To fans of comics, The Dark Knight Returns stands as one of the seminal works of the medium. Written and drawn by comics legend Frank Miller in 1986, the story revolves around an aging Batman coming out of retirement after an intolerable surge in Gotham’s crime. Known for its intense action, suspenseful plotting, and dark atmosphere, The Dark Knight Returns proved to mainstream audiences that comics could be more than cheap, disposable, kiddie fare, and could stand as its own as a serious form of entertainment and storytelling.

One distinctive aspect of the book is its sharp political satire. Miller takes aim at a bevy of institutions, from the police force, to politicians, to Ronald Reagan, to the media.

At first glance, Miller’s satirical remarks can be seen as the bloviations of an angry young man. Almost no one avoids his ire, and his statements can seem contradictory. On the one hand, he attacks the media as fake and soft on crime, so he sounds like a conservative. On the next page, however, he attacks Reagan as hollow and is critical of American actions in the Cold War, so he comes off as a liberal. Is there any real coherence to Miller’s attacks, or is he just flailing his arms around with no real positive political agenda?

If one looks closely enough, the reader can find a fairly coherent political vision underlying Miller’s satire, a political vision that looks a lot like a certainbrand of right-wing populism that we have identified with a certain Republican politician.

Yes, Frank Miller’s Batman is Donald Trump.

To really explore this, it is best if we break down the book’s satire to four key themes: the media, law and order, Ronald Reagan and the Republican establishment, and Superman and established political elites. Each theme will be discussed in a separate article, starting with the media.

Before we get started, however, a quick caveat. It is important to understand that Miller’s book is satire, and as such, creates a somewhat caricatured view of 1980s American politics. Similarly, any comparisons made between the events of The Dark Knight Returns and the current political climate are always going to be slightly exaggerated and a little crude. We cannot include every nuance in various political coalitions or opinions, only paint broad brushstrokes. With this being said, the broad brushstrokes of Miller’s satire and the Trump era are still similar enough to warrant serious study.

So, without further ado, let’s begin.

 

Part One: The Media

The most sustained target of Miller’s Satire throughout The Dark Knight Returns is the news media. Throughout the story’s four issues, newscasters and talking heads constantly interrupt the plot to give their opinions on the Batman. This was one of the most important twists Miller gave to Batman’s mythos. Instead of everyone just automatically accepting Batman’s vigilantism as a good thing, both the media and the public are starkly divided concerning the morality of Batman’s war on crime.

As the book opens, the media treats Batman like a curious oddity, an urban legend from long ago created to spook criminals and naughty children. As soon as Batman comes out of retirement, however, the media becomes terrified, shocked that Batman not only is real, but that he is serious about stopping the crime wave in Gotham City.

Already, we can start to see some light parallels between Batman’s return and Donald Trump’s candidacy. The media treated Trump like a joke when he first started running, but quickly became hysterical as Trump revealed his true nature.

And then things get really interesting.

The morning after Batman’s first night back on the streets, we are presented with another news interruption. The show has two analysts. The first one, Lana Lang, is actually a character from the Superman comics, but in this alternate future, has become a Gotham media personality who supports Batman. The other analyst, only named Morrie, is clearly anti-Batman. Here is the full exchange (found on pages 41-42 of the collected edition):

Lana:I think it’s a mistake to see this [Batman’s return] in purely political terms. Rather, I regard it as a symbolic resurgence of the common man’s will to resist…a rebirth of the American fighting spirit.

Morrie:Ease up Lana. The only thing he signifies…is an aberrant psychotic force–morally bankrupt, politically hazardous, reactionary, paranoid–a danger to every citizen of Gotham!

Lana:Perhaps Morrie. Perhaps the Batman is dangerous…But he’s hardly as dangerous as his enemies is he? Take Harvey Dent [the supervillain Two-Face], just to take a name…

Morrie:That’s cute Lana, but hardly apropos, and hardly fair to as troubled a soul’s as Harvey Dent’s

Lana:He’s certainly trouble for his victims.

Morrie:Was. Lana. Was. If Harvey Dent is returning to crime–and please note that I said if–it goes without saying that he’s not in control of himself

Lana:And Batman is?

Morrie:Certainly. He knows exactly what he’s doing. His kind of social fascist always does.

Lana:Then why do you call him psychotic? Because you like to use that word for any motive that’s too big for your little mind? Because he fights crime instead of perpetuating it?

Morrie:You don’t call excessive force a crime? How about assault fat lady? Or breaking and entering? Huh? Try Reckless en…

At this point Morrie is cut off by the host due to time constraints.

That was a longer section, but hopefully those unfamiliar with The Dark Knight Returns can get a taste for the kind of social satire Miller’s attempting here.

Now try this. Read the exchange again, but replace Lana with Ann Coulter, Morrie with Chris Matthews, Harvey Dent with an Antifa protester or MS-13 gang member, and Batman with Donald Trump. Isn’t it eerie how well that works?

