Sunday, June 23, 2013

Did I say "Don't Kiss Me, Batman?" I Meant "Don't Kill Me!" A Postmodern Review of The Dark Knight Returns (Comic Book and Animated Film)

Image from the original 1986 graphic novel
Disclaimer: My postmodern take on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is chock-full of spoilers.

Frank Miller messed with the Batman mythos in The Dark Knight Returns, particularly with queer characters and iconography. I fully realized this while recently viewing parts one and two of the animated film based on the seminal 1986 comic book. The graphic novel extended an olive branch to adult readers and was part of a wider trend at the time that legitimatized the medium for mature readers, opened the floodgates to them, and permanently altered the comic-book industry.

As for the animated film, I am not concerned with the more obvious elements of storytelling. This is mainly because the movie is gritty, well-characterized, well-acted (Peter Weller voices Batman!), entertaining storytelling that is extremely faithful to the book. What I am concerned with, though, is going deeper than a teen perception of the work. I was a teenager when I last read The Dark Knight Returns. Miller's choice of characters, both re-invented and invented, are of particular interest to me this time around.

Frank Miller's Joker in the animated film.
As for gay characters in TDKR, Miller wanted to mix things up, and did so with glee. He clearly depicts the Joker as a gay villain. He is enamored with wearing lipstick, talks with a lisp and flirts openly with other male characters, including the hero, albeit with a psychotically violent sort of tenderness. 

The incumbent commissioner, Ellen Yindel, is a tough-talking, butch broad whose resemblance to Commissioner Gordon includes her stylish spectacles and a trench coat that highlights her incredibly broad shoulders. Not only is she a right winger; worse, she’s also an uncompromising woman. Instead of working with Batman, she wants to arrest him.

Miller's predilection for villains on the psychotic side sometimes included the wearing of provocative icons. In this case,  there's the gang leader, Bruno. She cuts  a steroid-enhanced physique, totes guns, and is a bare-breasted figure who sports swastika tattoos on her breasts. Batman, of course, the symbol for faded male virility, defies all odds, gets his 55-year-old behind in gear, and either kills, evades, outwits or beats all of the above characters in one way or another.

This brings me to my post-modern take on The Dark Knight Returns. The story is ostensibly about a gritty reminting of a flagship character emerging from retirement to fight in a very corrupt and messed up modern setting. From a more broad perspective, The Dark Knight Returns is actually about an old man rediscovering his virility and talent for violence, thus defying any blocks or authority figures that hamper his rediscovered maleness. 

Commissioner Ellen Yindel, also in the animated film.
Batman confronts the Joker's overtures with the resigned gruffness of someone in a long-suffering relationship, defies the lesbian commissioner, takes down the Nazi lesbian villain, and other threats such as a steroid-enhanced Mutant gang leader who threatens to "un-man" him.  The hero succeeds through the prism of classic-turned darker Batman action codes, which can be read as male assertions in a more Jungian landscape with Gotham City being an entire playground laden with subconscious symbols. Most threats transform into threats of emasculation. Some examples include the Joker stabbing him, the new commissioner threatening to rob him of his status of returning hero or the Mutant leader humiliating him, man-to-man, in front of the Mutant gang, and Bruno, a powerful woman, posing a clear threat to a powerful man. In the last case, defeat at the hands of a woman, even a confident, capable one, might overshadow the threat of physical damage or even, perhaps, death.
Laugh if you will, Joker-style, but let's consider how the antagonists fare.

No matter what they do, no other character can keep Batman “down” for long, even the lisping Joker, who stabs him not once but four times in the stomach. His murderous act is perhaps a symbolic sexual action of violence and penetration. Leading up to this altercation, Batman progressively loses his demeanor. The Joker derides the hero for his loss of control. Of course, the Joker also dispatches innocent bystanders at random in a blood spree, while keeping a coquettish running commentary. 

The commissioner simply won't let Batman play anymore and her SWAT team readily wounds him to the point of near-death. In the end, the new lesbian commissioner realizes, to her resigned astonishment, that Batman, whom she attempts to kill multiple times, “is just too big” (Size matter, anyone?). In short, a powerful lesbian character comes to terms with the fact that the hyper-masculine man is right.

Bruno, one of the villains depicted in the film.
Bruno, however, seems to only represent a mere physical threat, but this is deceiving. There is great shock value in revealing that the mysterious "Bruno" is, in fact, a woman. Both readers and viewers assume, before her appearance, that Bruno is a man. Miller attempts to elicit humor with this shock and surprise. Batman subdues her with Superman's help (unwillingly). Interestingly enough, Batman is, in fact, disguised as a on old bag lady living on the street. In this respect, Batman can  take down a butch female villain even if he is in the guise of an overweight, elderly woman, beating her on his own cross-dressing terms. That is, he can pretend to be an elderly, homeless (read: inferior) woman and still manage to prevail against a powerful woman.

The Mutant gang leader's assault on Batman is a mono-e-mono match used to rob Batman of his newly-rediscovered power in front of the legion of his new enemies. It's pure brains-versus-brawn confrontation with a far larger and (presumably) physically superior male specimen. Simply put, Batman must prove that his is the bigger (i.e.: smarter, better) man. In the first half of this intense confrontation, the Dark Knight also uses a heavy arsenal that involves much shooting and blasting. Once could make a case for the depiction of phallus and male virility, but this would be too easy a target, as there is much of this fare in the story. This reviewer will take a different road and declare that the police, despite all their training and marksmanship, either can't shoot accurately, or even use their rifles because the hero disables said weaponry, and leave it at that (adolescent fixation, perhaps).
With the character of Robin, Miller again messes with Batman fans and iconography. Miller’s new version of Robin, thirteen-year-old Carrie Kelley, a rather miraculously agile teenage girl lacking in any formal training, becomes the new protégé. Frederic Wertham, author of The Seduction of the Innocent, once implied that Robin was Bruce Wayne’s young gay lover. Ever since, everyone and their dog with even a mild disdain or distance from the Batman character has suggested Batman and Robin are an item. Look at Robin’s colourful costume, they say. Look at the singular wealthy bachelor who is Bruce Wayne.
Miller alters the Batman mythos by having the first and notably only female Robin. He adds complexity to Bruce Wayne’s characterization by having Wayne trying to compensate for the death of one of the previous Robins. His attempt at redemption thus defuses any pedophiliac sexual tension between he, a man in his fifties, and an undeniably attractive young woman.
In one scene, Batman grabs Robin’s hand, preventing her from plummeting to her death from an airborne helicopter. She then wraps her legs around him. He repeats “Good soldier, good soldier” as a mantra as he hugs her in return. It’s an odd portrait of intimacy with an implicit sexual connotation. She is wrapping her legs around his waist, after all. I did not conjure up this last theory about their embrace. A colleague did, who is not at all a huge Batman fan.  We shall dub him the Menace of Barbosa.

In this way, Miller messed with these DC Comics icons and mixes in gay characters whose roles are charged and somewhat questionable. Why must such antagonists, for all intents and purposes, be gay characters? And if you're messing around with icons anyway, why not include some protagonists who are queer? Whether Frank Miller meant for an old man to rediscover his gusto and become a symbol for the unstoppable male id, throwing itself up against the challenges to his hyper masculine identity is, of course, debatable.
 

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