Dark Knight III: The sequel to a Batman classic that came and went

Known more for its variant covers than its awesome art and content, DKIII: The Master Race seemingly came and went.

Known more for its variant covers than its awesome art and content, DKIII: The Master Race seemingly came and went.

+ Mild spoiler warning – Relatively spoiler free +

Like the Horn of Helm Hammerhand bellowing in Helm’s Deep, in 2015 DC Comics sounded a signal that assembled some of the most classic and innovative minds to begin crafting a sequel to arguably the most iconic Batman miniseries ever, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

Frank Miller was back, this time joined by writer Brian Azzarello and artist’s Andy Kubert and Klaus Johnson.

As time rolled on the build up for issue #1 was intense and every artist from here to Mars were lined up to painstakingly produce an army of variant covers, special editions and exclusives. The hype was so real that individual comic book stores, yes, individual stores, even had their own variants.

In the end the series just kind of, well, came and went. Some fans blame the over-commercialization of variants, some believe that Miller’s spark just isn’t there anymore; personally I’m of the belief that just like 2001’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, DKIII is slightly flawed by confusing moments, yet is filled with deep iconic imagery that defines everything we love about modern day Batman.

I want to delve into DKIII a deeper, examine its themes and break it down in an effort to figure out if the warm-tepid reviews are justified or if we’re overlooking a brilliantly crafted epilogue.

So where to begin? Well, how about issue 1? Straight away Miller’s work is identifiable. Like a gentle sampan ride we’re instantly in calm and familiar territory, surrounded by memorable DK tropes like television broadcasts scattered across the page, SFX text that replaces dialogue and overlapping speech from multiple characters. It feels like more than a throwback, it’s a reminder that this is how the world of the Dark Knight is told, not through overt exposition, but through placid clues that the reader has to assemble themselves like a mail order meal kit. Miller is a master of “Showing, not telling” and 33 years after the release of the original it’s actually refreshing to see the same storytelling methodology in action.

Straight away what we glean, through a series of panels depicting various television programs and online messages, is that our titular hero has returned and talk has once again turned to whether Gotham wants him or no longer needs him. This time however, in a twist, Batman is hunting the police instead of criminals. While the symbology behind this is never truly explained, the dialogue seems to point to how out of control and lawless the police have become in dealing with petty criminals in Gotham. The initial exchange, told through text messages between two young Gothamites, tells us that one of them was nearly executed by the police.

“What you doin down by the narrows?”
“Getting arrested”.
“The man don’t need a reason”.

While technology has moved on since 1986 and 2001, the messages ultimately will always remain the same in the DK universe: Batman, in whatever form he takes, be it Carrie Kelley or Bruce Wayne himself, will always be needed by the oppressed to fight the oppressor. Injustice takes on many forms and the discussion surrounding the recent spate of police shootings in the United States has clearly weaved its way into Miller and Azzarello’s narrative. It’s a reminder that Batman is interested in criminals, whether they wear the badge or they adorn themselves in makeup and rob banks.

However while this is all familiar territory, how does one actually up the ante and move beyond the ‘Millerisms’ of The Dark Knight Returns? As an issue 1, DKIII sets up a great world that is ripe for Batman’s return, but really what does it do to take the story to places we haven’t seen before?

Issue 2 sets the scene for our titular ‘Master Race’, an extremist sect of Kandorians freed from their bottle prison by Ray Palmer, The Atom. Tricked by Baal and the sect’s terrifyingly zealous leader Quar, the master race immediately set about to use their red-sun fuelled powers to enslave the human race and found a new Kryptonian empire.

For me, this is what truly upped the ante on the Gotham-centric world of Batman. For an ageing Bruce Wayne and a beleaguered Justice League, defending the planet from overpowered intergalactic religious extremism is the ultimate test. It strikes at the core of everything that Miller has done with every Batman book he’s ever crafted: who will fight for the little guy? It’s the deep seated desire by every school kid that someone, anyone, will fight their bully. It’s the foundation of comics in general; in this instance, it’s just taken a grander context.

Batman, still broken from his battle with Luthor in TDKSA, must pull himself together and fight one last time.

The fire’s there, but the body, it’s kindling” – Batman, DKIII

It’s the story about the burning power of justice, that despite our age or our ability to fight, it never truly goes away. We just have to learn to fight bullies in different ways.

As the crisis deepens in issue 3, we’re treated to some truly iconic Batman imagery. Miller’s previous two outings in the DK universe has given us moments that have become archetypes of the garish nature of Bruce Wayne: Batman on horseback, Batman on a rooftop with a sniper rifle, a Batmobile that doubles as a tank and a bat breaking through the glass of Wayne manor. DKIII delivers a moment that genuinely gives me shivers in the same way – Quar, demanding the surrender of the human race, is interrupted by a wall of monitors that show Batman’s face. Staring down the harbingers of Earth’s doom, Batman tells them succinctly:

Go to hell”. The word Hell echoes around the page.

