The Religion of the Dark Knight

While we can’t always relate entirely to DC’s superheroes, we continue to remain fascinated by them because like “The Sons of the Batman” we too desire to be empowered or shaped by something bigger than ourselves.

It’s a mean one—and it’s headed straight for Gotham. Like the wrath of God it’s headed for Gotham…

—Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns, DC, 1986

These lines from Frank Miller herald Batman’s epic return to Gotham city after 10 years of absence. The clouds grow black, thunder roars, and lightning streaks across the sky as the Dark Knight collides with the criminal underworld, as if it were all a manifestation of his will, of his very presence.

During a conversation about superheroes I had with PopMatters Multimedia Editor G. Christopher Williams we ended up discussing Marvel and DC comics, their similarities and their differences. At one point in this discussion, he made the point that perhaps the biggest or most fundamental difference between these two universes and the characters that inhabit them is that while Marvel for the most part tends to focus on human beings with super powers, DC tends to favor almost god-like super beings, who are at their core as “super” as their powers or abilities suggest.

Not only do I believe this to be true regarding both of these different universes, but I think this idea also gets to the heart of what Frank Miller is interested in exploring in both The Dark Knight Returns and in its sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Throughout both of these graphic novels, Miller examines what it means to be a “super being” in respect to a world full of humans and the social institutions that occupy or control that world (such as the government or the rule of law).

As mentioned before, Miller is writing in the DC universe and as a result is concerned with crafting stories around “super beings,” more so than human beings. Before going further, I think it is important to really emphasize exactly what that means and how it differs from other characterizations in the medium. Stan Lee, who created a vast amount of characters within the Marvel universe, has often expressed the notion (though most recently in the film With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story) that his characters at their core are the men or women behind the mask (Spider-Man at the end of the day is really Peter Parker) and that his interest was primarily focused on creating human beings who happen to obtain extraordinary powers or abilities. After all, the majority of almost any Spider-Man story is composed in equal parts of battle scenes with Morbius or the Green Goblin alongside frantic sections that involve Peter trying to get to a date on time or being chewed out by his boss. Despite his special abilities and powers, the Spider-Man mythology (along with most of the Marvel universe) continues to stress that deep down he is still a human being, dealing with problems or issues that the average reader can relate very closely with.

However, in contrast to that notion, the mythology within the DC universe tends to favor the “super being”, characters who at their core are the hero or extraordinary figure while their alter-ego is the disguise (Bruce Wayne at the end of the day is really Batman). This notion pops up relentlessly throughout DC stories with one of the most notable examples being Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies. In these films, much of the humor is derived from the gaudy, over-the-top stunts (swimming in fountains with models, taking an entire Russian ballet troupe out on his yacht) that Bruce Wayne performs to maintain the illusion of his wild, billionaire-playboy lifestyle. The reason that these moments are so easily tapped for humor is that to an audience that knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, these actions come off as laughably fraudulent compared to those of the Bruce Wayne seen behind closed doors or behind the mask when he sheds this charade and reveals his true nature.

This type of characterization is used repeatedly throughout Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. For example, in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Green Lantern reaches the point where he doesn’t need to wear his ring to utilize his powers. Batman observes about him that “[h]e used to need a ring. He used to need a lantern. Now he is one. He is pure will. Sheer power.” Now, to anyone familiar with Green Lantern’s character, this is a big deal because throughout the comics Hal Jordan was a man without powers who then received them through an external force, this ring. This then implied that Hal and his abilities were in fact two separate entities or that Hal’s powers weren’t completely engrained in his identity. However, by removing the ring, Miller asserts that Hal Jordan is Green Lantern, that his abilities and everything about him that makes him “super” comes from an internal source (Hal’s “will”), which in turn makes his inherent identity “super”.

While this concept is vital to the characterization of the heroes in these two novels, it remains crucial to Miller’s villains as well. One of the best cases of this can be found in Two-Face’s arc in the first book of the Dark Knight Returns. In this section, Harvey Dent is released from psychiatric care after three years of treatment and extensive plastic surgery that has removed all of the horrendous scaring from the left side of his face, which was the core contributing factor to his criminal alter-ego “Two-Face”.

