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Physical Politics in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

Hate him or love him, Frank Miller-creator of (among other things) Sin City and 300 is very good at what he does. And what he does is propagandize. Ok. So what. All creators are propagandists.

So what’s my problem? Well, let’s avoid the whole tendency to draw swastikas whether there is a need or not, and move into the visual in-group/out-group world Miller creates

I recently watched the animated adaptation of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a comic I had first read when I was a youngling. Batman, I saw, could still kick a lot of ass at 55.

Batman at 55. I should age so well.

For those unfamiliar with the plot,  The Dark Knight Returns is a conservative fantasy. Hardy, masculine, go-getters MEN are marginalized by liberal PC society, and the whole place has gone to heck because of it.

Superman also answers to Ronald Reagan. I’ll get back to that.

Now, this plot I mentioned.

The new police commissioner, who’s in over her head.


A woman!

Her first tasks on the job are to ineffectually deal with the youth crime of Gotham and to place a warrant on Batman.It’s quite strongly suggested that gets her job due to gender politicking by the higher-ups. And, she doesn’t agree with Batman’s principles.

Neither does this guy, the psychiatrist.

He is a ruthless send-up of leftist intellectuals,  always with a theory of some sort, spouting semi-Freud while blaming society, or the government, or the overt masculinity of Miller’s Batman, while really only trying to make a name for himself.

These two are visual stereotypes; for Miller they represent liberalism. Miller encodes them carefully; the first only having her job because she is a woman, the second only really interested in personal gain. Visually, their bodies are thin, frail, weak; this being an intertextual, (how images/words/ideas of a culture relate to other images/text/ideas of a culture)  reference to society-at-large’s belief in a sound mind in a healthy body.

Miller intends for these characters to be reviled, or at least have negative connotations attached to them. This we know by comparison, the rhetorical highlighting of differences. Bat-hunk, Superman, even the lefty Green Arrow, Miller draws as big, physical men. They solve things with their fists, they are full of the ethereal quality of “gumption.” These are characters side-lined or frustrated by, as Miller’s Superman remembers, “Parent Groups and sub-committees,” mired by liberal bureaucracy, forced to the margins. Their very existence is a threat to liberal world, and as Superman warns Batman, “We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.”




Problems with a Face

As a kid, one of the movie genres I really just consumed was the pulp series put out just after the Depression, stuff like Charlie Chan, Lone Ranger, Mr. Wong, Detective: stuff my grandparents knew from when they were young. Good movies, fun, I really enjoyed them.

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. Notice how facial features have been changed: eyebrows arched, eyes have been taped to give them slants, mustache added in stereotypical “Oriental” style.

But as an adult, I don’t get the same amount of pleasure from them when I try to watch them.

The big reason is that a lot of the movies I was exposed to are face movies, or at least have face characters. I hope that I don’t seem like I’m bemoaning the fact that my liberal leanings are forcing me to avoid these movies, because that’s not what i’m trying to do.

If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, the most well known example is blackface, but it is also manifested for other ethnic groups, redface for Native Americans, yellowface for Asian, etc.

Ok, so what is the problem?

The portrayals are inherently racist and serve as very powerful visual rhetoric.

Visual characters like this seek to establish themselves as typical of African-Americans. Lips and hair has been embellished, as has the overall backwards-ness of appearance.

Well, like I said, these portrayals are inherently racist and in the least appropriative.  Too often, the characters in “face” makeup are bumblers, lazy, slow, vain, greedy, subhuman. This establishes a stereotype, and the face character is a visual cue; audiences know what to expect from them when seen onstage. Being able to recreate the same features from actor to actor for a face role is a visual manipulation, allowing the movie makers to disregard the diverse realness of humanity and reduce POC to an idealized icon. What POC are actually like is not important. The negative is idealized, exaggerated, and displayed, in order to broadcast/reinforce the message that these aspects are all the targeted culture is. In doing this, POC go from individuals to characters that the audience doesn’t need to get to know; they already understand how they will act. The face character-one person, one role, one character, is allowed to stand for the whole people. Such characters are visual affirmation of race myths.

Johnny Depp’s recent portrayal of Tonto continues the traditions of redface: facepaint, broken English, quasi-mysticism. Is this how we perceive Natives?

