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Dark Knight III: The Master Race continues to be a series filled with great ideas and hit-or-miss execution.  It’s the dynamics that are off. The creative team consistently nails the understated quiet moments but fumbles the big action spectacles. One could argue which aspect is more important to a story, but ultimately both are needed to make a fully satisfying and suitably momentous miniseries like this one feel whole. So here’s the good news:

This book gets Frank Miller’s Batman.

The previous issue ended with the promise that Bruce Wayne would finally take center stage, leaving me wondering exactly what kind of Batman would appear in this series.  The gleeful lunatic seen in Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Star Batman would be out of place in the more grounded world of DKIII, but a retreat to the more disciplined and stolid Bats of DKR or Year One would feel like a cop out.  Most importantly, I worried the dour and mostly humorless tone of DKIII would leave no room for a crucial but often overlooked aspect of Miller’s take on the character. That is, he loves being the goddamned Batman.

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And while talk of Miller and his Dark Knight legacy invariably focuses on the “grim ‘n gritty” aspects, the pure joy Bruce gets leaping from rooftops, punching out bad guys, and generally striking terror has always been one of his defining characteristics. So in a story centered around themes of failure and regret, would there be a place for a Batman that’s just so damn jolly?

Book Three opens with Millerello’s rather brilliant solution to this character conundrum, presenting us with a conflicted man whose mad obsessions still run deep, but who must restrain himself for the sake of his protégée, Carrie Kelley. It’s hard not to read this as an allusion to Miller himself, an old master finally allowing collaborators to take on his legacy now that his physical capabilities can no longer match his internal vision. But if there is sadness in the inevitable decline of a once seemingly immortal icon, it’s tempered with an optimism towards the future, a hope that the next generation can surpass its elders. Batman loves Carrie Kelley, and so does Miller. He’s described her as the trilogy’s “stealth lead character” and the closest thing he has to a daughter. When Batman’s cartoonishly calloused hands gently caress her face, it’s not hard to imagine Miller wishing he could do the same.

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It’s an instantly iconic image and a wonderful instance of an entire creative team (Miller, Azzarello, Kubert, and Janson) firing on all cylinders. And this superlative characterization of Bruce continues in his later interaction with a frozen Superman, as Kubert vividly shows the rage and contempt that still fester within him, now mixed with a bittersweet resignation that he’s long past his prime. This is an aging Batman, still as wrathful and uncompromising as ever, yet finally allowing himself to act his age. That all this emotional drama is coupled with Batman wielding a Donkey Kong-style cartoon hammer is a welcome bit of understated absurdity and the Dark Knightiest thing to occur in this series so far. It’s just about perfect.

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These quieter moments really sing , so it’s a shame they’re not matched whenever the book switches over to the story’s larger external conflict.

Interspersed between these memorable scenes of Batman yucking it up with his super pals, we witness Quar, the leader of the Kandorians, making his presence known by hijacking the airwaves and sending a suicide bomber to blow up Moscow!

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Yawn.

There’s nothing wrong with this sequence per se. The storytelling is well paced and efficient, raising the stakes and illustrating clearly the global threat our protagonists are up against. But ultimately, this is boilerplate villain-of-the-month stuff and, like Carrie’s jailbreak in the last issue, seems to exist only to fulfill some obligatory checklist of superhero action tropes. It just has no impact.

“Well okay then, hotshot,” you say aloud. “If you’re so smart, how could this scene be improved?” Great question! Let’s look to the past to see what Miller himself might have done to add some emotional resonance to this scene of otherwise commonplace comic destruction.

He could, for example, have taken us to the ground level, showing us the final moments of the victims, like this sequence from DK2, a tragic romance in four panels:

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Or maybe he would have put us in the head of the killer, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of his mindset moments before impact, like this depiction of a suicide bomber from the controversial Holy Terror. A few short sentences are all it takes to feel her disgust at the world of her sworn enemies:

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Or hell, there’s always the reliable fallback of having Batman say something badass while watching the carnage unfold:

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Any of these solutions would be better than just drawing a big honkin’ mushroom cloud and calling it a day. Crucially, they all keep the focus on character, even as the external conflict intensifies. Most of them barely even show the explosion. In other words, the best kind of storytelling makes no distinction between character moments and action sequences…it’s all character. That’s what gives moments likes these resonance. That’s what makes readers care.

