Running Head: AN IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE OF THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
An Ideological Critique of The Dark Knight Returns
Wayne State University
An Ideological Critique of The Dark Knight Returns
At the 2013 San Diego Comic Con, fans were promised a major reveal of the sequel to the latest Superman franchise endeavor, Man of Steel. Zack Snyder, the director, was on the stage speaking to the fans, when he called to the front Harry Lennix, who was in the film. Snyder told the crowd that Lennix would read a quote that many of them would recognize in order to break the big news. Harry walked up to the podium, put on his glasses and started to read the quote. “I want you to remember, Clark….in all the years to come, in your most private moments, I want you to remember my hand at your throat, I want you to remember the one man who beat you”. In the middle of the quote, the fans started erupting in cheers, which was followed by a Batman logo superimposed by a Superman one, appearing on the screen. The quote was from Frank Miller’s (1986) critically acclaimed novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which is still well known twenty-seven years after its original release.
In this paper, I will be doing an ideological critique of the popular novel, which has recently been adapted into a full-length animated feature film. I will begin by giving a rationale for doing an ideological critique of a superhero graphic novel and give a brief overview of the artifact. I will then move into an explanation of the method. From there I will discuss my analysis and will conclude with the implications.
The Rationale and Artifact
Many people have trivialized the impact that comics have on contemporary culture. People, who have never read a comic book, might argue that comics are written for children or adults that have failed to mature properly. Some academics may even point to the decline of the comic book industry as a reason that this medium warrants little attention. My rationale is not to study the comic book industry, but the creative ground for the booming superhero culture within American society.
The new millennium has witnessed the emergence of the superhero blockbuster. The movies with the biggest budgets and the highest grosses almost exclusively involve fictional superheroes. The most popular sitcom on television is Big Bang Theory, which is about four friends that are deeply immersed in “nerd culture”. While there is a clear stereotype of those that are involved in nerd culture, the mainstream popularity suggests that these characters deserve plenty of attention. Since I cannot focus on all of these heroes, I will focus on the most popular, arguably.
In May of 1939, Bob Kane and Milton Finger unleashed a crime fighting hero within National Allied Publication’s Detective Comic issue number twenty-seven (Scivally, 2011). This fictional character was known upon his premiere as The Bat-Man, but is now referred to as Batman, among many other monikers. In the past seventy-four years this character has been used in comic books, radio shows, advertisements, live action movies, animated movies, animated television shows, and videogames. Paul Crutcher (2011) argues that Batman is one of the most iconic characters in comics, with stories such as Arkham Asylum, The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Hush as some of the best selling and prestigious in the industry. I would take this a step further and argue that the character has stood the test of time and emerged as one of the most popular fictional people in American history. The artifact I have chosen to analyze is one of the most popular Batman stories in his long history. It has been cited as an inspiration for Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, along with having an influence in the upcoming sequel to Man of Steel. The most popular story of the most popular character seems like a good artifact for an ideological critique.
Frank Miller’s (1986) Dark Knight Returns takes place in an alternate version of the 1980s America. In this universe, the government has made a deal with the world’s superheroes, effectively outlawing vigilante crime fighting. Superman enforces the new law as a puppet of Ronald Reagan’s administration. The story takes place approximately ten years after the law is enacted. Within these ten years, Gotham City police forces have lost complete control of the criminal element. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, spends his days participating in reckless activities and drinking alcohol. One night after experiencing crime on the street and watching the news covering endless criminal activity, he finds himself waking up in the Batcave. In his fifties now, Bruce decides to put the suit back on and come out of retirement.
Batman’s reappearance has a bipolar affect on the citizens of Gotham, with some praising his return and others disapproving of his methods and brutality toward the criminal element. Throughout the book, he faces off against common villains of Two Face and Joker along with new comers, the mutant gang. With the help of his new Robin, Carrie Kelley, he is able to bring justice to all these criminals. The final chapter of the story begins with a Russian attack on the United States. Superman is able to deflect a nuclear warhead, but unable to stop the nuclear winter that results. This, along with an electromagnetic pulse from the Russians, sends the country into chaos. Batman, his supporters, and Former Commissioner James Gordon are able to get the city back in order, resulting in Gotham becoming the safest place in America.
