Batman’s Dark Side

Batman in a frame from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (DC Comics)
In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Batman reverted to his dark origins.

It is hard to recall in our era — when even the normally puckish Flash is revenge-driven and full of angst on his TV show — that once upon a time Batman was a campy cliché-spouter wandering around in the daylight. Many of those who laud today’s dark Batman blame the earlier saccharine version on the Adam West Sixties-era TV show. But the reality is that Batman had reflected this sunniness since 1940.

After the TV show predictably ran aground in 1968, a countercultural comic-book writer named Denny O’Neil eschewed three decades of sunniness and went back to Batman’s roots as he originally appeared in 1939. This Depression-era Batman was far from campy; he was a vengeful creature of the night, more Dracula than Dudley Do-Right.

O’Neil made Bruce Wayne obsessively dedicated to eradicating all crime, his obsession stemming from his anger and outrage at seeing his parents gunned down before his eyes. But he was more or less stable, possessed of honor and goodness.

Not until Frank Miller came along was the idea entertained that dressing up every night like Dracula might be the result of not only an obsession, but a mental illness as well. Heroics became therapy.

In 1986, Miller, while retaining the underwear-style costume, published a new version of Batman in a four-issue set of comic books for DC Comics, The Dark Knight Returns, which garnered the attention of mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone and of horror-author Stephen King. Sales of Batman comics had been down, and so, like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, Miller was given carte blanche.

No longer was Batman permanently 30. Now he was 55, and he spent his retirement from the cape and cowl guzzling alcohol and harboring a death wish; in a speedway race, Wayne even considered crashing his car into a concrete wall. He tried to be kinder, gentler, even forgiving of the man who murdered his parents (“He was sorry for what he did”).

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But beneath all of this lurked the creature of the night. And it would be what Gotham had become that caused the Batman personality to overwhelm the Wayne one. Miller, a New York resident who had been mugged, turned the city into a twisted version of the New York of the 1990s under David Dinkins. Cops were bent sociopaths with filed teeth and Nazi tattoos; they murdered women and children in ways far more gruesome than Wayne’s parents had experienced (e.g., being stapled to doors or beheaded).

Rather than following the time-honored tradition of allowing criminals struck by superheroes to suffer no more than a nosebleed, Miller showed what would realistically happen to criminals when Batman struck: They were crippled, broken, even electrocuted. And this Batman enjoyed his job. A creepy grin came across the vigilante’s face when he landed on a criminal or when he heard a wolf howl at the moon.

Miller extended this realism by politicizing Batman. Although he took the then-fashionable liberal jibes at Reagan (who was portrayed as an out-to-lunch buck-passing politician) and subway vigilante Bernard Goetz (whom Batman hurls into a telephone poll), Miller expressed a generally right-wing sensibility. (Decades later, this would emerge openly, when Miller attacked the Occupy movement as narcissists who should be drafted into the Army — a clear echo of John Wayne’s attacks on the counterculture.) Miller attacked psycho-babbling liberals who denounced Batman while defending the Joker; in his comics, one of these liberals even feted the Joker by appearing with him on a David Letterman–style talk show (the Joker rewards his generosity by murdering everyone in the audience and onstage).

#share#In Miller’s hands, Batman is a psychopath — though a psychopath on our side — and is needed by a city that hates him. Put temporarily out of commission by a younger, stronger criminal known as the Mutant, Batman watches as the city masochistically seeks to negotiate with the criminal. Even after the mayor’s throat is ripped by the Mutant, the city still wants to negotiate with him.

It is only when Batman reappears that the Mutant is stopped. The same thing occurs when a nuclear attack allows criminals to overrun the city. Batman reappears, appropriately on horseback (the sheriff coming to the rescue), and, with his gang of reformed criminals, re-establishes order.

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Miller also expressed the novel idea that Batman and Superman would be natural enemies — a notion that is about to appear in a movie starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill. Miller represents Clark Kent as an authority-loving preserver of the establishment, whereas Batman is a vigilante bent on attacking it.

Today, it is a given that someone with a cape has anger issues. But it is Miller more than anyone else who gave us this idea.


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