In his introduction to Frank Miller’s celebrated 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, award-winning comic-book writer Alan Moore (Watchmen) noted, “different demands upon the art and culture” called for “new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations.” Historically, DC Comics had offered the traditional heroes of childhood legend, but Miller’s re-imagining of Batman danced along the fine line of adhering to the myth, while adapting characters and moral landscape to a shifting urban sensibility, in effect creating a new, flawed set of superheroes. Of course, the comic-book genre has suffered from the perception that it largely targets a juvenile audience. The time was right to reconfigure the comic frame to a larger, cinematic scale. Moore believed film and literature were better able to redefine “their legends to suit the contemporary climate” thanks in part to the maturity and intelligence of their audience.
Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City borrowed heavily from Miller’s Dark Knight. The casting of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), while initially questioned, drew attention to the man behind the mask, a mark of distinction important to Miller’s handling of the Dark Knight. Despite the obvious need for action-packed “super” heroics, the intention of the graphic novel and those first two films was to get inside the mind and body of Bruce Wayne. This notion of a new earthbound superhero ran counter to a film industry dependent on its own brand of sanitized, god-like superheroes who existed solely to call down opening-weekend lightning. In no time, the darker, more-humanizing approach of Burton was replaced with a new director (Joel Schumacher), new faces in the cowl (Val Kilmer and George Clooney), bantering sidekicks (Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone), all-star, scenery-chewing villains (Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a fascination with garish colors and leather nipples as if the whole point had been to update the late-’60s TV series instead of the comic-book source material.
Miller’s impact on comic-book adaptations jumps forward almost a decade and crosses over from DC Comics to archrival Marvel, which has experienced success on the big screen thanks to Bryan Singer’s X-Men and its superior sequel X2: X-Men United as well as Sam Raimi’s blockbusters Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (2003) features another character and mythos touched by the dark hand of Miller. Back in ’86, Marvel turned the reins over to Miller and the resulting Daredevil: Born Again—which mirrors certain elements of his work on the Dark Knight—fearlessly walks into the shadows of blind attorney Matt Murdock, the man behind the mask, as he’s stripped of his friends, identity and sanity. Where The Dark Knight reinvigorates the iconic superhero, Murdock’s battle of redemption is the focus of the Daredevil stories. Miller also wrote a treatment for the Daredevil film. His version of the character’s origin (which was eventually published) was spurned by Johnson in favor of material that—while spotlighting pivotal characters like Elektra, the Kingpin and Bullseye—kept costumed star Ben Affleck front-and-center over the tortured man.
Now, Dark Horse Comics—through its film division Dark Horse Entertainment—is preparing to present the dark genius of Miller. After securing the screen rights to Frank Miller’s Sin City, director Robert Rodriguez approached Miller to co-direct the adaptation, which draws from three stories (Sin City, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard) rooted in a noir-ish world Miller created. The roads to redemption here are traversed by anti-heroes, who in the end aspire to some semblance of humanity before their tickets are punched. Rodriguez and Miller will be aided and abetted by the likes of Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Jaime King and Clive Owen. While 2005 provides big-budget adaptations of Batman Begins and Fantastic Four respectively helmed by Christopher Nolan (Memento) and Tim Story (Barbershop), Sin City holds the promise that Frank Miller’s brand of fiction may find salvation for the comic book genre on its own terms.
“Frank Miller: Dark Horse on the Horizon” was initially published in Paste Magazine