Debriefing #3: ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ continued

Welcome back to the Batcave! For this week’s article, James and I continue our discussion about Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, this time our attention is on the philosophies which drive the story. The idea for a supplementary  discussion came about just as we were concluding the original review as we figured some additional territory needed to be covered. We hope you enjoy.

James: We touched a bit on this in our initial discussion, but I think it deserves a more elaborate discussion. One of the key ideas the book explores is whether or not the presence of Batman in Gotham is a good thing. So my question is what did you think about that debate in the book and is there a side you take on the issue?

Edgar: It’s an awkward question to respond to given how I was slightly annoyed by the manner in which Miller presents the debate, that is, via televised arguments wherein very, how should I say, stereotypical or exaggerated characters yell at each other, each on the two extremes of the debate. I think, and how many times do we say stuff like this, that the answer lies in between. Without the Batman, Gotham is nearly doomed. Regular shmoe cops can’t deal with Joker, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, so Batman, or somebody like the Batman is a necessary tool in helping the police set a tone of sensible order, yet it stands to reason that, with the presence of such an awesome figure as Batman (awesome meaning that he is inspiring, grand, a beacon of light), that super villains are bound to pounce and challenge him. How about you?

J: I’m of a similar mind, but I do think that there is something to be said about the fact that in Returns Arkham has got a handle on most of the baddies, they’re behind bars, not out making trouble in the streets, and since Batman has been gone for 10 years it stands to reason that either the police force found a way to handle them or the baddies don’t see a need to go out and commit crimes if they don’t have Batman to antagonize them. It’s like The Joker says in The Dark Knight: “You complete me.” Without Batman, it seems like a lot of these villains, wain, regress and disappear. On the other hand, the Mutant threat has popped up from a generation that didn’t have Batman, to them there are no lines, no rules, no goal. It’s violence and anarchy for its own sake. From the story’s perspective, Miller is suggesting that, if for no other reason, Batman is needed as a symbol and role model for a generation.

E: I was reading your reply and was glad when you brought up the appearance of the Mutants. They are the new, more radical reason why the Batman is required to protect the innocent. If the book does do one thing quite well, it is it hitting home the point that Batman’s quest may be all for naught, unless of course somebody else takes the mantle, which appears to be the case based on that final panel. Batman cannot go on forever, and even when Joker, Mad Hatter and all other lunatics are behind bars, a new generation of super villains will emerge and at some point Batman won’t be able to deal it them any longer.

J: I think it shows that it doesn’t have to be one man; it can be a collective.
When Batman beats down the Mutant leader, they all switch allegiance to become the Sons of Batman, but they’re still displaying the same tendencies of excessive violence, just aiming them at criminals. Batman has to show them the way, redirect them, give them a code and a symbol to follow. I think that’s Miller demonstrating why superheroes are so important to kids: because they represent admirable ideas and codes of how we should conduct ourselves.

E: And this is where I once again have some issues with the story. I understand what you are saying, but what guarantees are there that these Sons of Batman, formerly Mutants, will adhere to the lofty Batman ideals? I guess the intellectual answer is ‘there are no guarantees’ but that does not sit well with me as a Batman fan. Shouldn’t Batman be smarter than this than to trust the future of crime fighting in the hands of some kids who are clearly psychopaths? Think of it, they are kind of like Two-Face. They understand they are good and bad but they’re psychotic about it. I thought that brought down the ending a notch for me.

J: He certainly has a task ahead of him, but I think he has to bring them under his wing, like he does at the end, and mentor them, set them back on the right path and show them a better way to harness what’s inside of them. I think the book demonstrates the Batman can be just as psychopathic as the Mutants, but he’s learned how to channel and control that place, to a degree, and hopefully he can demonstrate that to others. Sure, there are no guarantees, but I think he’s leading them to arrive at a better place than they started off at, killing anyone for no reason just for the heck of it, he’s giving them purpose, meaning, and hopefully some kind of moral compass.

E: I get it. Take the extremely violent and assist them in harnessing their ‘potential’, their dedication for altruistic goals. I just think that plot-wise it is ridiculously risky, especially in the context of this ‘extreme future’ vision of Batman as created by Frank Miller, where the bad guys come across as so audaciously psychotic that it had me wondering if the whole plan might fall flat on its face just a couple of years down the road.

