Batman has one of those rogues galleries that is widely considered among the best by everyone who cares about such things. Whether it’s based on the variety, the psychology, or how disturbing yet human they are, just about no one can top the Bat for memorable baddies. Ironically, because they’ve been covered so much and so well, I have generally avoided Batman’s rogues for the most part. However, I did think I would be somewhat remiss if I ignored them altogether, so I chose to focus on a villain (or villains as the case may be) who are often overlooked. They are original creations from the masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns: the feared gang known as The Mutants.
The Mutants are a gang of mostly teenage boys who begin to prey on Gotham City during Batman’s retirement. They do not as a group possess any superhuman abilities, but they are heavily armed, dangerously amoral, and there are legions of them. While the Mutants may commit some crimes to make money, wealth is not their goal. In truth, they are more of a proto-army, a group of killers out to conquer and destroy everything in their path. They kidnap children with the intent to kill them whether or not ransom is paid, they place explosives in people’s handbags while they aren’t looking, and they spread misery and woe everywhere they can. In short, they are crime itself, chaos and anarchy given form. They are a symbol of everything Batman swore to destroy, and the stranglehold of fear they keep on the populace of Gotham is a good portion of what draws him out of retirement.
Despite this, the Mutants actually have something resembling a culture. They have unique hair and clothing styles, their own slang (which is as impenetrable as most types of gang lingo), and rules of combat and conduct amongst each other. Frank Miller made the right decision in creating these styles on his own rather than drawing them from gangs in the 80’s, which would no doubt have looked hokey and dated today. Given this, it’s understandable that the Mutants do not see themselves as a mere gang. No explanation as to the origins of the gang is given, but given the dystopian nature of the future in TDKR, it’s easy to imagine a group of disenfranchised young people with no hope or belief in the civilized world falling back on savagery to find a place for themselves. This becomes especially apparent when we meet the Mutant Leader.
The Mutant Leader is no ordinary thug. He is incredibly strong, fast and tough, with razor sharp teeth and nails. He is extremely brutal and severe, and while he isn’t a great thinker on Batman’s level, neither is he stupid. He is probably the sort who, had it not been for the fact that Batman was retired, might have been a one-note villain (and probably would have been called The Mutant or something like that). Instead, he gave the youth of Gotham City something to believe in, and inspired them toward an ideal of viciousness and primal conquest. In attempting to be like him, the Mutants became amoral monsters, and it seemed inevitable that the fire they represented was only going to grow under his influence. Matters were only made worse when he defeated Batman in single combat. It was only after Batman realized that he had to not merely arrest the Mutant Leader, but disgrace him and take his respect that the back of the Mutant gang was broken, and half of them swore allegiance to Batman.
The Mutants are fascinating villains because they represent the ongoing tide of urban decay and nihilism. It’s scary enough to imagine one person or even just a few who have no compunctions about committing terrible crimes for ostensibly no reason. The idea that an entire army exists to spread destruction and chaos implies some pretty scary stuff about the human condition. This ties in well to the fact that the Mutants could not be beaten just by force of arms, and had to be given something bigger than themselves, and even their leader, to believe in. I have always been a little disappointed that no author since Frank Miller ever did anything with the Mutants. I suppose it is understandable, and likely they are left alone out of respect, but they pose a unique sort of threat to Batman, and have style and fearsomeness to spare.