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This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice opens March 25, it will draw (pun intended) heavily on Frank Miller’s seminal work The Dark Knight Returns. The 1986 comic book limited series took Batman, who was then, like DC Comics itself, stuck in the doldrums, and reinvented him as an elder crime fighter who comes out of retirement to take on the Man of Steel once and for all. The book sold 3 million copies, is continually in print and set a grim, realistic tone for a revolution in comics storytelling that has touched every Batman movie incarnation, from Tim Burton’s 1989 original to the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy to Warner Bros.’ new DC universe of films that launches with Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman and continues with Suicide Squad (Aug. 5), Wonder Woman, Justice League and more.
The crossover success has turned Miller into one of the best-selling comics writers of all time. As a writer for hire for DC and Marvel, among others, he lifted Daredevil out of the gutter and created Sin City and 300, both of which became movie franchises, with the former giving Miller his first taste behind the lens (he co-directed the 2005 film with Robert Rodriguez) and the latter setting up Snyder’s long relationship with Warner Bros. These days, the divorced 59-year-old, who hasn’t directed a film since his solo debut, The Spirit, an expensive 2008 misfire, lives and draws in his Hell’s Kitchen loft in New York, where he is working on a new Sin City story while plotting another Batman work. As The Dark Knight Returns turns 30, Miller granted THR a rare interview to talk about its origins, why he doesn’t watch Netflix’s well-reviewed Daredevil show and that time he and Darren Aronofsky tried to make a Batman movie.
One of the things that led you to create Dark Knight Returns was a series of muggings. What happened?
There’s something demeaning about the first time you’re knocked to the ground and punched in the stomach and have a gun waved in your face and realize that you’re completely at somebody’s mercy. And they can take your life. And at that point, you’ll do anything. There’s something so humiliating about that. And to me that made me realize that Batman was the most potent symbol DC had in its hands. Sure, Superman can fly, but Batman turns me back into that guy who is scared and at the same time the guy who can come and save him. It’s a perfect myth.
What makes him so mythic?
Batman isn’t interesting because he has a cool car. It’s great that he has a cool car. But he’s interesting because he straightens the world out. And he brings order to a very chaotic world. Especially when you’re a child. You need somebody, even if it’s a fictional character, to tell you that the world makes sense and that the good guys can win. That’s what these heroes are for.
Politics has shaped Dark Knight and informed a lot of your work. Any thoughts about the presidential campaigns? Are you following them?
Only for humor’s sake. It’s a little early to take it seriously. I think it’s going to be a great time to be a cartoonist. You can’t come up with a greater buffoon than Donald Trump. The fact that he thinks he can be president of the United States is one the best jokes I’ve read in a long time. At least I hope.
Some have said you turned Batman into a fascist. Agree?
Anybody who thinks Batman was fascist should study their politics. The Dark Knight, if anything, would be a libertarian. The fascists tell people how to live. Batman just tells criminals to stop.
March is a big month for you in terms of screen adaptations. Batman v. Superman is heavily influenced by your work, and in season two of Daredevil, we’ll see your character Elektra. Do you watch the movies and shows?
No. I didn’t make up Batman, I didn’t make up Daredevil, I have no right to be possessive, but once I’ve worked on a character, it’s hard to see any other way than my way. By and large, most of what they do, I’ll just get grouchy if I see it. So I tend not to look at it, except for few exceptions.
Have you been paid for Elektra being onscreen or for your storyline being used?
No. I don’t know if they quite know I exist. Let’s see if they credit me for creating Elektra.
Marvel should pay you, right?
I’m not running for president. I don’t want to be one of those cranky old guys grinding an ax, wishing I got paid better. I’ve done my best to pave the way for artists in the future to be treated better than I have. And that’s all I can do. Beyond that, I’d be pissing and moaning about things I have no control over. I’ve signed every contract that I’ve signed and agreed to the working conditions that I’ve worked in. And I’m not going to whine about this. I make a good living.
What have you learned from your experience in Hollywood?
You have to be amazingly tough and tenacious. You have to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to not let anything stand in your way. But at the same time, you have to be as persuasive as can be. You’re dealing with other people’s money, and movies cost so much to make. Money is the most dominant factor, which is both good and bad. When something costs that much to make, everybody is scared. And people are being cautious just when they need to be bold.
Your first Hollywood experience was writing RoboCop sequels during the 1990s. How did that go?
They didn’t do very well because they shouldn’t have. I’m not going to whine about that. I was inexperienced. I wasn’t disciplined. I was bad at politics, bad at the business, didn’t write good movies. I have no complaints other than to say I wish I had done a better job.
Looking back on The Spirit, is there anything you would do differently?
I would do it better. I don’t know about how the movie did and what the reaction was — there are so many factors involved with that — but I would do a better job, and that’s all I can promise.
You worked with Darren Aronofsky on a Batman movie project that never got made. What happened there?
It was the first time I worked on a Batman project with somebody whose vision of Batman was darker than mine. My Batman was too nice for him. We would argue about it, and I’d say, “Batman wouldn’t do that, he wouldn’t torture anybody,” and so on. We hashed out a screenplay, and we were wonderfully compensated, but then Warner Bros. read it and said, “We don’t want to make this movie.” The executive wanted to do a Batman he could take his kids to. And this wasn’t that. It didn’t have the toys in it. The Batmobile was just a tricked-out car. And Batman turned his back on his fortune to live a street life so he could know what people were going through. He built his own Batcave in an abandoned part of the subway. And he created Batman out of whole cloth to fight crime and a corrupt police force.
Why don’t you turn some of that into a graphic novel?
Maybe I will.
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