Today, Mark and Ryan are discussing Dark Knight III: The Master Race 5, originally released June 29th, 2016.
Mark: Be careful what you wish for.
When Dark Knight III was initially announced—with the subtitle The Master Race, for God’s sake—I feared the worst. Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 pushed Frank Miller over the edge and into a world of hate. I don’t fault anyone who lived through the mindless death and destruction in New York City for being affected by it, but Miller became unhinged, his work borderline unreadable. Lows seldom get lower than 2011’s Holy Terror. Still, The Dark Knight is a name that’ll sell, and DC hasn’t exactly been lighting up the charts, so a resurrection of Miller’s most famous book was inevitable. My hope at the time of the announcement was that having trusted DC talent Brian Azzarello attached to the project as co-author would perhaps temper some of Miller’s more…flamboyant flourishes.
Now, five issues into Dark Knight III, I find myself wishing for a bit more of that Frank Miller lunacy.
Say what you will about The Dark Knight Strikes Back and the precipitously more maligned All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, but they at least had a point of view. Dark Knight III seems to have settled on “let’s just tell a nice Batman story” and called it a day. It feels wrong for something with the Dark Knight moniker to pander to fans so shamelessly. Yes, Superman showing up to fight alongside Batman in a mech suit of his own, complete with spit-curl, is a fun image…
…but it’s also a disappointing one in this context. All-Star Batman and Robin was a kick to the teeth of complacent Batman fans, and it was a purposeful kick to the teeth. It’s like Miller foresaw the excrement being shouted at Nick Spencer over Captain America: Steve Rogers and issued a pre-emptive “fuck you.” This wasn’t Batman acting on implanted memories, this was the “hard core” Batman fans thought they wanted brought to his natural conclusion. It was ugly and rough and mostly bad, but it never just gave readers what they wanted. If ultimately Miller’s post-9/11 Batman work is a failure, at least it’s an interesting failure.
The reality is that Dark Knight III: The Master Race is in no way a bad comic. The art by Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, and Brad Anderson is, as always, stunning. The story remains a fun, if a bit drawn out, Batman adventure. But who really wants “pleasant” from a Dark Knight book purportedly coming from Frank Miller? Outside of the commercial upside for DC, what’s the point of a Dark Knight seemingly built from the ground up to coddle?
But maybe in the current climate, it has to. At $5.99 a pop, maybe it needs to go down smooth.
Ryan, I may seem exceedingly down on Dark Knight III: Master Race 5, but I’m really not. It’s more of a classic “not-mad-just-disappointed” scenario. Maybe you can point out some ways I’m being too hard on an issue that’s really just trying its best?
Ryan D: Actually, Mark, reading your lead-in came as quite a relief to me, as I was worried that I was the only one who felt a bit like I’d bitten into a Big Mac instead of the lovely steak which was promised to me. Yes, this issue features some pretty SPECTACULAR moments. I mean this very literally: moments created almost exclusively for the spectacle of them. After what Drew and Michael noted to be a somewhat slow issue four, we return to this issue with an incredible amount of problem-fixing. Indeed, almost most beats of this issue feels to me a bit like a deus ex everything. Superman’s frozen in dark matter and lost somewhere in the Arctic? Well, luckily for everyone, we have not only Aquaman and his cadre of sea creatures, but also a “needle” which pierces the form of something which is “transparent to electromagnetic radiation and/or is so dense and small that it fails to absorb or emit enough radiation to be detectable with current imaging technology.” Thank you, Wikipedia. Also, Barry Allen broke his leg trying to take on a random Kandorian all by his lonesome without a plan? Strap him upside down and give him a computer- making him more effective at stopping bad guys than I’ve seen him in years- which is odd, seeing as his powers might be the most enabling in all of the DC Universe, depending upon how they scale his abilities at any point in time. I know that Batman is known for having incredible solutions for everything, but my problem with these are that they feel tacked on as a means of solving short-term narrative issues instead of the work of the World’s Greatest Detective. The solutions, therefore, feel as if they come from without, as opposed to within, making me feel disengaged from them. To put it another way: I do not feel as if I am solving this one with Batman, as I often feel when the character is written at his best, glowing with noir. And maybe that’s the point? Neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman can afford the luxury of being the lone man on the wall any more. Perhaps showing the impotence of Batman as a power player is exactly the idea of Millar and Azzarello’s post-post-DKR‘s theme. Could this be the final transition from Bruce Wayne as a crime-fighter into Bruce Wayne as puppeteer and strategist? Those might be interesting, but this could also just be leading to a classic “Bruce Wayne as a martyr and symbol” scenario. Which, you know, would be…fine, but nothing we haven’t seen before.
Speaking of rehashing, as someone who has been struggling through the events leading up to Rebirth for the promised payoff of the event, I am now officially numb to the use of the word “god” being used in their titles. This noun gets thrown around more than water balloons at a summer birthday party. Not only did the writers choose the whole “religious zealots in their quest towards a superficial godhead” as the crux of their villains’ character motivation, but the idea reappears in this issue as the Flash addresses Supes, here in the form of gentle teasing masking some sort of commentary on how Superman, seemingly immortal in the sense that he..um…comes back from the dead, possesses Biblical powers (think Sampson), and commands the power to gently or directly shape the known universe, could very well be a god. Great. We understand the trope being used here: the magnitude of difference in power between a Kryptonian and the average Terran is preposterous; however, when this idea of godhood is utilized without forcing the world of the text to truly respond to these loaded words, this seems like an empty idea. The purveying theme, thus far, seems to be the idea that people, us, appear to be no more than ants, reduced to a collective noun even by Bruce Wayne as he comments that he has “never had to use a mob as a weapon” before. Yikes. This is a pretty bleak world-view to espouse in a comic which is charging so much money because it has teased a possible fight between Batman and Superman on the cover. Which, of course, does not happen in the issue- not even figuratively. The old rift in ideology between Clark and Bruce, a seminal staple of the original DKR, has been swept under the rug- for now- in favor of cool battle suits.
Lastly, while I agree with all of the praise lauded upon the visual storytelling this series has garnered thus far, I found that this issue to be the weakest in that sense as well. While I loved the verticality of this page…
…with its paralleling between the green rain and the advancing hoard of supers, the rest of the issue missed out on many of the tricks which have redeemed this run thus far, such as its carefully constructed use of showcasing a character’s full body or panels very delicately cluing the reader’s eye to where it should be looking. For example, the only one page spread and two page spread in this issue showcase Superman waking up and Aquaman’s underwater sea armada, respectively. This, to me, seems like a missed opportunity to focus on whose story is truly being told in this comic.
Mark, I know, this issue was not objectively bad, but it’s that feeling of missed opportunity which makes me wriggle inside. It’s the feeling of eating fast food when I thought I was going to be enjoying a home-cooked meal. In a form reminiscent of how a lot of TV series are taking advantage of the Game of Thrones formula for television by throwing climaxes and deaths at the end of seasons just to fool people into believing that the writing is edgy and dangerous, this series might be headed for the cheap thrill over the long-term use of psychology, sociology, and/or innovative narrative to keep us locked in. But I am a benevolent god- see, anyone can be a god in DC!- and will accept atonement in the form of this series figuring out what it really wants to do to its readers.
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