It’s hard to believe it’s been over 20 years since Frank Miller almost single-handedly changed the landscape of superhero comic books forever. BeforeThe Dark Knight Returns, dark, gritty protagonists fighting in an ultra-violent world were the exception, not the rule. In this career-defining epic, however, Miller injected Batman with a seriousness that forever divorced him from the campy ’60s TV show that the general public associated with him.
Now 55 and retired from the superhero game, Bruce Wayne watches as his beloved Gotham City crumbles under the weight of crime and corruption. Superman, the epitome of American values, has sold his soul to the government, and the world seems to cry for a hero who will do something. And therein lies the rub: Doing “something” in Miller’s stark world means taking the law into your own hands and fighting back, something Batman is eager to do. The Dark Knight Returns works as both satire and social commentary, a rare feat for any superhero comic. (That the satire and social commentary are decidedly of the ’80s does not in any way diminish the relevancy of the work; it stands the test of time.) It’s been a decade since Batman has been seen in Gotham City. But as his beloved city becomes overrun with crime and squalor, he decides its time to come out of retirement and get the job he started done right. To do that, he’ll need help (including a new female Robin) and he’ll have to battle the establishment.
Left to his own devices, as with Sin City or 300, Frank Miller’s work can border on misogynistic and humorously homoerotic. Here, though, with one of the most famous comic book characters of all time, Miller is able to cut through the extraneous materials to get right to the heart of the man: bizarre, savage, committed, driven, and maybe even insane, but all for a good cause (namely, the eradication of evil and injustice in Gotham City).
The Dark Knight Returns is a tale of ideologies and how our perception of right and wrong, justice and retribution, and crime and punishment all ultimately decide our role in society. Miller doesn’t scrimp on the action, either. Batman’s final battle with the Joker alone makes this story worth reading. Miller takes risks with the artwork that pay off tenfold as well. This is not just any superhero story, and it shows.
Reviewed by John Hogan on May 1, 1997
The Dark Knight Returns