Unhappy with the embarrassment this causes, President Reagan evokes the superhero law and sends Superman to take him out, using any means necessary. The two titans engage in an epic battle in crime alley, the place where Bruce’s parents were killed. Using his bevvy of gadgets, Robin, and Green Arrow, Batman is able to subdue the Man of Steel. The long battle does have an impact on the Dark Knight and he has a heart attack and dies on the street. In the epilogue, the world has learned that Bruce Wayne was Batman, but due to a massive explosion and fire at Wayne Manor, all of his secrets along with his fortune were lost. During Bruce’s funeral, Clark detects a slight heartbeat. He looks over at Carrie with a puzzled look on his face and then winks at her with a smile. The story concludes with Bruce underground with Carrie, Green Arrow, and his young supporters. His new role will be training these youthful followers to take up his never-ending battle against injustice.
Will Wright (2005) argues that “the hero is integral to the culture of a society – that is, to the beliefs, values, and goals of a society – because the hero is integral to storytelling, the essence of culture” (pp. 146). There is an obvious use of heroes to demonstrate the values of a culture through the Bible, historical heroes, war heroes, and everyday heroes. Even celebrities are now considered to be heroes, which could be argued as a decline of values in modern America (Hollander, 2010).
Jamie Hughes (2006) argues that placing superheroes as the champions of justice and perfection, they are situated outside the realm of ideology. He goes further, claiming that outside of a few exceptions, no superheroes claim to have an affiliation with a political party, none are jaded by education, racism, sexism, or bigotry, and none of them fight crime because they believe they are on the side of God. Superheroes fight for the general good and their lack of ideological baggage creates an empty slate for an author to place the character within the ideology of their choosing. Isaac Cates (2011) argues “individual heroes and villains come to represent specific ideas, personality traits or ideologies; further, these allegorically charged characters can be placed in combination or conflict in order to act out psychological, moral, or political claims” (pp. 833). These heroes are often used explicitly to make political claims, express moral lessons, or shamelessly promote a product. Heroes can also be used more implicitly to promote, reinforce, marginalize or demonize an ideology.
Meenakshi Durham (2003) discusses the rise of the super heroine in recent media with popular characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the girls from Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Dark Angel, and pop stars like Britney Spears. She argues that while many in society see this as an expression of girl power, much of the show is still rooted in the hegemonic ideology of traditional gender traits. While these characters are all powerful women, they still are white, slender with curves, abnormally attractive, and the majority of the actresses are the spokesperson for beauty products.
William Graebner (2013) discusses the political use of heroes by the conservative movement from the 70s to the 80s. During this time, there was civil unrest due to the Vietnam War, civil right battles, and counterculture movements. There was a clear cultural shift in the heroes of the general public. Prior to this time period, heroes were the historical and military heroes in America’s past. However, during the 70s and 80s, people were more interested in civil right leaders, entertainers and sports stars. Graebner argues that this caused the conservative movement to create a narrative that the liberal ideology had destroyed the American hero. Leading the charge of this narrative was President Reagan, who was labeled a hero that stood for traditional American values.
It is clear to see that heroes can be used as a strong rhetorical tool to reinforce the hegemonic ideology of a culture, which is demonstrated by the work of Durham and Graebner. During the 2006 Wondercon, Frank Miller argued that “entertainers need to stand up to terrorism like the 1940’s artists stood up to Hitler. Miller seeks to address the American people as directly as possible to remind them of what they are up against” (Kowalik, 2010, pp. 398). With the popularity of fictional heroes, the clean slate discussed by Hughes, and the cultural values embedded in heroes, it seems like a deeper analysis of the ideology implemented by the author is warranted. Using conservative and progressive values as a frame, I looked at the Dark Knight Returns to see if it had any ideological values.
While reading the story and watching the film, I found some clear conservative values that were expressed by the hero of the story. This was coupled with the demonizing, trivializing, or mocking of progressive values in the story. The ideological values that I found in the story that I will discuss in this paper include individual responsibility versus the victim, heterosexuality versus homosexuality, traditional versus liberal, war versus diplomacy, which includes a clear critique of the lack of conservative values in the Reagan administration.
Individual responsibility versus victim
While Reagan was president, he crafted the image of a hero to include those people that took personal responsibility for their lives and cast off the option to be victimized. The media had been reluctant at labeling those that lacked the free will as a hero. Survivors of the holocaust and POW’s were normally considered victims of chance and therefore were not given the title of hero. Reagan flipped the switch and pulled in the POW as hero, which suggested that they did not consider themselves to be the victim. This idea directly contradicts the liberalism idea of those marginalized as victims of racism, capitalism, sexism, or dominant culture (Graebner, 2013). Heroes do not sit back as the victim, but take personal responsibility for their predicament. This argument marginalizes people that are on welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and other such government programs. Reagan’s goal was to bring the white working class into the conservative fold and marginalizing those that referred to themselves as victims of the system seemed like a winning strategy.
