(50) Shades of Grey: Deconstructing the Binary in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

By: Sora Gordon

In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller reimagines the classic superhero into a grim and gritty Gotham City of the future. Gone is the campy Caped Crusader of the sixties. In his place, Miller introduces an antihero that is just as morally ambiguous, if not more so, than the city he aims to protect. In this incarnation of Batman, Miller completely disregards the conventional binary of good vs. evil that is so often prevalent within the superhero genre. By utilizing a unique compositional style and color scheme as well as deconstructing the role of the hero, Miller aims to prove that the binary of good vs. evil is a false one.

The very first time that Miller uses his unique compositional style to shatter the good vs. evil binary is when he introduces the reader to Harvey Dent, undergoing rehabilitation in Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled. Dent is first illustrated within a split panel, as a means of foreshadowing his eventual return to his villainous alter ego, Two-Face (19). Although this seemingly indicates that Dent falls firmly on the evil side of the binary, the fact that Dent’s image is distributed equally across both halves of the panel implies that he embodies both good and evil characteristics.

The split panel technique is employed to similar effect with the reintroduction of the Joker, when his iconic smile is portrayed within a split panel (41). Although the Joker is usually traditionally depicted as being unequivocally evil, the split panel suggests that Miller’s Joker is just like every other inhabitant of Gotham City in that he exists outside of the conventional good vs. evil binary. The Joker, like Two-Face, “assumed the role of ideological doppelganger to the Batman,” (66) which is why he spent ten years in a completely harmless state and only returns to his villainous ways with the reemergence of Batman. His psychiatrist, Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, often insists that the Joker is not truly evil and that his villainy is actually inversely proportional to his exposure to Batman. The fact that The Joker’s place in the “villainous” half of the binary is dependent on Batman assuming his conventional “heroic” role deconstructs the very concept of the good vs. evil binary, as it causes Batman’s existence to be, in essence, a morally ambiguous one.

As a means of further deconstructing this binary, Miller paints his Gotham almost exclusively in muted tones and shades of grey, representative of the moral ambiguity of its inhabitants. This is best emphasized in the portrayal of the showdown between Batman and Two-Face (55). The top one-paneled tier is drawn in stark black and white images, seemingly in accordance with the subject matter. At first glance, all the panel seems to show is the heroic Batman facing off against the villainous Two-Face, a binary as starkly evident as its illustration. However, Miller uses the following two tiers to indicate that the expected binary portrayed in the above image is a false one. As Harvey Dent details his descent into madness, the color scheme once again slips into shades of grey, indicating that the good vs. evil binary is not as distinct as previously suspected. This becomes especially evident as Batman, a character that would ordinarily fall onto the “good” side of the spectrum, professes himself to be merely a reflection of his nemesis. As Batman exclaims “A reflection!” he is portrayed as being completely obscured by his blacked-out cowl. This depiction is representative of the darkness inherent in the evil half of the supposed binary, a binary further deconstructed by Batman’s confession that he sees himself in his nemesis. Miller continues to emphasize the deconstruction of the flawed binary with the clearly demarcated line that cuts between the two shades of grey in the background of that same panel. These shades of grey are representative of the blending of both halves of the binary into one morally ambiguous whole in which good and evil cease to exist as separate entities

This deconstruction of the good vs. evil binary is once again emphasized through the evolution of Batman’s costume. The very existence of the costume and of the alter ego whose identity it protects conventionally indicates the existence of a good vs. evil, hero vs. villain binary. When Batman is first introduced, he is wearing the costume made iconic in the classic comics, supposedly to signify his traditionally “good” position within the binary (34). However, as the narrative progresses, his costume evolves into darker, more lethal territory. While Batman’s utility belt first includes crime-fighting staples such as “Nerve gas ampules. Freezing compound. Cable. Grappling hook. Stethoscope. Pain killers,” by the end of The Dark Knight Returns, it holds an arsenal capable of incapacitating Superman. Although the existence of Batman’s costume would usually signify his conventional position on the “good” side of the binary, its darker evolution implies otherwise, continuing to deconstruct the conventional binary.

Miller then obscures the previously clear lines demarcating the conventional roles of the hero and the villain with the scene in which Batman battles the mutant leader in a mud pit (99-102). When Batman and the mutant leader duke it out in the pit, the mud causes them to become nearly indistinguishable from one another. Miller uses the cloak of mud to show that in this scenario, Batman and the mutants exist on the same moral level because Batman has no moral high ground that distinguishes him from the mutants. By depicting Batman and the mutant leader as jumping into the mud pit together, Miller is making it clear to the reader that once again, the “hero” exists on the same plane as the “villain.” They are both equally in the wrong just as they are both equally in the right. Neither comes out on top, as they both exist independently of the false binary, which is why the supposedly villainous mutants are able to transition into the role of Batman’s vigilante crime-fighting sidekicks with an ease reminiscent of the supposedly heroic Robin. By depicting the ease in which the assumed “villains” of the piece are able to switch sides, Miller further solidifies the idea that these characters both exist and operate outside of this false binary.

In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Miller attempted to create a Gotham City that could feasibly exist within modern-day America by creating characters as believable as the city. By creating characters that operate outside of the conventional good vs. evil binary, Miller was able to portray them as interacting in realistic, morally ambiguous ways. Readers may not believe that Miller’s Batman actually exists, but they may easily believe that in today’s world, he certainly can.

Works Cited:

Miller, Frank, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New
York, NY: DC Comics, 2002. Print

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