Philosophic pretence can not disguise what is essentially yet another very stupid story about a masked vigilante in tights who goes around beating criminals within an inch of their lives (as if police brutality has never been tried — and ever solved society’s problems). Making matters worse is the way Frank Miller thrusts his misanthropic ideology down the reader’s collective throat. This would be forgiveable if it was not at the expense of the plot and characters — who are essentially poorly developed stooges. On first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking the story is a critical reassessment of the American “superhero” as essentially a vigilante, little removed from the criminals he pursues. It soon becomes clear that, yes, Miller sees Batman in this way: but he approves of it. Witness his transformation of the mutant gangs into a sort of brown shirted “Batman Youth”. Look below the surface and you start to find an almost fascist world-view.
This book is extremely over-rated and was critically acclaimed at the time, probably because it was seen as something “new” and “gritty”. Spare me. You could forgive the ideology if the book worked as art unto itself. But once you remove that, little remains.
Compare this to the work of Alan Moore at the time. “V For Vendetta” stars a protagonist who is essentially sympathetic to the writer’s political views, but Moore wisely makes him a genuinely ambiguous figure, whose actions are often morally questionable. Compare this to Miller’s two-dimensional Batman. To the original dimension of the Batman character (“heroic”), Miller’s oh so great achievement was to add a second dimension: “gritty”. Oh, well done.
You get the feeling this book wishes it were Moore’s “Watchmen”. A masterful work, “Watchmen” is a complete and successful deconstruction of the superhero genre. “The Dark Knight Returns” on the other hand, is another desperate attempt to shock life into the long-since rotted corpse of yet another ridiculous superhero character.
Reviewed 4 April 2008.