The Dark Knight Returns includes many “man/woman on the street” interviews where people are given the opportunity to voice their opinion on the Batman. Those that don’t support Batman argue that the rights of the criminals that he has attacked are being violated. In one specific interview, a rich older white man is discussing that the criminals do not deserve Batman’s brand of justice, but should be subject to rehabilitative methods. In the middle of his interview he is interrupted and responds by saying, “No, I’d never live in the city”. This interview demonstrates the contradiction that Miller sees in the liberal ideology that will cast this part of the population as victims, but refuses to interact with them in society.
This conversation of victim is taken a step further and applied to the main villains in the book. Harvey Dent, formerly Two Face, is given reconstructive surgery to repair the burnt side of his face. While the public is skeptical of him being cured of criminal activities, his psychiatrist assures the local media that he is healthy and innocent. Explaining Harvey’s condition, the psychiatrist cast Batman as the villain and Harvey as the weak-minded player in Batman’s narcissistic crusade. This argument is dismantled by the fact that Harvey Dent begins criminal activity immediately upon release. This is evidenced by Batman interrupting one of his endeavors on the first night he returns to the streets to fight crime. At the end of the Harvey Dent arc, the audience is let into the real reason of Harvey’s decent into criminal activity, which was a psychological break that caused him to see both sides of his face as scarred.
Finally, near the end of the story, there is an electromagnetic charge levied at the United States by the Russians. This blackout causes the entire city to fall into chaos with people fighting and looting, which leads to explosions and fires within many of the buildings. Batman, riding horseback, along with his pseudo followers, the Sons of the Bat, he is able to stop the fighting. He along with former Commissioner Gordon give embattled speeches about the condition of the city. They tell the citizens that the police and firefighters are not coming and it is there responsibility to protect and save their own community. Inspired by the conservative heroes, the people work together to put out the fires and protect the city. This action results in a journalist on television reporting that Gotham City is now the safest city in America, because all other cities have descended into chaos.
I see these scenes, along with the consistent media discussion about Batman, causing the behavior of the villains as a direct rebuke against the liberal idea of victimization. With the framing along with the audience’s identification with Batman, the argument of those marginalized in America seems silly. It reinforced the conservative stereotype that those that are victimized by American culture could improve their situation by casting off the label of victim and embrace personal responsibility.
Heterosexuality versus Homosexuality
Dr. Wertham, author of the 1954 study titled Seduction of the Innocent, made an argument that Batman and Robin demonstrate two characters that are homosexual. (as cited by Tipton, 2008). Along with violence, communism and other adult themes, this was considered as a negative influence on young readers. After the study was released to the public, the comic industry created a Comics Code to re-establish wholesome American values within comic books. From this point forward, that thought has been a consistent discussion about the relationship between the two characters along with a clear identification by comic fans in the homosexual culture. It is for this reason that Nathan Tipton (2008) argues that Frank Miller chose to go with a female Robin, instead of a male Robin.
Many might read this shift in gender as a nod to equal rights, but the character is never used the same way that previous Robins have in the past. Carrie Kelley does a lot of heroic acts in the comic, but most of them are from an administrative perspective. There are no scenes in which Batman and Robin are fighting alongside each other and Carrie Kelley is often relegated to waiting in the Batcopter or sitting along the margins of the crime scene as a support. This, along with the lack of traditional feminine qualities, suggests that the gender shift was for the homosexual reading in the past of Batman and Robin.
The introduction of the Joker is not made until the end of the first major story arc. As the Joker receives more attention in the story, it becomes extremely clear that the character is a homosexual. One of Joker’s enforcers is what appears to be a transgendered person. S/he is named Bruno, has the jawline and muscles of a man, but also has large breasts that are covered by swastikas. Jessica Kowalik (2010) argues that making one villain openly gay and another transgendered suggests that Batman is an enemy of the LBGT community, which is more evidence that he has conservative values.
In one of the “man on the street” interviews, the interviewee says that “Batman is kicking all the right butts….hopefully he will go after the homos next”. This line alone is a direct attack on the practice of homosexuality, comparing it to criminal activity. Considering that the character supports the actions of the Batman, the reader is encouraged to agree with the second statement due to the validity of the first statement. While the film adaptation did remove this line, it has not been removed from new digital releases of the comic.
Traditional versus Progressive
Throughout the film there is a clear distinction between the values of older people and those that are young. Graebner discusses a conservative argument that much of the shift from traditional American heroes to more varied heroes in entertainment is a result of a failing educational system. “Psychologist Kenneth E. Clark attributed the prevailing interest in rock stars and athletes as heroic figures to a society lacking in universal values and beliefs, a society in which there are no right answers” (as cited by Graebner, 2013, pp. 524).
