[**Warning: Spoilers for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns below!]
First off, I do think the comic in question is entertaining. I can also understand why this work is still considered a creative game changer for comic books. However, I do not believe it is an actual masterpiece. Yes, I know various readers of this article will experience different levels of hate towards me for saying this, but I feel it is a very flawed work in terms of its script. The basis for my belief is due to the following reasons: The first night of return; Joker and the doctors; treatment of characters like Margaret Corocan, Carrie Kelley’s parents, and Lana Lang; the video from the mutant leader.
My problem with the first night is primarily that Bruce, having become an actual alcoholic, is given no time to sober up before he becomes Batman again. Now anyone who has ever seen or been a severely drunk person will agree that coordination is not a strong suit. So how is he able to successfully fight criminals on that first night without at least more injuries? Not to mention getting around town would be harder to do, especially without falling asleep due to the alcohol. There is also the fact that his speech is never slurred nor is he overly loud in his speaking volume (shown via lettering). Yet drunk people often have trouble judging sound levels, especially one’s voice. Not to mention the odd fact that his batsuit from a decade prior still fits him, despite his variation in weight, if not overall shape.
So why aren’t we given any sign of these problems? Could it be that it is all just a dream or complex delusion? Well, that is a possibility, since Frank Miller has Bruce Wayne acting like he is mentally two distinct people at the beginning of the story. That said, I have to admit that if this is the case we would have probably been told long ago by Frank Miller, or someone who worked on the original books.
Though whether one wants to look at this story as a Don Quixote-like madcap adventure with a more grim bent or something else isn’t a problem. What is the problem is that portraying Bruce and Batman as two mentally distinct people suggests armchair psychology. Yes, it could be argued that Batman is not mentally healthy, but there was no basis that Bruce had a type of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde disassociation.
Yet the armchair type of psychology does not end there. It is continued with the characters of Harvey Dent, Joker, and symbolized by the two doctors. Harvey, in the form of suggesting that his mental therapy and facial reconstruction had a reverse result on him psychologically. And yet we are not given any depth or real explanation for why that result happened. Instead we are given an apparent “no cure is possible for the mentally ill” and Batman relates to Harvey’s trouble.
As for the Joker, the fact that he is given the same mental health professional as Harvey is troubling for other reasons. Most professionals’ credentials would be under review, if not outright tarnished, if they were possibly at fault for such a public crime spree. Yes, Dent’s decisions were his own, but neither doctor’s methods are even questioned, despite having publicly reassured the public. Plus, Joker has such a past that it hurts the suspension of disbelief to have Batman retire when his greatest enemy is still around. Also friends, relatives, and outraged individuals of Joker’s victims should be trying/have tried to kill him. However, no hint of that is given.
Speaking of no hints being given, we get no real answer for why Superman’s ex, Lana Lang, is a proponent of Batman. I mean, it is brought up in the second book, but we get no real answer from any of the three characters interviewed. In fact Lana is singled out for her non-answer. Thus, we are now aware that Frank Miller’s take on women is rather one to two dimensional. While I could go on a long-winded tangent about said take, I will instead just point out Margaret Cocoran (the mother who is blown up on a train). We are given lots of detail in a couple of pages about this character, but she is simply created and destroyed to create outrage. She exists for no other reason, and is a predecessor to the trope “women in refrigerators”. As for Carrie Kelley’s parents, they are used for political and social commentary, and so we are aware that they are alive. Other than that, we never know anything else.
Finally, we have the absurdity of the Mutants’ leader providing a threat against a cop via video. Not only is that incredibly idiotic for various reasons, but it also contradicts the idea that he is a real threat. Since he threatens to murder someone, and said threat is in a form that others can witness, he should at least be arrested in no time flat. Throw in how big the mutant gang is, to the point that it breaks into smaller gangs, and you have a situation where the National Guard would probably be sent in.
In conclusion, while The Dark Knight Returns has become iconic, it is too flawed to be a masterwork. That is, unless one wishes to set a very low bar on master-level quality.