Throughout the rest of this section the reader is kept in suspense over whether Harvey has been “cured” (made normal, the human being) or returned to crime (remained abnormal, the super being). However, this suspense is ultimately resolved when Batman confronts Two-Face in the chapter’s closing panels, in the process discovering that he has in fact returned to crime. This climatic exchange comes to an end with Batman seeing a fundamental part of himself in Harvey or as he puts it, “The scars go deep, too deep… I close my eyes and listen. Not fooled by sight, I see him… as he is. I see him. I see… I see… a reflection, Harvey.”

Like the Green Lantern section, this moment and character are crucial to what Miller is trying to communicate. Again, we see a popular character from this universe that begins as a man and gains his “super” qualities from an external force, which in turn implies that his “super” qualities were separate from his identity. However, what makes the application of this concept to this character even more fascinating is that his very existence as a supervillain is predicated on the duality or struggle between the man (Harvey Dent) and the external source of his power or abnormality (the scars, disfigurement). This in turn allows Miller to drive his point home when he ultimately reveals that the scars were only a superficial extension of Harvey’s true nature, that his abnormality or “super” qualities were deeply internal.

While Miller puts a great emphasis on expressing the nature of his “super” characters, he also recognizes that they do not exist in a vacuum. Both The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again constantly explore the relationship between the superhero and the human world that they exist in.

One of the most fascinating ways that this concept is addressed is through the connection between symbology and the superhero, namely the costume. When one becomes a superhero, they generally don’t operate or perform heroic deeds in average clothing. Instead, the superhero is either given or (even more interestingly) must craft a costume that satisfies their practical needs (Batman’s utility belt) but more importantly becomes a reflection of their identity (the common use of black in Batman’s costume reflecting his connection to darkness or fear). This function ultimately manifests itself into one of the most intriguing staples of the comic book universe. During the construction of the costume, the hero often creates an emblem or a symbol (Superman’s “S” or Batman’s bat), which is usually placed as the main focal point of the outfit’s design (often at the center of the chest or head). Appropriately, this symbol or emblem then becomes the central embodiment of their identity and ideals and more importantly their power.

While both books are concerned with examining this element of the superhero mythology, the best case of this occurs in The Dark Knight Returns, specifically the arc concerning Gotham’s “Mutant Gang”. In the beginning of the story, Gotham has become overrun by a gang called “The Mutants” who are generally characterized by their bouts of predatory violence. The aesthetic of the gang is animalistic or monstrous in nature, which in turn reflects the mutant leader whose pale skin, Cyclops-esque visor, and filed teeth suggest something monstrous or removed from humanity.

This influx of crime and brutality on the part of the Mutant gang leads to a series of conflicts with Batman that ultimately end with a final showdown between him and the Mutant leader. The design of this confrontation is very important because it is theatrical in nature with Batman demonstrating his dominance over the Mutant leader in the presence of all of his followers. After the Mutant leader is publicly bested the gang adopts Batman’s symbol and colors with one member of the newly formed “Sons of the Batman” pointing to the giant bat tattoo covering his face while saying, “The Mutants are dead. The Mutants are history. This is the mark of the future.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this section is the concept of adopting an emblem as a means of empowerment, which I actually think is in many ways religious in nature and ultimately speaks to what Miller wants to say about the relationship between his super and mortal characters. As mentioned before, the members of the Mutant gang do not possess superhuman qualities or gifts. As a result, they subordinate themselves to the Mutant leader (who in many ways displays super-human or god-like qualities) and adopt his symbols or colors (the visor, shaved head, or neon palette clothing) as a means of empowerment.

However, this worship of the Mutant emblem is predicated on the power that that emblem, behavior, or aesthetic represents, which in this case is directly linked to the Mutant leader. Therefore, upon seeing their old god (the Mutant leader) broken and defeated by a new one (Batman), the former Mutants adopt the Batman emblem and aspects of what that emblem represents (parts of Batman’s identity or ideology) in exchange for the superior empowerment that it provides.

