14 Jan 2010

Apparently we review comic books now!: The Dark Knight Returns

Now that it looks abundantly clear that Avatar is destined to become the most successful film of all time (I’m still trying to control my rage enough to articulate how disappointed I was with it, but will post something soon enough), my thoughts turn to another film that came close to usurping Titanic as the all-time box office champion, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

 Now that the dust has settled and we’ve been able to live with the film for so long, it’s easier to analyse how The Dark Knight managed to destroy all and sundry at the box office, and how a film so challenging and disturbing could be so immensely popular. Some believe Heath Ledger’s untimely death turned just another blockbuster into a must see film event, while others feel Nolan’s decision to fully utilize the emerging IMAX technology was a stroke of genius, but I think the real groundwork was laid down more than twenty years previously by American comic book artist Frank Miller.

 In 1986 he released The Dark Knight Returns, a four-issue mini-series published by DC. Overnight Miller completely revitalised an industry that for too long had been dismissed as something "for kids", and turned it into a respected and admired art form. Alan Moore's Watchmen may be referred to as the Citizen Kane of comics, but that makes The Dark Knight Returns our Battleship Potemkin. The grammar and form of modern comic book writing would not exist as it does without his immense contribution. He may have made his reputation working on Daredevil and infusing it with his trademark film-noir style (which would become synonymous with his signature work, the Sin City series) and it was the insanely ambitious Ronin (a reincarnated Samurai stalks the streets of a dystopic New York seeking out the demon Agat who murdered his master) that first brought him to a larger audience, but The Dark Knight Returns is without doubt his masterpiece.

 His portrayal of the elderly Caped Crusader as a dark and brooding vigilante, distrustful of authority and hopelessly unable to come to terms with his parents death, has come to dominate every single Batman project, comic or otherwise, ever since. Not only that, but his visual style (talking heads, montages, slow motion), lifted straight from the movies he loved as a child, have become the norm. The explicit criticism of Cold War politics as well (Reagan is lampooned as a hopeless buffoon), as well as the unique characterisation of Superman as little more than a tool of the American government, made it clear to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of comic book history that this was not your traditional fare.

 Sadly Miller would never scale these heights again. Sin City, for all its visual beauty, is a misogynistic mess, and the less we say about the racist and homophobic 300 the better. Miller's politics have always leaned to the Right somewhat, something which appears to have become more pronounced in his old age. The upcoming Holy Terror Batman! (Batman defends Gotham City from an attack by Al-Qaeda) looks like being nothing more than a misguided piece of propaganda that will surely trivialise one of the biggest tragedies of modern times, and his belief that Iraq declared war on the United States when 9/11 happened is ignorant to say the least. Miller's Hemingway-esque machismo (another artist he recalls in my mind is the film director Sam Peckinpah, whose Straw Dogs was famously referred to by Pauline Kael as a "fascist work of art") has unfortunately reached self-parodistic levels, but for a brief period, Miller was undoubtedly the finest comic book artist in the world, and the reverberations of what he achieved during that stunning period of creativity are still being felt today, particularly in the numerous dark and gritty comic book movies filling up our cinema screens. Whoever is charged with creating the script for the next Batman film could do a lot worse than revisit this stunning work of art for inspiration.

Matthew Kleebauer


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