Talk is cheap
It’s said that 93% of communication is non-verbal. If The Dark Knight Returns is anything to go by, even that 7% doesn’t count for much. Much of the movie is spent watching TV footage of talk shows and news networks, while talking heads take turns speaking back and forth in politically-loaded buzzwords. Experts and pundits are shown taking opposite sides on issues, calling each others fascists, and turning dialogue into a polarized conversation between wannabe celebrities. Interviewers ask controversial questions, preferring soundbites over solutions.
This is best illustrated with the character Dr. Bartholomew Wolper. Wolper is a psychiatrist who takes on the most notorious, villainous cases, like Two-Face and The Joker. Like Dr. Chilton in Hannibal, Dr. Wolper is far more concerned with the celebrity his practice can bring him than actually treating his patients. His disastrous treatment of Two-Face, who has a murderous, psychotic break immediately upon release, doesn’t deter him from confidently strutting Joker around like a favourite toy. Wolper demonstrates the uselessness of modern conversation when he allows Joker to manipulate his pride and in order to be brought onto a hit late night talk show. The host is antagonistic and Dr. Wolper gets going with his usual rhetoric, allowing Joker to put the final nail in the coffin of verbal communication when he smashes a coffee mug (symbolic of mindless celebrity conversation) and uses it to permanently silence Wolper by slashing his throat.
Actions speak louder than words
So, if talking doesn’t resolve anything, the only method of resolution left is force. At the beginning of The Dark Knight Returns, Gotham City is overrun by a gang called The Mutants. Neither debates nor policies have put a dent in their tightening grip on the city, leaving Bruce Wayne no choice (as far as he is concerned) but to come out of retirement and once again fight crime as Batman.
The Mutants are an especially brutal gang. Their methods and motivations are aimless except that they celebrate power and violence. “Slice and dice” is a common phrase amongst The Mutants as they casually murder passersby unfortunate enough to catch their attention. Theirs is a criminality without purpose and therefore, without possibility of peaceful reconciliation. Their mindless violence can only be stopped with a show of physical force.
When the head Mutant is captured, he is brought down in a knock-down brawl with Batman. The captured Mutant agrees to meet with the Mayor of Gotham City, offering a glimmer of hope that discourse and reason could lead to peaceful resolution. Within seconds of opening the meeting, the Mutant boss slaughters the mayor. It’s again clear that there is absolutely such a thing as an adversary so incompatible with the status quo that negotiation is impossible. The only way to defeat a true enemy is through force.
Batman realizes this and arranges for the Mutant leader to be released in order to be lured into another mano-a-mano slobberknocker. This time, Batman seeks to use his victorious act of violence as a meaningful show of force demonstrating himself to be the ultimate power in the city. The fight has nothing to do with defeating the head Mutant as an opponent, it has everything to do with showing himself to be more powerful to the thousands of members of the Mutant gang. The only reason the city begins to steer away from a den of senseless violence is because it has witnessed an event of purposeful violence.
You can only be a monster, a sheep, or a corpse
Living in The Dark Knight Returns‘ Gotham City is a bleak prospect. In this world, you can choose to become one of three things – a victim, a soldier, or a general. Many citizens of Gotham try to simply live their lives. They shop, they work, they attend TV tapings. In Gotham, any and everywhere is a potential sites of violence. Whether it’s the vicious Mutant gang or Joker running around on yet another a rampage, gunning down strangers at a carnival, there is no guarantee of safety in keeping one’s head down. It’s not hard to understand how so many have chosen to become solicitors of violence instead of waiting around, hoping it doesn’t land on their heads.
Gotham is absolutely littered with gangsters and other propagators of violence. When faced with the alternative of victimization, these people have chosen to claim something like a sense of safety by latching their allegiances to whichever power seems the most dominant. Their agency is self-preservation and their ideology is simply a reflection of whichever gang they affiliate with. Problematically, these legions of followers give power to the very few who actually have opinions and policies. This results in very few people, with very specific ideologies, leading armies against each other in urban warfare.
The new police commissioner, Ellen Yindel, starts out thinking she has power but quickly acknowledges that Batman “is too big” to challenge, settling into her place in the middle of the pack. She abandons her power and the power of her institution when faced with the conviction of a gang-supported vigilante. This is what everyone does. Since language and the art of compromise have been crushed under the boot of gang warfare, the only way to survive is to pledge allegiance to the strongest looking would-be autocrat. By the end, even Batman is no longer a symbol of change and hope. He’s simply another leader of another gang following another ideology as he begins to train his bat army.
It’s not much of a stretch to see The Dark Knight Returns as a movie about Batman rather than celebrating Batman. The world he lives in, one where the superficiality of public conversation precludes the election and uprising of whichever charismatic sociopath seems the least harmful, is uncomfortably familiar. The movie acknowledges that the political systems are broken but also shows that the answer is not just to find another monster to throw into the mix. Change is needed but the world has spoiled and corrupted the tools it needs to make it happen.
So What Can We Do?
There are really only two ways this can go. The first is to simply embrace the film’s message at its most literal. In which case, find your camp, and hit the gym so that you can be the best soldier you can possibly be for whatever cause you end up supporting. The other, and hopefully more likely, is that we find a better way to communicate. It is not enough to acknowledge the broken lines of communication and then retreat to our camps to talk about how it’s the other side’s fault.
That’s not to say that there aren’t ideals and beliefs worth fighting or even dying for. What The Dark Knight Returns is saying is if we cannot reclaim and relearn communication, violence and death will become the only language we can speak.