Any good movie — heck, even the occasional bad one — teaches you how to watch it. And that lesson usually starts with the very first image. I’m not talking necessarily about titles or opening sequences (they’re worth discussing, too — but that’s another article); I’m talking about opening shots. As those who have been reading Scanners (and my Editor’s Notes on RogerEbert.com) know, two of my cardinal rules for movie-watching are:
1) The movie is about what happens to you while you watch it. So, pay attention — to both the movie and your response. If you have reactions to, or questions about, what you’re seeing, chances are they’ll tell you something about what the movie is doing. Be aware of your questions, emotions, apprehensions, expectations.
2) The opening shot (or opening sequence) is the most important part of the movie… at least until you get to the final shot. (And in good movies, the two are often related.)
Earlier this year, I was giving Frank Miller’s Ronin a far overdue reread and was stunned by how free Miller’s storytelling was there. He jumped into that story, abandoning all fear and rules of storytelling and just did whatever he needed to do to tell that story. Maybe it as a rebellion from the more Marvel-style storytelling that he was doing on Daredevil but Ronin’s main rule is that there weren’t any rules.
So after the wildness of Ronin, Miller went to this:
On this second page, we start to see panels combine. Miller takes 6 parts of the grid to give us the Gotham City skyline. One panel wouldn’t have been enough and 4 still wouldn’t have shown us what the city looks like. Miller mostly sticks to the grid but that doesn’t mean that every page has to be a rigid construct.
This page starts to take the lessons of Ronin and show how Miller can apply them to a more formal storytelling structure. One way that Miller begins playing with time is splitting one image into two panels. The grid structure is still in place but just as Miller can combine panels, here he begins splitting them into smaller pieces like the closeup images of Two Face (who literally has two faces panels 12 & 13,) breaks down time like it breaks down the picture plane. Miller will be using as much of the page as possible, breaking it down as many times as possible, to tell the story he has. If he has to slow down time to do it, he’s got the ability to do that just by changing up how the panels work together.
Even then, he can also use the structured 16 grids to slow down time as we see on page 15. The shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne lasts forever. Slow motion action is all the rage in films nowadays but Miller was already using it back in the 1980s to show us monumental events. Once again, we have the conflicting chaos and order on this page.
Here’s another page which just completely fascinates me, particularly the top portion where the grid becomes an architectural element. Throughout the rest of the book, Miller will often put the grid in the background, making it a part of the picture even as he’s merging panels together. Is the top of this page one single panel or 8 individual panels with the main action bleeding over many panels? And time even continues to crawl as the images of the shooting are repeated here. Even in his old age, Bruce is trying to understand the events of that night years ago where his world stopped making sense.
And then there are the splash pages but even this isn’t a true splash page as elements of the structure show up here along the right edge. Most of the time in The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is larger than a single panel. Miller’s drawings of Batman ebb and breathe as they fill the space, creating a larger than life hero. Most other characters live in their panels. The order of the panel can’t contain Batman even though that order is what he wants the most in his life.
Here we see that Miller hasn’t completely figured out the grid yet. Page 27 may be one of the few pages in the entire book that doesn’t follow the grid and that’s what’s always made it the weakest moment in the book. This page looks like something that could have been in any Batman or Daredevil book. It’s not special because for whatever reasons Miller abandons his plan for one page. One page? It’s tough to reconcile this page with everything else in the book.
Even here, near the end of the first issue, Miller sticks with the grid but these long vertical panels just barely work. For some reason, that second panel has always seemed very Marshall Rogersish to me but after the car chase, Miller slowly brings the book back to the structure he established on the first page.
Miller has always been a savy storyteller. From Daredevil to Sin City, Miller is one of those artists who is in complete command of what he’s doing even as the book looks wild and chaotic. But for The Dark Knight Returns, he established how he was going to tell the story in the very first issue. Like Emerson’s Opening Shots theory, almost everything you need to know about reading The Dark Knight Returns is right there in the first quarter of the book as Miller shows you everything he’s going to do with the rest of the story.
Once you see the order of The Dark Knight Returns, it’s hard not to see be caught up in it.