When such an august figure as Alan Moore himself commends your work for introducing a sense of mythic grandeur to a comic book character, perhaps it is time to heed those words. Unfortunately Frank Miller did not and fifteen years after the publication of The Dark Knight Returns, he treated fans of that original story of Batman’s last mission with an unnecessary sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. DK2 was unnecessary because firstly it undermined the resolution of the original story. Bruce Wayne had emerged from behind the mask and rededicated himself to helping damaged young hooligans become revolutionaries. He was no longer a lone vigilante, but a leader of men, a general of a new kind of army. Those final pages of The Dark Knight Returns still excite with the implied redefinition of the character – the archetypal ‘Bat’, has been left behind and he has finally become simply a ‘man’.
Secondly, the story had Batman facing off against all of his classic arch-enemies and defeating them. So for the sequel, Miller needed new villains and chose from Superman’s rogues gallery – namely Lex Luthor and Brainiac.
Now Lex Luthor is many things to many different writers, but in order for him to present a credible threat to the Man of Steel, one consistent element of his characterisation – whether he has been a mad scientist, or a multi-billionaire, or even POTUS! – has been his intellectual dynamism, as well as his sheer determination to be the optimum human. Whether his hatred of Superman comes from blaming him for the loss of his hair, or as in John Byrne’s revamp, his inability to bribe him, at base it stems from his resentment of what the Kryptonian represents. A superior lifeform here on Earth. This is something Luthor cannot abide.
What is worse, in keeping with the cynicism of the entire DK2 project, Luthor is here a tyrant who manipulates the world by hiding behind a hologram of the US President. With the help of Brainiac he has the likes of Superman working for him as a brute enforcer, having threatened the lives of his loved ones, which of course leads to a rematch between Batman and his one-time friend in the first issue. Wayne physically scars Luthor by carving the Zorro symbol into his face, no doubt intended as a callback to the night of his parent’s murder. It is also a rather flaccid climax. Here we have the normally urbane and debonair Luthor reduced to a hideous ape-like and disfigured parody of himself.
Miller famously described the inspiration behind The Dark Knight Returns as coming from the realization that he was now growing older than his childhood hero. In DK2, however, that desire to remain younger than the Batman has instead pushed the character ever further out into an increasingly disenchanted and nihilistic vision of the DCU. Luthor has become a monster, but then so has Batman and the two pound on each other through a series of violent escalations. This is a reflection of the creator’s own view of the world. Unable to picture things getting better, the future is depicted as the same series of events repeating themselves over and over, becoming worse with every revolution. Luthor’s dynamism has been completely extinguished. He is a dinosaur, a fossil from the childhood of Frank Miller.
When Matt Fraction took over the character of Iron Man for Marvel, his first storyline The Five Nightmares managed to do something comparable to The Dark Knight Returns. Without resorting to yet another ‘The End‘ type storyline, he introduced a character from his previous series, the much-missed The Order, named Ezekiel Stane who accomplished what The Mandarin, Iron Monger and The Unicorn had all failed to do. He made Iron Man irrelevent. Tony Stark’s armour is a cybernetic device. Matt Fraction follows Warren Ellis’ lead in showing the character as being on the cusp of post-human advancement. Stane, in sharp contrast, has plunged straight in and biohacked his own body to become a living weapon. His intelligence rivals Stark’s own and he forces him to face the fact that he could soon be obsolescent. Without setting out to write a ‘capstone’, to the Iron Man story, Fraction accomplished what Miller had already done with The Dark Knight Returns and then undone with the book’s sequel – he introduced a sense of mortality to the character.
Stane’s asymmetric terrorism is exactly the kind of dynamic threat that Luthor is meant to represent. A desire to win at all costs. A furious sense of ego that compels him to become increasingly dangerous to the hero. Miller’s take on the Superman villain seems moribund when compared to young Stane. It is not a question of age though. Just take Morrison’s use of Luthor in All-Star Superman. There he is genuinely terrifying – as he should be. Miller appears to view him as a bully. Importing Luthor into a Batman tale seems counter-intuitive, but it makes an odd kind of sense. Wayne and Luthor are both children of privilege. They both became the men they are due to childhood trauma and the realization that they have the power to change the world. If anything choosing Luthor as an adversary for the man behind the bat-mask makes perfect sense. They are ordinary humans who pose a legitimate threat to their superpowered peers thanks to their extraordinary intellects.
Any writer who takes on either of these characters should never forget that, but it goes doubly so for Luthor. He does not hide behind a mask. He has chosen to fight not criminals, but a man-god set loose on the earth. It is something to remember when tackling Luthor as a character. He should never be underestimated.