These performances do not encapsulate the whole experience of the culture or do them real credit. (There is also the cruel twist: black/red/yellow face performers have also been members of the culture they are stereotyping, often it was the only work they could get. However, this only served as an affirmation of the performance’s reality.) Face performances, in picking and choosing what they want to convey, confirm the idea that the races being mocked are this way, and so deserve to be mocked, and treated as inferiors. We must also remember that these roles are created by a dominant section of society, and are therefore used to reinforce their position of power.


There’s something the matter with Henry

Trigger Warning: Gore.

Even Hollywood comes up with some new ideas, now and again.

In an earlier post, I talked how physical deformity is often used as a clue towards explaining the relative evilness/untrustworthiness of a character. You couldn’t count the number of facial scars, eyepatchs, or claw hands if you tried.

By 1986, horror was just lousy with trope portrayals of killers, ensured by the massive success of Friday the 13th, Halloween, their sequels and imitators. Everywhere you looked, mass murderers were idealized as masked murders, monolithic, calculating reapers. The killers were not men, not people, they were death given form.

Wow, such death, very spoopy.

As effective as these killers were, and they undoubtedly, and deservedly did and do inspire terror, they cannot compare to Henry.

He’s just eating a sandwich.


He isn’t creepy at all.


Oh, I see.

Jason and Michael Myers are wolves in wolves’ clothing; Henry is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

That’s what, for me, makes Henry the scarier. The movie emphasizes the real over the ideal, leaving Henry to play cards and buy cigarettes. He has an unremarkable area of Chicago, no haunted lake or long-abandoned house for a home base.

The mundane surroundings is also visual rhetoric, the same selection of real vs. idealized. His average face, the could-be-a-million-places feeling of his backdrop produces the terror. Unlike Jason, Henry can be anyone. Anywhere. And that’s scary. That’s the real fear of Henry. His face is a mask, and you worry how many others like him are hiding behind masks. He knows it, and tells us, is too smart to use the same method more than once to avoid recognition for what he is.

In showing killers how they really look, rather than relying on idealized icons, Henry, Portrait of A Serial Killer provides chills by stripping away any of the audience’s ability to dissassociate the actions of the killer with the face of a regular Joe.

John Carpenter’s Subversion

When people talk about John Carpenter’s best work, the examples usually given are either Halloween or The Thing. Both excellent choices. Me, I always go with Big Trouble in Little China. It may be one of the best, most subtle parodies in movie history.

It’s so slick about its satire, that it’s own main character doesn’t even know he’s a caricature.  From wikipedia:

“Carpenter envisioned the film as an inverse of traditional scenarios in action films with a Caucasian protagonist helped by a minority sidekick. In Big Trouble in Little China, Jack Burton, despite his bravado, is constantly portrayed as rather bumbling; in one fight sequence he even knocks himself unconscious before the fight begins. Wang Chi, on the other hand, is constantly portrayed as highly skilled and competent.”

Just to remove any imagined heroics, that’s lipstick on Russell’s mouth, not blood.

John Carpenter manages this send up of action movies through careful manipulation of semiotics, most importantly the idea of stereotypes. This is enforced by the studio’s repetition of billing Kurt Russell as the star. We think, therefore that his character is more important.


Yeah, stereotypes, which means pretty much what it makes you think. Stereotypes, writes Sean Hall, is (albeit perhaps reductive) an interpretation tool used to get a message across.

Which would you call the hero in this picture, going off size, implied physicality, race?

Looking at the picture of Kurt Russell and Dennis Dun, stereotypes lead us to conclude that based on color, size, etc, Russell will be the hero.

We know how action movies go. The hero swaggers in, encounters problem, epic fight, wins girl.

Let’s watch the trailer.

Let’s think about what we expect from heroes in movies. Is Russell’s actions heroic?

Let’s look at how sidekicks are usually portrayed in movies. They serve, through their lack of grace, to emphasize the hero’s good traits.

While Dennis Dun’s (Wang Chi) character remains calm and collected, and approaches the problem with a plan; Russell’s bounces from emotional extremes, throws himself headlong into situations, and really doesn’t have a clue about how to get himself out of trouble.

Dun gets the girl. Russell doesn’t. Dun, great mid-air swordfight. Russell throws a lucky knife and kills the big baddie, and little time is spent in this moment.

But Hollywood tradition is white lead, poc sidekick. Despite the established codes for how to read Caucasian/POC male relationships in action movies (Caucasian in position of power), we can see through his dialogue with Dennis Dun, and his character’s actions, that Russell is playing the fool.

Even more challenging, he is the white sidekick convinced he is the hero. He’s expected to assume he’s in charge. Why wouldn’t he be?  (This is is again stereotype at play.)

