In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s thrilling portrayal of the aging Batman at near-insanity expands on the mythology of the superhero without completely rewriting the character. However, one mistake that seems to have been glossed over disrupts the narrative: Batman kills a criminal with a gun. On pages 64-65, Batman uses a machine gun and faded blood is splattered behind the criminal holding a baby captive, depicting a death that is more expected of a police officer or gang member. While this may seem overly critical and justified (he does save a baby), this small act goes against a primary pedestal of Batman’s character, as well as the evolving narrative of the story, and should have either been addressed in a larger fashion or avoided.
Bruce Wayne’s dislike for guns is well justified in his backstory. In the defining moment of his life, Bruce vividly recalls the mugger’s gun and how quick he kills his parents with it. He pledges to put a stop to this criminal violence without taking the lives of people, a rule that separates him from the average Gotham police officer. Batman’s stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise his morals make up his superhero persona, almost as if they are his superpowers. Batman has always had the power to remain true to his morals, to take on the sins of Gotham City, and to ultimately decide to deliver justice no matter whose side of the law he is on. To have him nonchalantly step across his steel boundaries and gun down a criminal is extremely against the spirit of the character.
Whenever a writer decides to give a primary character a contradiction, there is an immense opportunity for plot/character development. If Miller wanted to force Batman to kill a criminal in order to save a citizen, he should have addressed the issue with more impact to Batman and the evolution of his story. The way that the killing takes place and then is forgotten adds inconsistency to the character. The reader feels lied to and becomes skeptical of the writer and the integrity of the piece. Superheroes can change, especially in graphic novel forms where their backstory may be slightly altered or they can be killed off due to the conclusive nature that comic book series do not have. However, the writer must inform the reader of the changes in order to carry the audience seamlessly through his story.
Miller’s inconsistency extends deeper than just between his graphic novel and the outside history of Batman. There is inconsistency within the novel itself. During Book Two, Batman uses a machine gun to save a baby. During Book Three, on page 149 when dueling the Joker, Batman proclaims, “A gun…is a coward’s weapon. A liar’s weapon. We kill… too often… because we’ve made it easy”. This quote is brilliant writing in the development of Batman; however, the reader is left confused due to the loose use of the weapon earlier in the novel. Not only does Miller not address the use of a gun to kill after the event, he goes out of his way later to make Batman condemn the use of guns. An opportunity for an interesting internal conflict is not taken here. Batman could have addressed his forced hypocrisy due to Gotham’s criminals going to such extremes as threatening to kill a baby, and the themes of compromising and morality could have been deepened.
This issue points out a potential problem with any serialized fiction. When writing stories in parts, whether it is a novel, play, or comic, the author must be careful to have a common thread throughout. When dealing with any popular iconic figure such as Batman, a writer has to make his own bold choices to suit what message he is trying to get across. The problem here is that Miller’s message is unclear to the reader due to a very simple solution used to get out of a dilemma. The violence depicted from and against the criminals in Book Two is not taken with nearly as much seriousness as the violence depicted in Book Three, with constant allusions to the number of people being killed. The segmented parts of the story fit together under many clear themes and well-constructed plot arcs, but allowing Batman to kill a villain with a gun is against a commandment of any Batman story. It goes beyond a fan boy complaining about secondary or tertiary characters not being true to their obscure backstory. Batman’s refusal of guns is essential to the superhero. If a writer needs a hero that can shoot people, then he should write a different story.
This article was first posted on March 7, 2013