Frank Miller’s Batman is a fascist and you really shouldn’t cheer for him

    Leave this version of Batman in the ’80s where he belongs

    By Matt Rea, ’13 PhD, for Thought Box on March 24, 2016

    Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in theatres now, and while its title sounds like something a lawyer would cite for precedent, this movie surely is much more exciting than that. The film matches up the two mega-heroes of DC Comics in what looks like a punching-based team-building exercise culminating in the Justice League’s formation.

    Since they’re just fictional characters whose battle is really a gimmick cooked up to start a Justice League franchise that will bring DC some of that sweet, sweet Avengers money, it’s absurd to ask who would win. A more relevant question is: who should we cheer for so as to appear ethically superior to our friends and family? And the answer to that one is easy.

    Not Batman.

    Oh, I can hear the angry gnashing of teeth already. “Batman’s the best! He’s just a man like us!” I get it. You love Batman with or without the anatomically correct suit. I mean, even little kids don’t want to cheer for Superman.

    In my time as a sessional instructor at UAlberta, I taught Frank Miller’s revolutionary graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and if there’s one thing I learned, it’s this: the bat ain’t all he’s cracked up to be.

    There is a direct line between the Batman we’ve all grown used to seeing on the big screen and The Dark Knight Returns created by Frank Miller in 1986. The problem is, this Dark Knight was a creation of his time — and that time has come and gone.

    Like perms on men

    The problem with an enduring Batman from the ’80s is that he’s from the ’80s. He brings with him outdated politics, outdated ideals of gender and concepts of sexuality that are baffling in modern reflection. Even Miller’s graphic novel must strain the plot to fit the machismo and violence afforded to Batman. Most striking is the power dynamics associated with Batman. Adam West’s campy Batman of the 1960s worked in conjunction with the police — as a deputy of all things — so Frank Miller goes hard in the opposite direction. His Batman isn’t just a vigilante going against the rules of the law, he is the law: an opposing force of governance, establishing his own order and enforcing strict obedience. In other words, a fascist.

    But, in 1986, Batman was the hero New York City needed. NYC was a different place in the ’80s. Rougher. Scarier. Gotham-ier.

    Crime rates that had risen steadily since the ’60s spiked in the ’80s and ’90s when a new drug called crack cocaine hit the streets, bringing with it drug addicts and empires. In 1980 there were 1,814 homicides in New York City. That number rose to 2,245 in 1990. Right in the middle of crime-ridden ’80s New York, a young Frank Miller penned Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

    The four-issue comic miniseries marked a grim reimagining of a character who had endured Adam West’s Bams! Pows! and bat-branded shark-repellent. Miller’s Batman was serious with a capital S: a no-nonsense brute, punching and kicking his way through a crime-soaked Gotham.

    The Dark Knight Returns came out of Frank Miller’s own origin story. He moved to New York City from Vermont in his late teens. As a young artist, he endured the violence of the city (reportedly getting mugged several times) and drank up action films of the day like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, where men step outside the law to bring justice to criminals protected by government rules. In the reimagined Batman, Miller created a hero more frightening and more brutal than the city in which he lived.

    Like perms on men, Miller’s Batman is something that made sense in the ’80s but is surprising to see now, 30 years later, still alive and kicking criminals in the teeth. We saw him in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 reboot of the film franchise (the second of which was titled The Dark Knight), and we’re seeing him again, even more clearly, in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics; Warner Bros.

    Ben Affleck as Batman in a robot suit is absolutely pulled from The Dark Knight Returns.

    How did a rebooted character from 1986 survive this long? Something about Frank Miller’s fascist Batman still resonates today. First, let’s look at Frank Miller’s guide to making a fascist.

    Turning a Hero into a Fascist in 3 Easy Steps

    To build a heroic fascist, you need to establish a world where fascism is the only answer. All of the conditions below must exist to pave the way for Batman to sweep in and take control. Otherwise, he’s just another fascist staging a coup.

    For Miller, this means three things:

    1. Establish that the governing forces are inept when it comes to dealing with criminals.

    Every level of elected government in The Dark Knight Returns is inept, or worse — a point that’s obvious when you read the text.