I love it. It encapsulates everything we adore about the caped crusader: there is no debate with the oppressor, only the fight to free the oppressed. There is no talk and no discussion of capitulation, only a plan that needs to be enacted, no matter how insane it may appear.

It’s genuinely one of the things I’ve come to love about Scott Snyder’s take on Bruce Wayne, especially during DC’s New 52 run. For Snyder, Batman is calculated and cunning, everything is meticulous and nothing is left to chance. While the odds to succeed may be low, the assuredness of failure by not trying at all is an even worse fate. Ending the reign of The Joker in Snyder and Capullo’s Endgame series meant relinquishing his own life, but it was the only plan that lead to success. This is why Batman will always win, because sacrifice is always part of the plan.

As the Kandorian’s terrorism intensifies, Miller and Azzurello begin casting their eye over one of DKR and TDKSA’s most prevalent theme: media as a tool in the erosion of society from within. Either because we’re now so attuned to the concept of brutality or perhaps because our empathy has been syphoned away, as the world burns around them, the people of the world seem completely oblivious to the Kandorian’s destruction. One panel depicts a city burning with Kandorians flying overhead, while below the citizens go about their everyday lives, headphones in, completely ignorant of the events going on around them. What stops them and forces them to look up into the sky? Losing their phone reception.

It’s almost as though not even the destruction of the world is enough to drag our attention away from our facile online interactions.

While this happens, Bill O’Reilly inspired characters use the tragedy to push their conservative messages, telling the people of the world “This is why we need guns!” while Jon Stewart figures use the same tragedy to make jokes about the garish nature of conservatism.

Looking back this has always been the theme of the Dark Knight series. We do what we do because we feel justified that the ends will always outweigh the means; even if what we do is really shitty. In DKR, Superman willingly made himself a puppet of the President because it meant that superheroes would never brought to justice for their vigilantism, even if that meant killing Russians and fighting America’s wars.

They’ll kill us if they can, Bruce. Every year they grow smaller. Every year they hate us more. We must not remind them that giants walk the Earth” – Superman, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

In DKIII as the world descends into chaos, echoing both the adoration of and the response to Trumpism, the planet begins to bicker among themselves and they use the tragedy of the destruction of major cities to justify their own shitty internal beliefs.

Batman, being Batman, is having none of it.

In many ways Miller has always been ahead of his time. Long before Instagram and the culture that developed around it, The Dark Knight Strikes Again introduced us to the ‘Superchix’. Sure, there were many bizarre things in TDKSA (Carrie Kelley becoming ‘Catgirl’ for one), but it must be said that beyond the cocaine induced artwork and LSD inspired color palette was a man watching a society in decline. Wonder Chick, Batchick and Black Canary were Miller’s response to the changing shape of the original messages he tried to convey in DKR. While the Superchix thrusted their busty proportions around and commented on world events, society truly began to value their opinions over those of Batman and the ‘capes’ that were the ones actually fighting on their behalf.

In all, beyond the social commentary, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race is a brutally Batman-centric DC comic book. It’s a far cry from the current, lighter (yet still great) Rebirth series by Tom King, but it is quintessentially Batman.

It’s rugged, brutal, violent and reinforces the fundamental core elements that made Batman a multi-billion dollar film franchise while other DC properties begin to flounder.

There are some downsides to the series however; it seems to suffer some lag in the middle of the narrative. At least three entire issues flew by where the story seemed to stall and it devolved into watching people just kind of, well, fly about the place shouting at each other.

While lag is expected in most stories as the narrative builds up towards a conclusion, modern day comic readers aren’t used to that kind of storytelling. Pre-New 52, Batman reached over 700 issues and the readers were attuned to long form story telling. Miller, coming from the same era, seemed to bring this older Batman ideology over with him.

For this reason I can honestly say that DKIII doesn’t quite work well as a monthly comic book, something that potentially explains the early praise and good reviews that slowly began to numb themselves down over time. The trade paperback and hardcover versions were much better received.

In the end I think that’s why DKIII, although a series that came and went, will eventually find itself back in our good graces with enough time. Its biggest drawback will always be its own pedigree. The Dark Knight Returns these days is more like a myth; a campfire story that writers tell to one another at Halloween to put each other off from taking their own writing too seriously.

For the reader it will always be like chasing the dragon. In the end we just have to accept the fact that we will never experience another high as great as Miller’s original miniseries.

DKIII is punishing and is Bruce Wayne at his most primitive. Its tendency towards violence is matched only by its sense of justice and its moral fibre. It is a quintessential Batman experience and, in my opinion, a totally valid and fitting end to a trilogy.

If you’ve skipped it because of negative reviews or were just unsure about it, it’s definitely worth your time.

- Andrew Archer