Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns is one of the most well known comic books of all time. It shattered the campy aesthetic of the 1960s TV show and reshaped the tone of the caped crusader into a much darker interpretation – arguably making it the most influential and important Batman story ever put to page. But the bleak world that Batman inhabits and the brutal means by which he achieves victory have raised a very troubling question with some readers: is Frank Miller’s Batman… a fascist?
First, a disclaimer: we love this book, we love Batman, and Miller is a genius of the medium. Those are objective truths. But to love and appreciate a masterwork of art doesn’t mean that you have to reject constructive criticism or uncomfortable truths about that work. We’re also explicitly NOT saying that Batman (or Frank Miller for that matter) is a Nazi or a racist—as much as people confuse the two terms.
In case you’re not in the know, The Dark Knight Returns sees an aging Batman come out of retirement to combat a new gang that’s been terrorizing Gotham. His return to the scene soon provokes a comeback from some of his oldest adversaries, which eventually leads the Dark Knight into a direct conflict with the government of the United States and even Superman himself. Plot elements aside, you’ll quickly see how this version of Batman continues to influence almost all major interpretations of the character that came afterword, from Burton to Nolan to Batfleck.
Those of you who ARE familiar with the book might be thinking to yourself: what the hell are you talking about, dude? Batman literally fights a woman with swastikas on her breasts! SUPERMAN’S the fascist in this story! Well, there’s probably a case for that too, but for the purpose of this video, we’ll be focusing on the B-Man.
Now, in order to decide whether Miller’s Batman is—or isn’t—the F word, we’ll first need a definition. This is gonna be the trickiest part – even the Wikipedia entry on fascism states: “Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long and furious debates concerning the exact nature of fascism and its core tenets.” George Orwell once wrote “...the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless [...] almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”
Wow, great start.
When asked about this himself, Miller told The Hollywood Reporter that, “Anybody who thinks Batman was fascist should study their politics. The fascists tell people how to live. Batman just tells criminals to stop.”
Well that doesn’t help either… Okay, for the sake of defining our terms, the fascism we’re talking about here is one that respects a single authority, demands adherence to a set of rules or laws laid out by said authority, has a strong concept of the “other” or “the enemy,” and whose use of violence is viewed as a necessary solution (if not the ONLY solution). Perhaps most importantly, the figurehead that can save you can’t follow the normal set of rules that are in place, because those rules would stop them from doing what must be done, and embolden their enemies.
In Matthew Rea’s essay for Thought Box on this very topic, he explains, “To build a heroic fascist, you need to establish a world where fascism is the only answer.” The idea here is that Miller has created a Gotham that needs Batman’s personal brand of justice. If Batman is indeed a fascist, it’s only because Gotham needed him to be—there is no other choice. So let’s play along: what kind of world would need fascism? Using Rea’s essay as a framework, let’s go through why this applies to Miller’s Gotham, point by point:
1 – The criminals have no motive.
SLICE AND DICE! The mutants—and later, the Joker—have no real motive other than violence for the sake of violence. These are not youths driven to crime because of socio economic conditions and bad public schools. No-no, they’re evil cuz they’re evil, and they like it. Then, later in the story when Batman humiliates their leader, what do they do? Step in line and become the Dark Knight’s personal army. Don’t you see? The kids are always gonna act out, so you need a strong leader to show em’ who’s boss and point that energy in the right direction.
2- Liberal thinking & compassion will get you killed.
There’s one character who thinks that criminals are NOT to blame for their actions: the psychologist Dr. Wolper, who “cures” Two-Face and the Joker. He sees the “provocation” from Batman to be the main cause of their problems. In his view, criminals themselves are victims of their environment and of what he calls a fascist aggressor—yah, he’s the one character in the book who actually calls Batman a fascist. And where does this get him? Oh yeah… (joker cuts his throat). In this world, the liberals would have you set the Joker free and lock up Batman—you’d have to be crazy to listen to them.
3- The current politicians are weak & ineffective, and so is the law.
Politicians aren’t really much of a help in this world either. Reagan basically fails to stop a nuclear war, and what about the Mayor of Gotham? Well, he tries to negotiate with the Mutant Leader and gets his throat ripped out—once again, feeding into the “you can’t reason with these people” mentality. The new police commissioner is also obsessed with catching Batman instead of the real criminals, working against the one person that could potentially save the city.
4- People are inherently shit.
It seems like Bruce Wayne is basically the only good person in Gotham. Early in the story, a guy pushes a man on crutches into the subway because he’s too dumb and afraid to know better. Later, when the power goes out during the climax, Batman’s gang is the one to restore order. If it weren’t for his influence, Gotham would tear itself apart and would have burnt to the ground. Now it’s just gonna knocked around a bit—the people might not like it—but we know that it’s for their own good. This society has to be saved from itself.
So, in this cynical world, Gotham needs Batman’s authority. Besides, forget what the old law says, because, as B-man tells it, “I am the law”. In the context of the story, anyone who disagrees is either ignorant or evil. Pretty dictatorial thinking, no?
Okay, but so what? Gotham isn’t a real place, and this is a comic book. This depiction of Gotham is designed to be as bad as possible, because the story needs a struggle for Batman to overcome.
That’s definitely true. But it’s also important to contextualize the environment in which Miller wrote TDKR: New York in the 1980s. This was a rough place—Miller himself was apparently mugged several times while living there. The murder rate was through the roof—especially when compared to what it’s like today. Meanwhile, the cold war was still hot on everyone’s mind and Ronald Reagan was in the White House—which is exactly what’s happening in the comics. So you can’t say Miller’s world doesn’t reflect the real one at least a little: the parallels are right there.
Again, we understand that this is a comic book set in a fictional city; it’s a made up environment for Batman, so of course it’s going to be unimaginably bad. No need to read too far into things, right?
But then again, why would a Batman story include President Reagan and the cold war if not for a bit of social commentary? Riddle me that, Bat-fans…