Frank Miller's use of narrative voice is powerful in The Dark Knight Returns. Whether it's the voice of an aging vigilante, a retiring police commissioner, a young girl with aspirations of Robin-hood, or a homicidal lunatic clown, each has a unique narrative voice. Batman's characterization as a tortured, ends-justify-the-means vigilante perfectly captures the spirit of the film noir heroes of the past.
The story begins with Gotham City enduring a long heat wave. Bruce Wayne, long retired from his role as Batman, nearly dies in a racing accident. He survives, but one gets the sense he would rather have perished in the accident. He is doesn't have the love of life he had when he was Gotham's protector. He vowed to never wear cape and cowl again, but the forces that drove him to become Batman in the first place are still present. He can't forget his parents murder. Crime, represented by the "Mutant" gang increases with each unbearably hot day. Add to that Harvey "Two-Face" Dent's release from the asylum and you have prime ingredients for the "Dark Knight" to return.
He does indeed return, but the world has changed since his retirement. He is largely considered a myth by high schoolers. Many people consider his means just as criminal as those perpetrators he punishes. James Gordon, on the verge of retirement, can do little to protect him against the political forces that oppose him. Gordon's replacement has vowed to capture him to pay for his violent abuse of criminals. The "Mutants" and their leader don't fear him. In fact, the Mutant leader nearly kills him in hand-to-hand combat.
To add to the tension, the government has clamped down on the "super heroes" of old. Most do not "protect and serve" the common man as they did before. The only one that still does is Superman, but he's closely supervised. Batman's return goes against this government control, and ultimately Superman and Batman will face-off in a final battle.
It's these tensions , combined with the narrative style, that make The Dark Knight Returns so timely even nearly fifteen years after its initial release. And of course there's the artwork. Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's Batman is old and overweight, and yet he still is a powerful figure that can instill fear into the criminal element. The Dark Knight Returns stands as a testament to the power of the graphic novel form.
Text (c) LCB 2000
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