of the worst of Batman’s enemies are released after being “treated” in Arkham Asylum. The treating psychologist, for both of them, is the same man.

And he has no villainous plot, no evil scheme. He’s not Hugo Strange setting up Arkham City. No, he’s a psychologist trying to prove his point.

His point is that they are not the cause of their actions. No, he says that’s Batman.

And they clean up, too. Get all repentant:


That’s Harvey Dent, all cleaned up and with a new face. No more Two-Face for him. No, as the comic goes on to show, the good side is gone – he’s all evil. But he’ll sing and dance if it’ll get him out of prison. He rounds up his followers, and they start doing some crime.

The creepier one is the Joker. He had been comatose while Batman had been gone. Once word of the Bat started circling again, he perked right up. Put a smile on his face.


And maybe, just maybe, you only would have the Joker if you have Batman. That they round each other out, that the Joker is the sort of criminal that exists to face off against a hero like Batman.

But Two-Face? He went back to being a mob boss, a gang leader. His is a different story. Would he exist without Batman? He and people like him? Probably. I don’t see why not. They did before – that’s certainly what we’re seeing in Gotham right now!

Despite all this, despite the differences between them, and the heinous crimes they committed, it’s Batman the psychologist blames for them, and so he gets them out. Time served. Changed men. Who proceed to go out and kill a ton of people.

So who’s at fault? We’re back to the question again. Is it nature – something in the genes? Is it nurture – Batman, the broken-ness of Gotham City, chemical burns? Is it bad psychology? Their parents? Themselves?

Original Sin

I hate to say I have not read the comic event by this name that Marvel just ran – it sounds like it was good, from what I saw in the new Thor. I am thoroughly intrigued and fully intend to read it at some point. That said, why am I bringing it up here?

At some point, if you keep blaming, where do you get? Okay, let’s blame Batman for their actions – then you can blame the man who shot the Waynes for Batman. Then there’s whoever made the killer do it – and so far back. The sins of the father again.

From Batman: Year One, also by Frank Miller

From Batman: Year One, also by Frank Miller 

Or maybe it’s the genetics. Sins of the father again again, and thus why I’m at Original Sin. If you keep tracking back, keep tracking back, keep tracking back, you get to the beginning. And without getting too religious (though I am categorizing this as a Science Fiction and Religion post…), I think it is instructive to think about this as a concept.

Because really, you can. You can keep tracking the blame back and back, once you start playing this game. Then it’s no one’s fault. Or it’s one fault, one fault right at the beginning. Then they’ve all just cascaded from there. And if that’s the case, if you can reduce it all down to that, then it makes sense that you have to snap back to the present. If it’s no one’s fault, then really, it’s everyone’s fault.

Because I think it brings us back to personal responsibility for our actions. Two-Face kills because Two-Face kills, and the Joker kills because the Joker kills. And, yes, because they’ve ended up a little crazy. And they need help, and should get it. But is letting them out justice?

Whoa, justice, that’s the question that started Plato’s Republic, so maybe I should leave it with that as a question. Is it just to only punish the person whose “fault” it is? In the comic, according to the psychologist, that would be Batman, and only Batman. Or, is it just to punish the person who committed the acts? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

I am not sure what my next comic I read and review will be – I hope to do a bit more for Batman 75, and I am looking at both Hush and The Long Halloween. I was going to read The Dark Knight Strikes Back, but it was just not the same and didn’t draw me in. I am blogging comics right now on Sourcerer, so you can catch up with me there!


11 responses to “The Dark Knight Returns and Moral Relativism

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  2. Great post, I like that you gave thorough attention to this one aspect and put it in context. Batman’s kind of an interesting case, and the perfect superhero for the situation… He exists, totally and completely, because of pre-existing crime. He is, again, the opposite of a hero like Superman, who comes at things from a much more inspirational place.

    Hush is one of my absolute favorites, yay!


    • Batman exists because of the crime, and as they focus on particularly with the Nolan movies, the crime escalates because of Batman. But it doesn’t. But it does. But it doesn’t.

      It’s not an easy one to answer. I like in the recent episode of Arrow – they head down to Corto Maltese, because they pretty much have their city cleaned up by now. Several years of superhero crime fighting can do that! So of course we’re going to see more of super villains to tear that illusion of peace back down…

      Oh, and saying Superman comes from an inspirational place once again makes me think of Man of Steel… and how they failed at that. Just really leaves me wondering what the next movie will be like!…

      Both Hush and The Long Halloween were checked out from the library, so I am waiting on them and we’ll see what I get my hands on first! Glad to hear the recommendation, though, will definitely make sure I read Hush!


      • Yep! That’s also interesting on a meta level, traditional superhero stories very often have heroes fighting everyday hoodlums for a long time, then escalate to supervillains to keep things interesting. So, in that sense, the supervillains really are there because of the hero.

        Superman can work in darker stories, those are some of my favorites for him. And really I enjoyed Man of Steel well enough. I just don’t think Superman works very well when the whole origin and plot and everything are twisted toward “dark,” unless maybe it’s a cool Elseworlds idea and the whole story holds up. (Man of Steel had two main problems: Being too dark, and just not being a great movie in execution.)


        • I need to read more Superman, because I haven’t read much DC in general. But I’m leading with Batman 🙂 Any Superman you’d recommend?

          And yeah, Man of Steel was just… off. They killed a lot of people. It’ll be interesting to see where they go with a world where that’s happened!


          • Kingdom Come is one of my favorites, and it’s basically a Superman story. (Even a dark one!)

            I’d recommend Superman: For Tomorrow, and I also enjoyed All Star Superman and Superman For All Seasons. Plus, if you’re starting with Batman, the Superman/Batman series by Jeph Loeb is often very good!


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