And maybe that’s what’s missing from DKIII, why there’s often a strange sense of emptiness whenever the vantage point pulls back to any distance farther than a close up. It was perhaps prudent to not attempt to replicate something as personal as Miller’s trademark hardboiled narration for such a collaborative project. At the same time, this lack of a clear point of view from scene to scene can create a detachment from the action on the page. It appears Millerello is aware of this to some extent, inserting a small panel of Carrie and Bruce’s reaction to the mushroom cloud image. But observing their reaction is not the same thing as seeing it through their eyes. We’re given no new or interesting insight into their characters by seeing Carrie’s shocked face or Bruce’s narrowed eyes. It’s merely what’s expected.

What else?

The use of talking heads and real world political figures continues to be a mixed bag. Previously, Miller has presented us with an exaggerated over the top version of our own mixed media, one that looked immediately familiar but, like rubber faced 80s icon Max Headroom, seemed to take place just 20 minutes into the future. So far, DKIII is less ambitious, seeking to merely present the world as it is, which ironically makes it feel less authentic. While DKR’s now iconic Mutant slang is no doubt rooted in its 80’s origins, its bizarre rhythms and alien phrasing give it a strangely eternal quality.  On the other hand, DKIII’s attempts at current social media conventions, from hashtags to texting abbreviations, reads more like a bunch of old white guys who just don’t quite get it, and already feels kind of dated.

The social satire fares better, however, when it’s not painfully attempting to mimic youth culture. Having a clueless President Obama attempt to launch into a canned stump speech during  a meeting of world leaders is actually a pretty good parody, but it’s undermined by the weirdly restrained visuals.

As I’ve said before, good cartoons look like what they really are. Take for example, the Ronald Reagan we see in DKR:

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Even without dialogue, it’s immediately apparent this is an irreverent and farcical take on the commander in chief. His bewildered expression and frail form contradict the exaggerated trappings of patriotism and power that surround him. Most importantly, he would be an interesting and entertaining character even if he wasn’t based on a real person. Now look at DKIII’s Obama:

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What does this image tell us about his personality? He’s….serious? Compare it to the range of emotion and personality in the panels of Bruce earlier in this review and you can see how much Kubert is holding back here. But why? Out of respect? Fear? Editorial constraints?  Neither have a place in good satire. And while it is admittedly more dangerous to draw a caricature of an African-American than an old conservative white guy, well, in the words of Drake Mallard,

Let’s get dangerous.

It is in fact when DKIII dares to flirt with some nasty and dangerous ideas that it’s at its most interesting. Quar’s villainous monologue is mostly generic tripe (Purposely? More on that later!), but at the same time he also invokes images of Catholic Mass and Islamic suicide bombers. Miller’s thoughts on religion are well documented:

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So why hold back? Similarly, the one time those aforementioned media cutaways really work is during another of the Kandorians’ boring broadcasts. This time, instead of putting the spotlight on powerful politicians and media elites, we see ourselves, the unwashed masses, posting vapid makeup tutorials, cheering on the brutality of a bullfight, and clinging dumbly to our guns and religion.

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It brings to mind the unsettling conclusion of DK2 I mentioned in my last review, the notion that perhaps we mere mortals deserve to be ruled over, that what separates a Brainiac from a Superman is not that one is a conqueror and the other a liberator, but simply that one will rule us with more benevolence than the other. There’s something Nietzschean at play here, and also something fascist — a stark separation between the great and powerful elite and the foolish, powerless masses. Our heroes protect us, sure, but that’s because we desperately need protecting. From an oblivious youtuber to the leader of the free world, we’re all just helpless, clueless cattle in need of a god king to keep us from hurting ourselves. So maybe the Kandorians aren’t worthy of the title “Master Race.” Maybe Batman and his Super Friends will rise up to save the day once again. But whatever the case, this is not a fight between mankind and a sinister alien threat. Mankind are just the spectators. And the prize.

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But I’m getting carried away.

While these intriguing ideas are no doubt present in the text, they’re never dwelled on, only implied in tantalizingly brief moments. Again, there is a sense that the creative team is holding back. There’s a timidity to the execution that is at odds with the previous Dark Knight books, and Miller’s legacy in general. It’s frustrating to see that, while at times still producing  moments of brilliance, Miller’s collaborators seem to primarily be restraining him. This is only speculation of course, but in any case the result is a book filled with weighty, interesting concepts that seems too afraid to completely commit to them. A shame. To quote Nestor from the 2004 movie Troy, “We don’t need to control him. We need to unleash him.” Let’s hope they do.

 

 

More DKIII:

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