J: We’ll have to read the sequel to find out! For a serious answer, I certainly can see where you’re coming from, but I think Batman proves he can handle it in that one scene where he stops the riots, rounds up the Sons of Batman and establishes some amount of order to the chaos. His ability to inspire, his presence gives him the ability to lead even amidst desperate chaos.

E: I suppose. That moment you refer to occurs at a time when Gotham is in utter chaos, what with the fallout of the nuclear blast having destroyed critical infrastructure. There is a sense of poetic irony to the fact that of all the people Batman manages to have operate as something resembling a cohesive unit are the freaks that make up Sons of Batman. I think I’m making it seem like I HATE  this book, which I don’t. It’s more a matter of the things that don’t work for me REALLY don’t work for me, which brings the book down.

J: It is an out there idea and Miller plays it in such a way that I certainly get why you would have issues with it. I find it works because of what he’s trying to convey through the Mutants, and not so much the plausibility of whether or not the Mutans and Batman will be able to work together organically in the future, which you certainly bring up some of the issues that future has. To shift gears, what did you think about the contrast of between Batman and Superman?

E: That probably is one of the more well handled aspects about the story. There has always been that sort of contrast, even though they don’t operate in the same storylines. Their paths do converge from time to time throughout the DC history, and to have their respective philosophies clash as they do in Dark Knight Returns made for some thrilling scenes, both when they wore their costumes and when they talked as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. you?

J: To me they represented two very different American sensibilities. On the one hand you have Superman. he’s the model, the idea, the paragon of virtue that stands as part of the age of American idealism, the pure and untouchable attributes of freedom, justice and the American way. On the other hand, Batman represents the more pragmatic side of America. Here are the issues we face, these threats have to be dealt with in a direct way. We’ve got crime in the streets, there’s the threat of nuclear holocaust, here’s our no nonsense, grimy, tough approach to how we’re gonna deal with it. It’s not gonna be pretty, but we’re gonna get the job done.

E: Two different sensibilities but both that intertwine however much people, via arguments and texts, may want them to diverge. I’m not American, and therefore don’t have any spectacular knowledge into the psyche of the American way, but as an outsider it always felt to me that the two things Superman and Batman represent are actually two side of the same coin. There is the purer American way, which is quite idealistic (freedom and justice for all) and then you have all that ‘right to bare arms’ and stuff which leads to some funky stuff down there in the U.S.A and that is kind of where Batman is coming from. Like you said, it is about just getting the job done. Don’t entirely put your trust in the institutions (something that doesn’t fly here in Canada. We love our institutions) and do it your own way, find your own path.

J: They certainly embody those attributes as well. Miller is bringing a lot of their history and representations to bear in that final conflict and by having them battle and letting Batman essentially tear Superman to the ground, all but killing him, he’s suggesting that American has reached a point where that idealism is waning. We still need it to a certain extent, but we also need the truth, we need to realize what we’re facing and how we’re going to deal with it instead of having American as apple pie politicians talk around issues instead of just taking action and getting things done.

E: Which just might be where sometimes we in Canada get it wrong. Trust me, our politicians are not always more intelligent than yours and yet here institutions are coveted and highly regarded. But that’s another discussion altogether. The one thing I’d like to talk about is the shifting loyalties of the Mutants, because they join a bunch of gangs before finally teaming with Batman at the end. I thought that aspect was partly played for comedy, but also about how, in a funny way, it spoke to how people in the West truly behave: ideologie are nice, but people tend to go whereas the power and potential for profit lay.

J: That’s certainly true. As much as one might believe in an idea or have passion for a certain perspective, when it comes down to it, people want someone to follow, they want to latch onto someone with power who will give them something. I think Batman shows the Mutants he can make them better, stronger and more focused than they already are. He can also give them an idea worth fighting for.

E: Yeah, it keeps coming back to that conclusion wherein Batman gives them, or wants to give them a higher purpose. Maybe you’re in the right here. You’re certainly making a compelling argument! By the end, as the world is seemingly coming to an end (in the eyes of Gothamites at least) Batman has them understand that there is really is a good thing to do which would still enable them to apply their…talents(?).

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