May 21, 2010

Clearing Up A Misconception About Frank Miller's Portrayal of Superman in Dark Knight Returns

I never liked Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. Yes, I know it's critically acclaimed. Yes, I know it's technically excellent, and yes, I know it has stunning iconography and was revolutionary for the history of comics and one of its mainstay characters. Yes, I know its effect and how much we owe it. I just never liked it.

Part of the reason for my dislike of it is precisely because of its long-term effect. I don't have to go on and on about how it made Batman one-dimensional for the next twenty years; but what is oft-forgotten is his effect on that other icon, Superman. You see, in The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller portrays Superman as a government puppet, one that is happy to obey the government so long as he can do some good.


The reason I hate this is because, since Dark Knight Returns is held with such high canonical praise, it therefore gives off the wrong impression about Superman, and since Dark Knight Returns is a common "first" comic for a lot of people, it's an impression that lasts.

Because of the story's effect, too, it started off a whole trend of "Batman beating Superman" stories, all the way from Batman: Hush to Superman: Red Son. This then gets a lot of people saying - factually - that Superman will always play second fiddle to Batman. As if being made to look like a puppet isn't enough, he's also made to look incompetent. Folks, there's an adage: Dog bites man, that's not a story. Man bites dog, that's a story. There is no story when Superman beats Batman - any such scenes last about a panel.

The story is if Batman beats Superman. It worked in Dark Knight Returns not just because of the symbolism associated with each hero by the narrative, not their intrinsic concepts, but also because it was a first. At this rate, however, it's getting diluted. After all, if you have five stories where Superman gets his ass kicked by Batman, what's the point of making a sixth?

What makes this frustrating for me is that this was never what Miller actually intended. I have in front of me a copy of Wizard #64, dated December 1996, in which Frank Miller was interviewed regarding The Dark Knight Returns' tenth anniversary. In it, he says, and I quote, "The most questionable thing I did was make Superman a government agent. If this had been a Superman story, I'd never have done that - and I know that, because I have a Superman story I want to tell someday. In this story, Batman was the hero, so the world was built around him."

In other words, the portrayal of Superman is modified to fit Miller's Batman-centric story, which is completely understandable. It's something that's done often, especially in shared universes - how many times has Batman himself been made to look like a jerk just to make Hal Jordan look good? To add to that, the symbolism is so much more effective with Superman - if it had been anyone else, it wouldn't have been as powerful, and maybe Frank Miller's masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns, might not have been as well remembered as it is... and who knows what the landscape of comics would look like in that event?

5 comments:

ike said...

Superman was (re)constructed in similar fashion in Supreme Power.

A tip of the hat to Miller, because he might have spawned the Hyperion angle in Straczynski's work.

Duy said...

I would say he was reconstructed in the completely opposite fashion in Supreme Power, no? As in he was born and then he was groomed to be a government agent, and then he ended up rebelling at the end of it, as opposed to the other way around. But yes, I would hazard a guess that it was probably Miller-inspired.

My gripe with the DKR version is because it actually is Superman as opposed to a Superman stand-in, and it's in a definitive Batman story, people think it's therefore a definitive take on Superman.

Felicity Walker said...

I totally agree. Miller effectively wrecked Superman's image for a generation of comics readers. I keep being amazed that the 1996 Bruce Timm /Superman/ cartoon even existed, because that was a time when all the Superman-bashing was in full swing.

I had the good luck to read Byrne's /Man of Steel/ a few years before I read /Dark Knight Returns/, so by then I already liked Superman and was not fooled into thinking the /DKR/ portrayal was the default.

Duy said...

What gets me is that where it was once cool to see Batman beat Superman, now it's a cliche. Miller did it with symbolism and power. Writers these days just do it to do it.

And it's not like Superman can ever get his wins back and balance it out in the eyes of the fans, since Superman beating Batman would take all of a page, and he'd just end up looking like a bully.

Matt Rhodes said...

I think Superman was portrayed
well in DKR.

Superman is not without his own deal of suffering at the hands of the Soviet/US standoff, taking the 'bullet' that Bruce (as a human) never could by stopping the missile. Clark's dialogue with nature and the planet is amazing and uplifting.

Miller does a very good job at establishing Bruce's resentment towards him through the narrative. Why? Because Superman is everything that Bruce is not - and maybe even wishes to be.

When the two men face off, it's more of a one sided-battle. We all know who would win. This exposes Bruce's frustration with the state of the world and being 'powerless' (a bit of irony) as compared to Clark...

"It's over Bruce..."


The real amazing part is when Bruce collapses from a heart attack, Superman sits beside his old friend as the military comes in to apprehend/kill Bruce and says,

'Don't touch him!'


I think Superman is the real unsung hero of DKR.

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