Nick Setchfield says it’s time Batman got over The Dark Knight Returns
It’s in danger of becoming the definitive Batman
Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in a Gotham alley. Psychiatrists call that a defining event ( the rest of us would call it a major downer). It’s his essential tragedy, the trauma he can never escape. He’s cursed to revisit it, endlessly, in merciless slo- mo, every time Batman’s brought to the screen. But there’s another defining event in his history, another shadow on his psyche, another scar that’s never allowed to heal. It’s called The Dark Knight Returns.
Yes, I get it: Frank Miller’s graphic novel was groundbreaking, revolutionary, important. It was the kick in the cape the superhero genre needed in the doldrums of the mid-’ 80s. Alongside Watchmen it redefined and deepened the possibilities of the medium. And its success forced Hollywood to finally take notice of Batman. 1989’ s Tim Burton movie would never have happened without Miller’s compelling, provocative vision, a take that finally laid the camp, day- glo ghost of the 1960s TV show to rest.
But that’s all it was. A take. An interpretation. A riff on the Batman myth, no more and no less valid than Adam West in tights. The Dark Knight Returns was a thought experiment, an Elseworlds tale, a What If ? What if you nudged this character to an extreme? What if you amplified the darkness in his DNA? What if you took all those quasi- fascist currents and gave them their head? The result was a hell of a story, part- political satire, partDirty Harry power fantasy, partRagnarok. But it’s only one story in seven decades of stories.
Miller’s take is so powerful, so persuasive, that it’s in danger of becoming the definitive Batman, eclipsing all others. It’s said to be the key influence on the upcoming DC superhero movies, shaping everything from the central conflict in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice to Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad.
But Batman is too rich a myth to be bound by one narrow interpretation. He’s the worldhopping science fiction hero of the ’ 50s, the gothic avenger of the ’ 70s, the psychedelic timetraveller of Grant Morrison’s run. These Batmen have as much right to exist as Miller’s. The Batcave’s big enough for all of them.
Time for the Knight to be a bit less dark?