And John Carpenter knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s playing against audience expectations (ie Russell as hero) by design. This is shown through Kurt Russell’s thoughts on his character after talking to the director for insight on the role. ” Jack is and isn’t the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He’s a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up…Furthermore,” the actor felt that “at heart he thinks he’s Indiana Jones but the circumstances are always too much for him”

The movie opened to mixed reviews, leading (or cementing) Carpenter’s disillusionment with Hollywood, and I have to wonder if the reception was in part to due to the unsettling subervision of stereotypes.

Hollywood, Race, And Myths

This post is obviously in need of a disclaimer, on the off chance the Norse gods are real.

SO: Son of Nine Mothers, if you are real, sorry for calling you fictitious.

Back in 2011, when Thor came out, there was a bit of an uproar when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdallr, the gatekeeper-god, and as Wikipedia informs me “the whitest of the gods.”

Here was Hollywood meddling again, right? Everyone knows that everyone in the Dark and Middle Ages was white.  (There was no problem with almost all the Norse gods speaking with a British accent, because that is how we know they are civilized.) And what happens when this is done in reverse deserves its own post.

We’ll just gloss over the fact that many stories as close to canon as you can get in the King Arthur myth cycle have People of Color as knights. 

But knights (later cowboys)(and then Jedi) come in two colors, and they are both coded to mean something.

(Please note the next section contains lots of summary, I’m by no means an expert)

Traditionally, white=light=good, so black=darkness=bad. Does this connotation code an audiences’ perception of an POC hero? Is it simply that, as author Sean Hall writes, it is only a matter of perception that makes us aware of differences.

Why does a non-traditional depiction of fictitious character cause such a furor? I wondered, at the time, if it was partially that a PoC was given god-power that caused queasiness.

Elba’s casting is caught up in a lot of paradigms. It could, as the Salon article I linked to earlier (again, here) it could be read as a continuance Viking movies featuring PoCs. It’s detractors clearly see it in the framework of liberal media’s hostile takeover. It is caught up in the didactics of what means good and bad.


What it isn’t, is simple entertainment.



Twisted Mind, Twisted Body

Think about 1931’s Frankenstein. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it. Not really. You can picture the main characters. The big, ungainly monster. The well-meaning, but tormented Frankenstein. His twisted, evil assistant.

We know instinctively that Dwight Frye’s character is evil, and his actions later in the film only serve as validation of our preconceptions.

But how are we so assured of his defective character? Audiences know because of the body scriptwriters gave him. (And it is important to remember that Frye’s Fritz/Igor character was invented for the movies.) That they gave him this body was no accident.

If you ever can’t figure out how something got started, it’s best to go to ancient Greece. And it’s from them that we have gotten our ideas about the body. Plato, one of the most well known philospohers and a huge influence on Western/Christian thinking, considered the condition of the body important for the growth of the soul. And the Roman author Cicero acknowledged that the shape of the soul was determined by the body.

A Sound Mind In A Healthy Body.

What happened to Greek babies that didn’t fit the mold? They were relegated to the shadows, the fringes, or in the extreme world of Sparta, tossed of cliffs.

Speaking of Sparta, there is an Igor in that story, as well.


In the 1961 story, and more than likely in real life, he looked something like this.

But in Frank Miller (and Zak Snyder’s adaptation), the need to emphasize his betrayal exists. (There’s a really great article on the many problems with the movie over here at Disability Quarterly.)

And so he becomes this.

Surrounded by these guys.

This is again, by design, an effort to ensure that the audience connects with the Spartans. Their bodies are like ours. We see ourselves in them. The disabled Ephialtes is rather firmly Othered, only barely human.

Semantically, it reinforces a very negative lesson. The behaviors of these characters are related directly to their bodies; the movies leave no question about this. There is no sound minds in healthy bodies in these characters; they are petty, self-serving, debased. Their attitudes, their reactions are not like ours, and the inference that we make is that it is because of their bodies.

So the body on the screen, in visual representation, and in real life, becomes a signal. This body is twisted, the visual semantics tell us, and so therefore is the spirit within the antithesis of the Roman thought.

But these body types are not the imagination of Hollywood. This is where the problem lies. The semantics invented as visual clues in a movie spill over onto real people who must live in these bodies. As consumers, we must avoid dwelling in the thrill of revulsion offered to us by Tod Browning’s Freaks consider why the characters have been given the bodies they have been assigned, and what we are being asked to think of them.