Reviewing Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns would be akin to reviewing Frank Herbert’s Dune , which is one of my Top Ten Favourite Novels Of All Time and so perfect, in my opinion, a review is unnecessary. A discussion of the plot and literary merit would work, in both cases. Here I’m simply going to talk about Batman and why he is my hero.
The Dark Knight Returns is work of fictional art, a book other comics measure themselves by, and a definitive statement about heroes, crime and culture. Oh, it goes much deeper, but I get lost down those sorts of rabbit holes, so going to keep this simple.
I’ve never been much of a comic book reader. I think with practice, I could accustom my eyes to the jump and weave, but I tend to read rather quickly and I like knowing where the next words are going to be. I’m also somewhat impatient. Waiting a week for the next chapter would be…painful. Likely as not, I’d pick up something else in the meantime and forget to look for issue four. I fare better with collected comics and graphic novels.
I’ve never been much of a superhero fan. I read a lot of science fiction and a good amount of fantasy. I’m not averse to the idea of super beings. Stories about them aren’t really my thing, though. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and some of my favourite novels are about extraordinary beings. What draws me to a character is just that, however. Their ‘character’. Who they are, not what they are. Bruce Wayne is one of those characters.
I used to watch Batman as a kid. I enjoyed the simple adventures of Batman and Robin. We’re trained to absorb TV in episodes. The format worked for me. But, I grew up and left cartoons behind. Then I married a man with a comic book collection and got sucked into the world of cartoons and anime. Different story. Upshot is, I found myself in a movie theatre with my husband and a couple of his friends watching yet another Batman movie. I’ve never been much of a superhero movie fan, either.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins entertained me. It felt like more than a superhero movie. It was the story of a boy who became a man, a boy who carried a dark passenger from youth to adulthood. A thirst for vengeance and justice. I willingly went along to see the sequel The Dark Knight… and got lost about halfway through. The Joker’s chaotic presence repelled me, thrust me outside the film.
Tragically, Heath Ledger died and, appropriately, he was awarded a posthumous Oscar for his performance. I can’t say as this endeared the film to me. I’m a huge Christian Bale fan and, at the time, was a burgeoning Christopher Nolan fan. The Joker (and Ledger’s performance) seemed obvious, out there. I wanted to appreciate the quieter work.
Nolan took a number of years to put together The Dark Knight Rises. During that time I saw Batman Begins again. I liked it even better than the first time. In the meantime, I also developed a bit of respect for Heath Ledger. I’d always liked him (he’s pretty), but hadn’t ever really seen him in something good. And he’s not pretty as the Joker in The Dark Knight. I also attended several other superhero movies with my husband and as my appreciation for the genre grew, I found I was attracted to a certain kind of hero (aren’t we all?): the guy without super powers. The smart men, the angry men, the men who kick arse without the aid of genetic mutation and/or alien origin/intervention. Iron Man and Batman top the list. I also like Professor X, even though he’s a telepath. It’s more about what he does with his powers than the power, itself.
If I had to pick one, it’s an easy choice: Bruce Wayne, as himself or as the Batman. Particularly as the Dark Knight. It’s the fact he’s just a man who pushes himself beyond normal limits. Yes, he has the funds for fancy gadgetry, but the accoutrements are just gimmicks without someone to give them purpose. It’s his mission, and his ownership of it. Really, it’s bloody sad. He can never bring his parents back and avenging their death doesn’t bring him much peace because he struggles with the twin passengers of vengeance and justice. Like most of us, he’s trying to make sense of the world, he’s just a more active participant. And he’s so goddamned good. He is a knight.
With the impending release of Christopher Nolan’s third movie, I bought the first two and watched them again. This time ‘round, the second film made more sense. The Joker made sense (not really, but yeah, sorta). Ledger’s performance astounded me. The entire film had me on the edge of my seat and by the final scene where Batman becomes the Dark Knight, I was in tears. The idea he would take that burden and carry it moved me beyond reason. It has become one of my most memorable film scenes.
Quite simply, the third movie, The Dark Knight Rises, rocked. While it differed from anticipation, it completely fulfilled expectation. And, it cemented Batman’s position, forever, as my hero. My superhero.
I could go on and on about why I love Batman, but I’ve yet to talk about the book that supposedly inspired Christopher Nolan, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. I picked it up to get an idea of where Nolan got his ideas from. I wanted to read the story so eloquently told by his trilogy. Once again, I was impressed—not only by Miller’s vision, but by the way Nolan capture it, distilled it and used it to tell his own story, to create his own Batman.
The Dark Knight Returns assumes some knowledge of Batman. I had just enough to follow the story. Miller’s Batman is even darker than Nolan’s. He felt less human, but no less a man, if that makes sense. I didn’t relate to him as well, but I still understood his drive and his vision. The end of the story with Harvey Dent was revealing and Miller’s Joker was truly terrifying. What really differentiates Miller’s Batman from Nolan’s was the social commentary injected into the comic. I felt the 80s. I relieved them, even through his bizarre interpretation.
I don’t know if I can write anything that truly does either of these men and their hero, Batman, justice. But doubting my capacity to find the right words rarely deters me from putting something down. Now that I’ve found my hero, though, I’m going to hope someone else doesn’t take him and reinterpret him in a way I disagree with. That’s what being part of a fandom is all about, right?