On Batman’s first night fighting crime, he chases a group of thugs into an abandoned building. Arriving right on the heels of the Dark Knight are two police officers, one is middle aged, while the other is younger. The older officer attempts to hold the younger one back, explaining that the Bat is a good guy and he should enjoy the show. The younger one insists that Batman’s actions are wrong and enters the building, almost getting killed in the process. Once Batman cleans up the crew, the older officer welcomes him back.
Commissioner Gordon retires and in his farewell speech, he encourages the newer and younger police commissioner to welcome the Batman as an ally. Rejecting her elder’s wisdom, she declares a full out war against the Batman. As the story moves forward, the police administration is more concerned with bringing down the Batman than bringing down the real criminals in the story. The Joker, through his psychiatrist, has been able to secure a speaking engagement at the Bob Endocrine show, which is the equivalent of the Tonight Show. Instead of securing the studio, the new police commissioner, enlists the entire police force to stakeout the roof of the building, knowing that Batman will attempt to bring down the Joker. The police are unsuccessful in capturing Batman, but are successful in keeping both parties away from the studio, where Joker kills the entire studio audience. The young police leader is so backwards, that she is more concerned with the technical laws that are broken by the Batman and not the true crime that is committed by the Joker.
The last example of a critique on the progressive values of the young happens when Batman finally beats the mutant leader. The mutant followers are made up completely of young people. Once Batman stands above their leader, who is helpless with several broken bones, they scatter to follow different factions. Many of them continue to commit crimes, while the rest of them are inspired by Batman and decide to become vigilantes, tattooing their face to demonstrate their allegiance. Once Bruce is back at the manner, James Gordon reaches out to him asking him about his new group of followers. He shirks them off, saying that they are something that he can deal with later. This entire scene seems to suggest that young people’s ideological beliefs kind of blow with the wind. The tattooing of their face shows that they make impulsive decisions, giving loyalty to the latest fad.
War versus Diplomacy and the Reagan administration
The final value that I see playing out throughout the comic is war versus diplomacy, which is tied to a critique of the Reagan administration. Early in the comic, Batman is able to subdue the mutant leader and he is taken to jail. His followers threaten to attack the city if their leader is not released. In fear, their mayor goes to the prison to begin negotiations with the mutant leader. When he enters the cell, he is attacked and killed. Once the interim mayor takes power, he makes an announcement via the media that he is willing to negotiate with mutant gang. This problem is solved when Gordon releases the leader, providing an exit to the police station that leads to a giant mud pit. When the mutant leader arrives, he finds all his followers surrounding the pit, they had been tricked into being there by Robin. Batman then engages the mutant leader, completely beating him into submission. This is an obvious demonstration of the value of war over diplomacy and is in line with public statements that Miller has made.
Frank Miller has expressed the need for an aggressive foreign policy, openly supporting the military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror (Kowalik, 2010). His viewpoint seems to be one that supports the use of force, especially when dealing with foreign entanglements.
When this comic was written, there was a lot of anxiety in the American people about the Cold War. Ronald Reagan’s position in this conflict was one focused on deterring full-scale war, which was the same in the comic book. After Superman is able to disrupt the Soviet’s attack on the fictional country of Corto Maltese, they launch a nuclear warhead towards the United States. Instead of declaring war on the Soviet Union, Reagan sends Superman to deflect the warhead. Superman is able to deflect it, which almost costs him his life. Batman then criticizes Superman for allowing the Russians to take the lead in the arms race, suggesting that the United States should engage in full out war. Jessica Kowalik (2010) argues that this demonstrates Miller’s frustration with Reagan for having a less than aggressive position in handling the Cold War.
This critique of the Reagan administration continues through the film in both visual images and discourse. Mike Dubose (2007) discusses that Reagan used the cowboy myth to create this image of himself as an anti-politician hero. He mentioned how Reagan would have media events at his ranch, where he would ride around on a horse, dressed as a cowboy with boots and a hat. Inside of the comic book White House, there are picture frames on the wall of Ronald Reagan riding a horse in full cowboy garb. Considering Miller’s handling of the Reagan character, this seems like a direct attack on the false image that Reagan portrays as a heroic figure for the United States. This argument seems even stronger, when Reagan misspeaks while addressing the nation about the conflict in Corto Maltese. He tells the country that America is entering into the conflict to preserve American interests, pauses, then states, “I mean to protect the freedom of the Corto Maltese people”.
