Friday, February 22, 2008

The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns is one of those works that’s so canonized, it can be tough to look at it with fresh eyes, to react in a way that goes beyond either “It’s a classic” or “It’s overrated.” The Casablanca to Watchmen’s Citizen Kane, it changed comics forever, but the first time I read the book, I didn’t love it.

On the same day in 2000, I went to the library and checked out Watchmen and Dark Knight. I read Watchmen first and totally loved the book. It was reading Watchmen that hooked me on comics, and for the next few years, I was hoping that every book I picked up would have the impact that Watchmen did. So, when I read The Dark Knight, I enjoyed it, but didn’t fully appreciate what it was. I read the book again over the past week and got it a lot more. This is a truly fantastic, manic and riveting book that taps into the zeitgeist of its time just as powerfully as Watchmen did.

Reading the book today, what jumps out is both how different the worldview is, with its decrepit cities and cold war paranoia, and how similar it is, you could recast Miller’s Reagan with Bush and not miss a beat. I’d argue that what makes the book so good is not the much vaunted grim and grittiness, it’s the political aspect of the book. This is a work about societal issues and ideas, the darkness and violence is all about creating a world in which to explore those issues. People think it’s all about Batman attacking people, that’s not what matters, but the thing the imitators don’t realize is that without the political content, all that violence comes off as empty posturing.

Structurally, the book spends as much, if not more time, showing the media’s reaction to Batman as it does on Batman himself. The pages are divided into many small panels, recreating the feel of TV news. This immerses you in the world of Gotham, and puts you in a better place to analyze the morality of what Batman is doing. That’s the key question of the work, is Batman right? It’s a tough question to answer, Miller puts you in a place where Batman’s actions are good, where he saves lives and doesn’t destroy them, but many of his arguments run counter to the sort of laws I’d like to see in the real world.

The aspect of Miller’s philosophy that I can agree with is the focus on individual action in pursuit of a better world. Over the course of the book, Batman ‘converts’ the mutant gang to his cause, and turns them in to the Sons of Batman. He takes their violent impulses and turns them towards the pursuit of something positive. Superman in the work is a servant of the power structure, rather than changing the world for the better, he’s fighting the battles of a government that could care less about him. Bruce frequently talks about us and them, and he seems sad at the fact that Clark has chosen to side with the normals rather than the heroes like him. At the end of the work, we see the failure of Clark’s choice, he brings about the nuclear destruction, and it’s only Bruce who can save the city from chaos.

In the work, it’s precisely Batman’s ordinariness that makes him a powerful symbol. No one else can be Superman, but anyone could be Batman, Carrie Kelly could be Batman, the mutant gang could be Batman, it’s just a matter of committing to doing the right thing. However, the dangerous thing about the work is that they create a world in which Batman is needed. Cities today, at least New York, is very different from what we see here? Walking around at night, I don’t feel scared, and I don’t know that someone like Batman is needed.

But, what about in a city like Baltimore? How would Batman fit into The Wire? Someone like Batman could stop some innocent people being robbed, but crime is such a systemic problem, it’s a bit too complex for one man to solve. Batman can protect the streets, but it’s harder to change the world. That’s what he does with the mutant gang, but they are only a viable alternative in a world like the end of the book, where things are in total chaos. Batman and the mutant gang are a bit like gunslingers of the old West, they’re there to civilize cities, but once the cities are saved, they have no purpose anymore, and will have to move on.

As I mentioned before, the depiction of Reagan in the book really jumps out. The man is so canonized now, with Republican candidates falling over each other to be the next Reagan, here, it’s clear that we’ve already got the next Reagan and he’s the worst president of all time. Reagan here is never depicted without an American flag, and is always going on about defending the cause of freedom and God and all that good stuff. He’s this obnoxious, faux populist idiot, with all the same appeal as our current president.

For all its political dimension, this is still on some level an action story, and in that respect, it really is the ultimate Batman story, spinning the character through a really intense distillation of everything that makes him interesting. It’s the template for countless Batman stories since, and I don’t think it’s been eclipsed since in comics. The core of any Batman story, for me, is that there’s a slight psychosis to the character. He’s got to be unstable, he may have a point, but there’s also a level of joy that comes from fighting crime. The beauty of Batman Returns is the way it points out the thin line between him and his foes. He gets the same rush from fighting crime that they do from being criminals, and if he wasn’t already wealthy, it’s quite possible he’d be on the other side of the law.

So, next up will be the controversial sequel to this legend, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The book got a lot of criticism, but I’ve heard it takes things further over the top, and I’m eager to see that. One of things I hated about Batman Begins is how under the top is, it’s a dire, boring Batman film. Dark Knight Returns takes things to some crazy places, and I’m eager to see Miller go further off the rails. And, in June, I’m eagerly awaiting the TPB drop of this Dark Knight character’s backstory in the apparently totally insane ‘The Goddamn Batman.’


David Golding said...

There was an excellent discussion of DKR in the comics blogosphere back in 2004. You can get a summary page of links courtesy of Dave Fiore.

Lately I've had DKR popping round my mind. No doubt prompted by the end of the Doom Patrol reprints, which start with a revision of DKR's opening.

Anyway, I've been thinking about Watchmen as revisionist sequel to DKR. Batman gets to be Dreiberg (classic Batman), Rorschach (dark Batman), and Veidt (political Batman)---perhaps suggesting Moore thinks that you can't just synthesise Batman, because you inevitably leave things out, especially in the move to give him a uniform politics. (When Moore did Killing Joke, he makes it clear he prefers the past as conflicted rather than synthetic.) Superman ("big blue"!) gets to be Dr Manhattan, perhaps suggesting Moore thinks Superman could never be bound by politics.

