Like many comic book readers, I am a rabid fan of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. This seminal work helped redefine superhero comics. To this day, Miller’s interpretation of Batman casts a shadow over popular imagination. His grizzled crimefighter and dystopian Gotham is still used as a template by other creators. The influence of his take on the Dark Knight cannot be underestimated. Despite problematic politics in some of his work and evidence that his creative well might be running dry, his legacy still stands.
Or it would if he wasn’t trying to dismantle it single-handedly.
The Dark Knight Returns was a complete work in itself. It charted the retirement, resurrection, and fall of an aging Batman. Set against the politics of the eighties, Miller made Batman seem the only logical solution to a world without order. The climatic battle between the Dark Knight and the Man Of Steel was more than a fight between two titans — it was a clash of two ideologies. In the end, Batman still triumphed. With Superman’s blessing, he was allowed to continue his battle albeit on a more modest scale. He literally went underground to continue the good fight.
Like many comics of that era, its artistic and literary merit helps one overlook frankly offensive stereotypes. It’s undeniable that the Joker was written as a campy killer queen and Batman slapped around a possibly transgender Neo-Nazi villainess. But despite this, the work gave birth to a bold new vision of what Batman — and comics in general — could be. Most modern iterations of Batman continue to be inspired by Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.
Sadly, Miller’s recent additions to the Batman mythos have been less successful. Like so many others, I was extremely disappointed by the first sequel to The Dark Knight Returns,
Titled The Dark Knight Strikes Again or The Dark Knight II, it overlooked many of the elements that made The Dark Knight Returns work. Bruce’s aging and physical decline was largely ignored. Instead of being told from the perspective of multiple characters, Miller’s prose shifted clumsily between first and third person. The art crossed the line from iconic to disconcertingly cartoonish. Many of the themes and elements from The Dark Knight Returns were discarded as were the carefully constructed, nuanced protagonists.
In their place, we had superheros written in the broadest strokes. They were caricatures more suited to Sin City than the DC mythology. Struggling to manage his large cast, Miller failed to maintain a tight narrative. It is possible to handle a large number of characters and handle them well. Miller himself has done so in the past. But in this case, he appeared to be overwhelmed by the task.
The Dark Knight III: The Master Race seemed a further dilution of his Batman legacy. Therefore I approached it with caution. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it far exceeds my expectations. That isn’t to say it’s a memorable read; it simply benefits from having such a poor predecessor. When compared to The Dark Knight II, it can’t help but shine. When evaluated on its own merits, it’s a less-than-overwhelming work.
The word that comes to mind is “competent.” Miller is steadied by a top-notch creative team consisting of Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson. With the involvement of so many industry heavies, the series can’t help but succeed albeit on a more modest scale than The Dark Knight Returns.
The Dark Knight III has the trademark Miller art style and dynamic layouts. Each issue is solidly paced, building up to a climax and often ending on a cliffhanger. It’s put together well as a series. But the fact remains that it’s an unnecessary one.
If The Dark Knight II often neglected the themes of the first book, this one completely jettisons them in favor of something entirely new. There is no brooding introspective examination of the power of the media, the justification of violence in the face of chaos or the reality that mortality stalks us all. Instead, we’re given a high sci-fi threat in the form of the Kryptonians from the bottled city of Kandor.
It’s a fun but forgettable romp. The Dark Knight III: The Master Race is what I call a pop corn read, the comic book equivalent of a modern blockbuster. It’s all spectacle and flashy script but you forget it as soon as you walk out the cinema. Or in this case, put down the book.