The critique continues while speaking to reporters, as one asks him how he plans to handle the Batman in Gotham City. He responds by saying that it is a state issue with a competent governor and mayor that can handle the situation. This is obviously not true, as he has already sent Superman to try and quell the situation. While his words suggest conservative values, his actions do not follow through. Near the end of the story, Reagan is embarrassed by the successful actions of Batman in the aftermath of the Soviet attack. Sending Superman to kill Batman to relieve the embarrassment is a direct violation of conservative values of a small government and ignores the foreign dangers that they still face.
Implications and Limitations
In this analysis, I believe it has unearthed the powerful ideologies that can be expressed through fictional heroes. In an Internet article written by Nicholas Slayton (accessed 2013), he argues that The Dark Knight Returns is the second most overrated graphic novel in history. His small article doesn’t go into much detail, but he highlights the misuse of the character as a major weakness of the comic. Frank Miller takes creative license, ignoring some of the major traits that have defined Batman as a character throughout his history, specifically his hatred of guns. I believe this is a valid argument, but the popularity of the comic, suggests that it has fallen on deaf ears. This seems to reinforce Jamie Hughes argument that heroes fall outside of the realm of ideology. This allows Frank Miller to come in and implement his personal ideology into a hero.
This strategy has been tried in the past with historical non-fiction heroes. Leroy Dorsey (1995) discusses how Teddy Roosevelt attempted to reframe the frontier hero as one that blazed a new trail and battled nature, into one that conserved nature wisely. He argues that this narrative was mildly successful during his presidency, but was quickly forgotten once he left office. Obviously, if this fails to have long-term effects with abstract heroes, how difficult would it be to manipulate concrete heroes like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, or John F. Kennedy. On the other hand, fictional characters allow for manipulation through stories that are told and read over and over.
This rhetoric becomes even more powerful as these characters age and develop his or her own reputation as unquestionable heroes. Any American can point to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson as heroic leaders, despite their participation and views in the slavery age of this country (Mihesuah, 2005). These historical characters are used to evoke honorable traits and values that are important to this country. The difference between these characters and fictional characters is the ability to manipulate their stories. Among the right influential crowd, Batman can be highlighted for positive values and traits that he possesses. Using a comic book story to add or shift a character’s values could be a powerful influential tool.
Graebner (2013) argues that the conservative movement was more successful in using the hero narrative in the late 70s and 80s. I would ague that the majority of mainstream heroes reinforce the hegemonic ideology. Hero narratives are used to express a societies values, beliefs, and honorable traits. Within the entertainment industry, which is driven by capitalism, only the voices that can identify with the majority of audience members are accepted. The heroes that speak for the marginalized viewpoint fails to gain a following and eventually are relegated to an obscure comic book company or buried at the bottom of the Netflix barrel. The popularity of superheroes makes them a powerful rhetorical tool to reinforce the hegemonic ideology.
Finally, does the use of superheroes rhetorically deserve more attention in the political and academic community? Considering that almost half the country fails to vote in a presidential election, and with many of them being young voters, it seems like fictional heroes may be the missing link needed to identify with these voters. The majority of civilized cultures turn to superheroes to educate, inspire, and emulate. Ancient Greek mythology, religious heroes, and historical heroes are all called upon rhetorically. It seems like superheroes, if handled correctly, could be a powerful rhetorical tool.
Obviously there are some clear limitations to this study. First, much of the ideological underpinnings could be ignored when given a surface read or viewing of the material. Without a closer analysis, the audience might not even realize that the author is suggesting that the superhero holds one value over another. The latest Hunger Games (Collins, 2008) discussion might explain this point nicely. I watched and read a lot of popular reviews of the films and books, with none of them discussing the clear critique of a Capitalist society. Instead of having a discussion about the trickle down economics that are demonstrated in the film, with the protagonist coming from the bottom rung, reviewers focus on pace, action scenes, and the acting ability of the actors.
The second limitation that I see is the seriousness that is given to superheroes. While they are popular among general society, the use of them rhetorically could be deemed silly by the majority of Americans. If a politician tries to use a fictional hero in a speech as a visual aid, or in a debate, s/he may completely lose credibility among the hegemonic political culture. The third potential limitation is that the superhero culture may simply be a fad. I doubt heroes will ever become irrelevant within American culture, but their popularity and saturation in the entertainment industry may fade throughout the years.
Throughout this paper, I have done an ideological critique of the popular Frank Miller novel, The Dark Knight Returns (1986). My goal was to discover the ideologies, if any, that existed that were promoted in the novel and what values that were expressed through this viewpoint. What I found was that the main hero, his supporters, and his detractors were used rhetorically to highlight a conservative ideology and marginalize a progressive ideology. Considering that the Batman character does not necessarily stand for these values, this strategy seems potentially powerful. With the popularity and influence of the character, the author is able to insert his or her ideology on an unsuspecting audience.
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