    At the top, President Reagan is a dangerous buffoon who heats up the Cold War with the Soviet Union, only narrowly avoiding nuclear destruction with Superman’s help. Gotham’s mayor is an indecisive coward who gets murdered when he tries to negotiate with the Mutant Gang leader. Commissioner Gordon is replaced by Captain Yindel, who goes after Batman instead of chasing down the real villains. And prisoners are treated by a left-leaning psychologist, Dr. Wolper: an anti-Batman jargon-spewer, drawn to look like Hitler. 

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    Just to make sure you fully understand Wolper’s flawed methods, Miller has him killed by his own patient: the Joker.

    2. Represent the average person as dangerous or weak and thus dependent on absolute governance.

    Despite knowing that all levels of government and order are inept or corrupt, the everyday citizens in The Dark Knight Returns do nothing about it. Left to their own devices, citizens are selfish and violent. For example, here’s a guy pushing a disabled man onto subway tracks.

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    The story is ridiculous yet perfect for Miller’s crusade to justify Batman’s takeover as Gotham’s fascist dictator. Both citizens demonstrate the need for governance but for different reasons. The man with the crutches is helpless and needs protection. The man doing the pushing has to be restrained. There are more of these throughout the comic, all of which are designed to lead the reader into accepting Batman’s ruthless authoritarianism as a solution.

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    3. Create villains whose actions have no motive beyond the desire to sow evil.

    Gotham’s general population is beset on all sides by violent criminals with no discernible motive. Seriously, if you’re an average person living in Miller’s Gotham City, a teenager might stab you to death to meet a quota.

    The Mutant Gang, those knife-wielding teens wearing strange Geordi La Forge glasses, terrorizes Gotham for half the graphic novel. A projection of  ’80s punk-rockers, Miller’s mutant gangs are pierced brutes with dyed spikey hair and bright clothes.

    Led by an ogre of a man, the Mutant Gang sews violence throughout Gotham because … that’s what kids do these days? Their motives are murky, but at least they have an end goal: conquer Gotham. From atop his trash-heap throne, the mutant leader barks a speech at the gang members about taking over the city.

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    Pause for a moment to take in the fascist overtones in this image: the charismatic speech, the orderly display of military power. The mutant gang wants to make Gotham suffer, though we’re never sure why. Is it because the gang members live in a trash heap? Because they can’t afford a shirt for their leader? We are not meant to know.

    Without any motive, the Mutant Gang is wedged into the plot as a frightening potential ruler that Batman must overthrow in his quest for dominance — the same type of “frightening potential” Miller saw in ’80s Cold War propaganda, where books, posters and TV ads imagined a terrifying future of America under Communism.

    There you go. Congratulations, you’ve created a world where fascists are perceived as heroes.

    ‘Tonight I am the law’

    Like the citizens of Gotham, the gang members themselves are sheep (albeit knife-wielding, Mohawk-sporting sheep) in search of a leader. They stand in ordered lines to hear him speak, they fill his quotas for murder, they wear his uniform.

    So what do these followers do after the Dark Knight successfully pummels the mutant leader into submission? Follow this new, stronger guy, of course. The gang reinvents itself as the “Sons of Batman” and, later in the comic, Batman uses the Sons of Batman to restore order during a city-wide power outage.

    Before going to war, Batman gives the gang a familiar speech:

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    “We are the law. I am the law.” He echoes the mutant leader’s call to take over Gotham city. Batman’s role in The Dark Knight Returns, then, is no longer a lone vigilante seeking out justice his own way, but a fascist ruler, crafting an army to control the city.

    “But, look at him! He’s breaking the gun,” you might argue. “Batman is clearly the good guy because he doesn’t kill!”

    Well, I have news for you: Batman’s no-killing rule is perverse.

    Look, I’m no fan of killing. Live and let live, I say. On the surface, Batman’s idea of breaking all the guns seems solid. No one dies; no one gets hurt. Except everyone gets hurt and hurt badly. Here’s Batman living by his rule (and its brutality is paralleled in the Batman v Superman final trailer):

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    Batman figures the guy he kicked will “probably walk again,” but more importantly, the punk will “stay scared.” It takes away a lot of the nobility of a no-killing rule when, in its place, you can inflict lingering pain on any random criminal. I’m not saying killing wouldn’t be worse, but, ethically, potentially paralyzing someone is not much better.