I don't know if any of this makes sense---DKSA works as a response to both, but I'll leave that till you read it.

Mauricio said...

I know we´'ll never agree on this, but I think Batman Begins is a remarkable film. You seem to resent that the film chooses to play itself as an urban noir, and not as a comic book or a pop fantasy, but that's the point, actually. It really reimagines the whole Batman universe from a completely different place, and creates in the process another kind of fantasy world. It feels very fresh. I wasn't surprised that the Ledger's Joker looked so good, and yet, very different. That's Nolan's style, as in The Prestige: it's magic, but it's not the magic you expect, and that's what makes it truly magical. I liked Batman Returns. It's a cool freak pop opera, but come on... a masterpiece? It looks extremely dated now. On the other hand, I never understood how Miller went from the brilliant design of DKR and Ronin to the vulgar cliche of something like Sin City. We´ll never know!

Patrick said...

The thing I dislike about both Batman Begins and The Prestige is that they're no fun. They have a lot of signifiers of fun, action, magic, Batman, but watching the movies is a joyless affair. Just the feel of the films is so dire and staid, it just doesn't make me excited about watching the film. That's not to say that movies need be not serious, Irreversible is one of the heaviest films you'll ever see, but it's presented in such a way that it's utterly riveting.

I think you could say the same about Dark Knight, it's a really heavy story, full of violence and awful deeds, but it's played in such a way that you get joy out of what's happening, and are really emotionally engaged with what's happening. Miller's Batman is such a mythic figure, it's hard to think of anyone capable of translating him to film. The thing that makes Batman Returns successful is that it's a kind of internal psychodrama, in which Batman spars with three people who represent the different aspects of his own self identity. Even though Keaton was less overtly 'disturbed' than Bale's Batman, there was a core of psychosis that I found lacking in Begins. The point of Begins seemed to be, you know what, being Batman kind of makes sense, and I'm not so sure that's what our take away from the character should be.

As for Returns being dated, there's a few things that feel very 90s, but I think the film still looks great, and the model effects in the movie will age a lot better than CG stuff. The score is fantastic, and Pfeiffer's Catwoman is an amazing performance. Yes, there's some lines and plot structures that are very beholden to the blockbuster movie genre, but on the whole, it's still a great movie.

As for Miller, he does seem to have lost it a bit of late. Sin City has its moments, but each volume got more and more derivative. I did just finish Dark Knight Strikes Again though, and I really loved it. The work goes straight over the edge, but it's a wonderful fall.

Patrick said...

Dave, did you see the recent Morrison interview where he talks about the idea that all of Batman's history happened to one guy in a 15 year span? Basically, he started out grim and gritty, lightened up when Robin came along, then after Robin went to college, he got back to the darkness of the 70s years. It's interesting stuff conceptually, and works as a way to unite the disparate depictions of the character throughout the years.

I think Superman is certainly an easier character to deal with as a unified entity because he doesn't have the deep identity conflict Batman has. Is Batman a diseased personality of Bruce Wayne, or is Wayne a cover he puts on for the world? Miller clearly thinks of Batman as the true man, but who can say?

I read somewhere that Miller read Watchmen halfway through DKR, so the works were definitely influencing each other. I'm not sure what the deal was all around, but Rorshach has much in common with the Batman of DKR. And, I never thought of that Doom Patrol opening as a DKR reference, but it definitely is.

And, side note, I just finished DKSA and what an insane work it was. I thought it was brilliant, and even though it was much less narratively and thematically focused and coherent than DKR, I would actually rank it as the superior work. I've got to blog that one up, but not since Seven Solders #1 have I read a comic that left me so simlutaneously baffled and in awe of what it was doing.

David Golding said...

"Miller read Watchmen halfway through DKR"? I didn't know that. I assumed, if there was any knowledge, it would be the other way round, as DKR was finished publication three months before Watchmen started.

I don't think Miller sees a deep identity split in DKR. His Wayne is Batman, and his Batman is Wayne. There is no playboy or businessman persona. The name and suit are for the bad guys' benefit. Note that his choice of reflective villains, Two Face and Joker, don't have secret identities either. (This isn't Steve Englehart's Batman.)

I've read the interviews with Morrison where he suggests the "it all happened" approach---which is really just the Marvel approach---but I understand that a) he undermines this by getting details wrong, and b) he cheats by casting more outre elements as dreams. But it's nice that he's trying to get more variety in the characterisation.

Mauricio said...

You're right about Nolan's style: there's never a big pay off in narrative terms. It's all very fractured. But for me that's a plus, not a minus. I agree with DKSA: it's an awful and vulgar comicbook, but a very enjoyable one. Almost a guilty pleasure. I liked irreversible: it's a very simple thing (death and decay are irreversible), but extremely well made. The club sequence is so extreme and violent, it's an instant classic. By the way, if you like Gaspar Noe, you'd love Baise Moi. It's a feminist natural born killers kinda tale about two girls that's almost porno extreme. The directors, two girls (a writer and a former porn director)- are very close to Noe's sensibility. It's very hard to watch, but extremely enjoyable at the same time.

Patrick said...

I read about Miller reading Watchmen halfway through here. Maybe it's one of those apocryphal stories, the works are both products of their time, so I'd be hesitant to say that one definitely influenced the other.

And, I loved Baise Moi. I reviewed it after I saw it. It's definitely got the same anarchic spirit as Noe's work. I'm eagerly looking forward to Noe's next film, Enter the Void.