Friday, October 26, 2012

Comic Review: The Dark Knight Returns

If there were a prize for the most overrated comic book, The Dark Knight Returns would claim it with little competition.  Frank Miller’s long and incomprehensible story about Bruce Wayne’s return from retirement is fraught with mutant gangs, nuclear warheads, exploding dolls, topless Nazi-girl thugs, drive-by news reporters, and middle-aged crime fighters who never stop whining about how old they’re getting.  It’s a mess.

The premise of the novel is that the ascension of a new criminal gang called the mutants prompts a middle-aged Bruce Wayne to don the Batsuit again after a ten-year withdrawal from vigilante work.  As if the mutants weren’t a big enough burden, he also has to foil the evil plots of Harvey Dent, who has undergone an external but not internal recovery from the accident that left him disfigured and wrathful.  Batman’s age cripples his ability to fight the terrorists of Gotham, but a teenager girl with her own Robin costume enthusiastically offers to assist him in his war on crime.  While some in Gotham are pleased at the Batman’s return, others resent him as an oppressor of the weak, an illegal vigilante, an agitator of crime, and a “social disease”.  The moral ramifications of using violence to fight violence is a theme that pops up in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, but that movie handles the controversy far better than Miller’s comic book, which comes off as redundant, indecisive, and tedious.

The primary error of the Dark Knight quadrilogy is probably that its author tries to juggle too many characters, which prevents him from developing any of them very deeply.  On the villains’ side of things we have Two-Face, the mutants (who speak in an indecipherable dialect), Selina Kyle (who inexplicably decided to trade in burglary for pimping), the Joker, and the Soviets, while on the opposite side we have Batman, Robin, Green Arrow, Lois Lane, and Superman – these are just the main protagonists and antagonists.  Why Miller decided to include Green Arrow and Superman in a Batman novel instead of just writing a Justice League series is beyond my comprehension.  At any rate, Superman’s presence is entirely superfluous except to create an excuse for a final battle between him and Bruce, which also has no purpose and makes no sense given that both men could do better things to serve their country in the wake of a nuclear explosion.  Another major problem rests in that the book is extremely hard to follow; most of it is written in tiny windows that don’t allow a lot of detail and the scene changes every 2-4 frames, hopping from Batman’s escapades to the issue’s main villain to Superman to James Gordon to news reporters and back again.  Many times Batman will appear in some situation, mournfully holding an American flag for instance, and the reader will have no idea how he arrived there. The editing is sloppy in that respect.  In addition, the book has more than its fair share of conceited, incoherent monologues from Gordon and Bruce, which are accompanied by frames that jump between the past and the present.  This merely adds to the confusion.

The political messages of the novel are mixed: on the one hand, it mercilessly ridicules those who defend terrorists because they’re “victims” of discrimination and oppression.  The Joker’s doctor, Bartholomew Wolper, is the story’s prime example of terrorist-sympathizers, who passes his patient off as a misunderstood “victim of Batman’s psychosis”.  In one of the novel’s higher points, his life ends ironically and disturbingly at the hands of the very man he sought to vindicate and release.  On the other hand, Miller takes delight in mocking Ronald Reagan for no apparent reason and extols FDR as the man all presidents should emulate.  Like many liberal works, the novel is filled to the brim with foul language, most of which isn’t warranted.

In summary, I can’t fathom the many accolades that critics and readers have given to The Dark Knight Returns.  The novel is dull, exceedingly long, disjointed, convoluted, and improper.  Then again, perhaps it’s just too sophisticated for me to understand, like Barack Obama’s many profound tirades about capitalism.

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