    Even with everything else I’ve pointed out, it might be OK if Batman stuck to the “tonight” part of the speech. A one-night-only fascist restoring order and handing it back to democratic powers — maybe that’s someone we can feel OK cheering for. But that’s not how the comic goes.

    The Dark Knight Returns ends with Batman plotting a full-blown coup d’état. After faking his own death in the Batman v Superman fight from The Dark Knight Returns (the same one you’re sure to see recreated on the big screen), the comic’s final frames focus on Bruce Wayne training his own private army.

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Frank Miller with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, 1996 DC Comics

    Read that quote again: “It begins here — an army — to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers.”

    The hero of this story — and the basis of Christopher Nolan’s Batman film reboot and of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman film — is literally an eccentric billionaire who faked his own death so he could fashion an army in a cave beneath his old estate so as to overthrow the government.

    The graphic novel ends with Batman as a fascist seeking to wrest power from the hands of democracy.

    A bat out of time

    So what happened to Frank Miller’s real-life Gotham — the murderous New York City of the ’80s? In a surprising twist, crime went way down by the late ’90s: in 2015, 352 people were murdered in the city (compared to an average of 1,700 a year in Miller’s time). And the 2015 figure was considered high even though NYC has roughly a million more people now than it did in the ’80s.

    New York City achieved this not because a masked man beat up all the muggers. Changes in demographics, policing and the city’s economy all drove down the crime rate. NYC is now considered one of the safest cities in the world, while Gotham, its fictional counterpart, is still portrayed as a den of crime. Batman from The Dark Knight Returns is no longer a great fit for New York City.

    Frank Miller’s Batman continues to strut and fret his hour upon the stage even though the other action figures of that era have all disappeared. We find Dirty Harry offensive, Death Wish laughable and Escape From New York forgettable. Yet we actually returned to this outdated version of Batman.

    Why do we continue to love this fascist?

    Sure, Batman lives out the dream of a benign dictator: a powerful figure who only harms the “bad guys” and protects “good guys.” But the key to Batman’s contemporary success is that he addresses a modern existential crisis, one that has endured before and since the ’80s: agency.

    Batman's real superpower

    Batman represents the power of one individual — heady stuff in a world where individual authority is dwarfed by corporations, governments and one-percenters. Batman fixes every problem he sees. No one controls him. He is a man who stands up to an alien with super powers … and he walks away from the confrontation. Batman offers hope that a single person can overcome any obstacle and who doesn’t want a leader like that? (In fact, pundits are already drawing parallels between the Dark Knight and the popularity of another billionaire. This article calls Donald Trump’s presidential campaign “Batman politics.”)

    And yet, for all of Batman’s iconic status as a man who stands tall among superbeings, his flaws make him unrelatable. He is a reclusive billionaire who beats up poor people. He has the means to fund the types of social and educational programs that would reduce crime; instead he uses his fortune to punch criminals. Essentially, Batman lives out the fantasy of rich capitalists, pummelling the poor for their discretions while never investigating deeper financial crimes that have a more negative impact on society — or why someone would have to turn to crime for money in the first place.

    Oh, and he’s a fascist. That, too.

    So there you have it. Perhaps you’re feeling angry, sad, confused. You probably want to take to the comments section and prove me wrong. Perhaps you can — I look forward to what you have to say.

    But as for the original question raised by the Batman v Superman movie — who you should cheer for — there is no clear-cut answer. You’ve just spent a lot of time reading about why you shouldn’t be rooting for Batman. Of course, if you’re looking to back Superman, that’s complicated, too. He’s the cause of a lot of death and destruction in Man of Steel. Batman’s beef with him is legitimate as far as I’m concerned.

    In the end, I guess there is only one superhero worth rooting for in this movie — the one making her first (live action) big-screen appearance in this movie.

    I’m with Wonder Woman. They haven’t ruined her yet.


    Matt Rea, ’13 PhD, taught Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as a sessional instructor in English at the University of Alberta. Like any good teacher, he worked hard to suck the fun out of the books many enjoy. Nevertheless, he actually does enjoy a good Batman movie. He just thinks it’s a good idea to recognize the vile politics that sometimes surround these characters. (He also reminds you that Miller’s representation of Batman is but one of many in the comics world.)

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