For the most part, Lana Lang is the only media figure who defends Batman. Pretty much the rest of the media is against him. For Lana, Batman is much more than one man trying to stop crime, he represents “the common man’s will to resist.” For everyone else, Batman is a crazed fascist, but apparently the other criminals wandering the streets (who do some pretty vile things throughout the book, mind you) are “emotionally troubled,” “misunderstood,” or “marginalized.” Boy, that certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Miller often takes the media’s refusal to recognize obvious criminals as evil, as well as its willingness to blame everything on Batman, to a hilarious extreme. One prominent media figure in The Dark Knight Returns is Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, a psychiatrist (author of the bestselling book, Hey–I’m okay!) who is responsible for attempting to rehabilitate Harvey Dent. When this all goes wrong, and Dent begins committing crimes again, Wolper excuses Harvey’s behavior by saying,

“I am convinced of Harvey’s innocence. Absolutely. However, I won’t go as far as to say I’m sure he hasn’t returned to crime. I know that sounds confusing. These things often do to the layman. But I’ll try to explain without getting overly technical. You see, it all gets down to this Batman fellow. Batman’s psychotic sublimative/psycho-erotic behavior pattern is like a net. Weak-edged neurotics, like Harvey, are drawn into corresponding intersecting patterns… you might say Batman commits the crimes using his so-called villains as narcissistic proxies.” (pg. 47).

Can you just feel the patronizing, “I know better than you” tone? The ridiculous mental gymnastics used to blame everything Dent is doing on Batman? Almost like the way anti-Trump pundits never want to give Trump the credit for anything. This book literally could have been written yesterday, and the satire would have worked better than it did in the eighties!

Even when crime stats drop after Batman’s return, Wolper calls the statistics misleading and justifies this by rambling about the “viscous membrane” of the public psyche.

The media even blames Batman for crimes unrelated to him. At one point in the story, a mentally disturbed boxer decides to dress up as Batman in order to scare off a mobster. The boxer is shot dead by the mobster. The headline for this story is “Crazed Would-be Killer Dresses as Batman” (90). Even though the story is a lot more complex than they make it out to be, the media makes sure that all you take away from the story is that Batman was involved. In another incident that can only be described as “Fake News,” a whacky religious fundamentalist shoots up a porn theater because he believes it is the right thing to do. The media claims the shoot-out is “Batman-inspired,” even though there was nothing in the incident that had anything to do with Batman.

This is similar to how the media was desperate to blame Trump for violent incidents that were only superficially related to him or not connected to him at all (think of the MAGA bomber or the synagogue shooting). The media constantly tries to blame Batman for everything in Gotham.

But the brilliant thing about Miller is that he attacks both sides. Throughout the story, Lana Lang often justifies Batman’s behavior with vague platitudes about “the revolt of the people” to skirt around serious concerns of Batman’s violation of due process and civil rights. In reality, Batman probably doesn’t care all that much about some populist “revolt of the little guy” (to borrow a phrase from Steve Bannon). Batman’s reasons for coming out of retirement are his own. Similarly, pundits like Sean Hannity and Judge Jeanine Pirro often make Trump out to be the figurehead of some sweeping political revolution, when in reality Trump is probably in politics for his own reasons (and ego).

The last piece to cover is the view of the average person. Miller often has the news interview various people on the street for their opinions on Batman. Let’s put quotes from these citizens on both sides and see if the Donald Trump parallels continue to hold up:

Pro-Batman citizens:

“Batman? Yeah, I think he’s A-Okay. He’s kicking just the right butts–Butts the cops ain’t kicking, that’s for sure. Hope he goes after the homos next.” (45)

“Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t a hundred like him out there–a thousand people are fed up with terror–with stupid laws and social cowardice. He’s only taking back what’s ours…” (65).

Anti-Batman citizens:

“Makes me sick. We must treat the socially misoriented with rehabilitative methods. We must patiently realign their–excuse me? No, I’d never live in the city.” (45)

“A ruthless, monstrous vigilante, striking at the foundations of our democracy–Maliciously opposed to the principles that make ours the most noble nation in the world–and the kindest…” (65).

So, Batman’s supporters see Batman as pushing back against an ineffectual and weak system, and are also shown to have some latent (well, not that latent, but this is satire after all) bigotry. Those who oppose Batman see him as a betrayal of American values, but also seem to be somewhat elitist and out of touch.

The analogies speak for themselves here.

Again, with all this said, we should not assume that Miller is just angrily flailing his arms at any target he sees. There is an underlying point to his satire. Everyone in the media, from those opposed to Batman to those who support him, from the most seasoned political analyst to the average man on the street, turns Batman into something more than he is. His crusade against crime is either a fanfare for the common man or the imperial march of fascism. He becomes responsible either for every crime committed in Gotham, or for every victory against that crime.

Instead of reporting the truth and really trying to analyze why a figure such as Batman appears in Gotham city, the media sensationalizes the facts and brings too many of their own ideological presuppositions to the debate, rendering them unable to think clearly. This is precisely how much of the media on both sides act in regard to President Donald Trump. He is either the greatest president in history or a secret Nazi, either responsible for every American success or at fault for every American failure.

Between the adulations of Fox and Friends and the apocalyptic rantings of The View, there seems to be no middle ground, and this only serves to cause more confusion and make Trump seem more powerful than he is. Similarly, the media of Gotham City only bolster Batman’s mythic character, making him seem even less like a man and more like a dark avenger sent by God. The Dark Knight Returns paints the grim picture of a media that obfuscates rather than observes and exaggerates rather than explains. In the age of Trump, fake media, and alternative facts, it is a picture we should take time to examine.