Batman has a very well-established mythos surrounding him as a hardened crime-fighter who works with the cops to bring down vicious criminals, making the mostly dangerous Gotham City a little bit safer. But can The Dark Knight Returns, which transforms Gotham’s familiar weirdo-plagued city into a war zone, keep Bruce Wayne’s heroism intact?
From the first pages of Frank Miller’s classic Batman story, it becomes clear that this isn’t exactly Saturday morning cartoon kind of material. It’s a non-canonical story, so Miller was given the freedom to go crazy with it and do whatever he wanted. So Batman has been retired for a while, Dick Grayson is estranged so to speak, Jim Gordon is getting ready to retire soon, and the gang known as The Mutants has started a war against order in Gotham, even instituting crime quotas for their members. Bruce understandably has a hard time not jumping in. And although he tries to stay out of it, he can’t get it out of his mind. He has to get back in the game. He has to fight for Gotham’s soul.
So he does. And although Miller’s comic has a bit of a boring layout with nearly always the exact same grid layout of panels across the page, he does a phenomenal job of capturing the spirit of The Bat. But beyond the battles in the dark, the new Robin, and a very awkward incarnation of the Joker, Miller tackles another problem which is always on my mind when reviewing superhero comic books – is he a violent vigilante or a brave hero? Miller expounds on the issue in the form of televised arguments between Harvey Dent’s (and the Joker’s) therapist, who insists that Batman is to blame for the masked freaks of Gotham, and Lana Lang, who is supportive of Batman. So the book doesn’t do what many comics do in assuming that you’re on the hero’s side. That makes for an interesting discussion that most books in this genre don’t approach.
But the stakes are higher for Batman, and his methods become more escalated as a result. He’s nearly beaten to death by the Mutant leader, and responds with ferocity, nearly killing the gang’s leader right in front of them, with the intent of crushing their spirit. His improved Batmobile is of military caliber, and while he never kills, he lands several criminals in hospitals, a fact that is occasionally brought to the reader’s attention. But even Batman’s no-kill rule is challenged here, with Batman mulling the question of the Joker’s death when he escapes and begins another savage stream of chaos. Eventually, Batman’s brutal tactics even attract the attention of the president, who sends Superman to take care of him, resulting in the iconic climactic battle between the two titans of crime-fighting.
It becomes increasingly apparent over the series’ four parts that Batman is even more angry than normal. He’s more aggressive, more brutal, and more animalistic. And although the last half of the series suffers from a lack of a cohesive storyarch, with the Mutant gang having been dealt with, the question of Bruce Wayne’s heroism is still strong. But the interesting thing is that by the end, Bruce seems to agree, to an extent, with the opponents of his methods. He makes peace with that. It’s a bit of an unexpected ending, and in a way helps us to see through to Bruce’s character underneath the mask. Even though his crusade was brutal and violent, it was a good war to wage. He wanted to make Gotham a safer place, and give souls tinkering on the edge of good and evil a reason to stay on the side of good. Even if you decry Batman’s methods, you cannot say he was motivated by evil.
But does it take an escalated amount of profanity and violence to make that point? The ultimate message of this book is good, even if the journey doesn’t compare to Miller’s Batman story Year One, but this is far from a child’s story. There’s easily double the amount of profanity in most Batman books, with a preference for s*** in place of the typical “milder” profanities. So there are redeeming qualities here, but the negative manages to outweigh the positive, making this story more about relishing in the darkness than shining light on redemption.