Again, it is important to stress that the empowerment of the symbol is the most important part of this adoption, not necessarily the ideology that accompanies it (after all Batman gains the loyalty of the former Mutants by displaying his superior combat prowess over the Mutant leader, not his superior ideology). Through this sort of religious iconography, Miller yet again stresses the DC superhero’s god-like position in society while also commenting on the nature of our own relationship with these characters and their stories. As far as Miller is concerned, while we can’t always relate entirely to DC’s superheroes, we continue to remain fascinated by them because like “The Sons of the Batman” we too desire to be empowered or shaped by something bigger than ourselves.

This relationship between humans and superheroes ultimately lays the groundwork for what is possibly the most prominent critique that these two stories are trying to communicate. This critique concerns the traditional relationship between the superhero and the systems or institutions that rule over society. Throughout the history of comics, the villain (either ordinary or super) is usually defined by their desire to disrupt the established social order as a way of achieving their own ends, usually through robbery, violence, murder, or other criminal means. Therefore, the role of the superhero then becomes the maintenance of the established social order, which is achieved by thwarting the efforts of the villain, usually (not always) through methods that appease the social systems or structures that they are enforcing (it is a common code of conduct among superheroes to not kill or commit murder, for example). This in turn creates a system of hierarchy in which the superhero, despite their extraordinary nature, is still under the dominion of human institutions like government.

This hierarchy is demonstrated constantly by Miller in both of these stories. For example, in The Dark Knight Strikes Again nearly every hero from the DC universe is captured (like the Atom who is sealed in a petri dish) or made into puppets (like the Flash who is forced to generate electricity for a third of the country) by Lex Luthor’s government.

However, this relationship is evident throughout both of these stories, and it is most effectively showcased through the character progression of Superman. Throughout the latter half of the first book and almost the entirety of the second book, a great deal of animosity builds between Batman and Superman. This results from Superman’s allegiance and subordination to the government, which opposes Batman’s refusal to submit to these same systems that he views to be corrupt or ineffective.

This fundamental difference between the way these two characters recognize this system of authority leads to one of the most fascinating sections of the first book. During this section, Superman voices his fears and frustrations with Batman’s actions saying, “They’ll kill us if they can, Bruce. Every year they grow smaller. Every year they hate us more. We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.” Interestingly, the entire time that Superman is expressing this fear or vulnerability, he is single-handedly diverting nuclear warheads, throwing tanks into the air, and cracking aircraft carriers in half with his fists. At this point in the story, Miller is directly addressing the contradictory nature of the superhero’s subordination to systems of government or law. Despite Superman’s expression of fear, weakness, and insecurity in this section, he demonstrates a god-like power that would suggest the opposite was true.

While the first book does make a point of highlighting this issue, Superman’s existential conflict is ultimately resolved in the second section of The Dark Knight Strikes Again. At this point in the story, Superman is being publicly brutalized by Brainiac as Metropolis crumbles around him. This occurs because he refuses to fight back out of fear that Lex Luthor will kill the ones he loves (namely his fellow superheroes) or discover the existence of he and Wonder Woman’s daughter Lara (who possesses his own god-like powers and attributes). However, just as Superman is about to perish and give in to the corrupt institutions that have been manipulating him, his daughter enters the fray, obliterating Brainiac while saying, “Father you are wrong. This time is ours. This world is ours. The power is ours. The power has always been ours.”

This moment so elegantly captures the most important thing that Miller wants to communicate regarding this staple of the superhero mythology. While superheroes throughout comic book history have adamantly served and submitted themselves to systems of law or government, Miller asserts that these are systems of man and like man are prone to the forces of corruption, cruelty, and greed.

Therefore, the superhero’s role should not be to serve underneath them, but instead to transcend them or as the last lines of The Dark Knight Returns put it, “Here, in the endless cave, far past the burnt remains of a crimefighter whose time has passed… It begins here — an army — to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers.” Perhaps what Miller is saying is that the superhero should exist above or outside of these systems of man and the inherent human weaknesses that plague them. Like Batman, only by embracing their own extraordinary nature can they face the evils of this world, god-like, and incorruptible in their resolve.

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