batman

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.”

 

 

Idealizing the Hero

We’re in the middle of a superhero movie craze.  It started with remakes of superhero movies like the Dark Knight in 2008 and is continuing with the upcoming movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 this year, and even The Avengers 2 in 2015.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the movies and the ambition behind them.  But I’m getting tired of the advertising: these repetitive movie posters.  Taking a closer inspection the movie posters are functioning in a pretty obvious way.

Sean Hall, in his book This Means This. This Means That outlines the many ways that viewers judge an image.  As he explains, “the forms of placement tell us what is most important to the producer in terms of communication” (89).  So what do the producers of movie posters want us to know about the movie, about the superhero?  If you think about audience perspective, the viewer can only see the movie poster from one angle: directly from the front.  They can control exactly what we see.

Let’s look at some of the features of posters.

First, nearly every poster places the superhero in the dead center of the poster.  The center is the most important place, “the thing that is seen to prevail over that which surrounds it” compared to the marginal objects (98).  In this case, the marginal objects are the rest of the city, like the buildings that surround Batman as makes a leap in his Batpod.  In the case of the Iron Man posters, it’s a handful of enemies and supporting characters that float somewhere around his shoulders in the background.  All of this points to the superheroes importance – basically, that the superhero of the movie is going to be the main character and the one the viewer identifies with, along with numerous other reasons.

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Photo credit: Splatter.com

Photo credit: sci-fimovieposters.co.uk

Similarly, the hero is closest to the viewer out of the other images.  No matter what is shown in the background, the superhero makes up the definitive foreground.  This has the same effect of being in the center because everything is geared around the hero.

Third, the hero is “larger than life” – that is, depicted much larger than other people and his surroundings.  When the superhero is looking down, the viewer is essentially looking up to the hero.  The superhero gains more power from this position, since being higher is generally a place of superiority.  He becomes a role model.  The hero’s skills, his aspirations, and his very identity become something to look up to, no matter what the personal morality of the viewer is.

An interesting note is that the most idealized object is placed at the top of the image.  It isn’t too much of a stretch to compare these images of superheroes to gods.  God is always at the top of his images, at the front and center of whatever else is marginalized.  The superheroes are effectively the gods of their small worlds.  Pretty true.  Batman holds the city together by himself without the credit.  Captain America single-handedly brings down one of the most powerful men in World War II (according to the movie, anyway).

 

All in all, it’s a good setup that sucks the viewer into the world of the superhero, setting him or her up to believe in the hero’s power.  It’s predetermined after the viewer sees the poster that the hero will not fail, or will come out triumphant no matter the cost.  The posters that show the hero involved in some kind of heroic action while also the focus of the poster only emphasize their heroic nature.

All we need now is a new way to advertise movies, so we don’t need the same thing every time.

Source:

Hall, Sean.  “Visual Structures.”  This Means This.  This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics.  London: Laurence King, 2007.  89-108.  Print.