Monday, 31 July 2017

Dark Knight III: The Master Race Review (Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello)

Evil Kryptonians invade Earth. The World’s Finest are scattered. Bruce Wayne is dead. Long live... Batman? This is Dark Knight III: The Master Race. 

I have a lorra opinions on this one and many are spoilerific so if you’re planning on reading this for yourself and are just wondering what I thought of this one, the quick verdict is: nah. I mean, it’s always exciting to read a Frank Miller Batman book considering that if anyone’s responsible for the modern version of Batman we currently have, it’s him, and he wrote two of Batman’s greatest books, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. But his latter-day Batman stuff has been almost the polar opposite in terms of quality. DKII was an outright disaster and All-Star Batman & Robin gave us the psychotic (yet highly quotable!) Goddamn Batman. 

The good news is that Dark Knight III isn’t Dark Knight II but it’s nowhere near Miller’s best work either. Instead, The Master Race is like if Michael Bay wrote a Batman comic: it’s flashy and loud, it looks good, but it’s way too long, massively unwieldy and entirely hollow with bad storytelling, cardboard cutout characters and overall just really, really stupid. I wouldn’t recommend it. 

Ok, SPOILERS from here on out, alright? Let’s dissect the monster… 

The (what we’ll generously call) “characters”: Miller writes a fine Batman/Bruce Wayne and Carrie Kelly but, probably to emphasise the scale of this story, most of the Justice League get thrown into this one and Miller does not write any of those characters well. Wonder Woman is just Generic Physically Strong Lady with no personality while Flash, Aquaman and The Atom are reduced to plot devices. 

If you’ve read Miller’s other DC books you’ll know that he doesn’t like Superman or Green Lantern (in fact I’m pretty sure he despises both - check out what he has Batman call Hal Jordan in All-Star!). At the beginning of the story he has Superman - the epitome of hope - give up hope and freeze himself in the Fortress of Solitude for YEARS. Fuck. You. Frank Miller. That’s not Superman; that’s your incredibly cynical interpretation. Green Lantern meanwhile gets beaten up and his arm cut off. Sheesh. 

Also, this is a BATMAN BOOK, at least in theory. I don’t want Batman relegated to a supporting role, I want Batman to be front and centre for the entire book, and I don’t feel that that’s an unreasonable expectation considering this is sold as a Batman comic. 

The new characters - the evil Kandorians Quar and his son Baal - couldn’t be more one-dimensional villains. Like all of the characters, they’re vastly underwritten with a single-use function in place of anything remotely resembling characters. They’re just there to be the heels, gurning and demanding that everyone submit while they take over the world. It’s so unimaginative and boring to read. 

For Quar and co, I think the writers are going for a DC version of Islamic fundamentalists - religious loons who blow themselves up for their domineering ideology. Sounds edgy and very timely but neither Miller or his co-writer Brian Azzarello do anything besides make the comparison - more superficiality. 

At best the story is basic; at worst, it’s completely inept. It’s less a story and more a collection of big screen set-pieces: Quar blowing up Kandor, the nuclear explosion in Russia, Lara and Superman fighting, the Kryptonite rain, the invasion of Wonder Woman’s kingdom, and the final battle. It’s not so bad reading them as single issues on a bi-monthly basis but reading all nine issues together as a collection, I couldn’t help but notice how clunky it all is - it doesn’t make for a cohesive narrative at all. The bare-bones story awkwardly lurches from one set-piece to the next. 

Miller/Azzarello make no effort in making Lara’s conversion to Quar’s cult the least bit convincing. She goes from being like any teenage girl who’s rebelling against her mother (Wonder Woman), to suddenly becoming a fanatic willing to sell out her people and practically kill her father (Superman)! Why - because she thinks Baal’s kinda cute? Pfft. Gimme a break. Lara plays such a big part in this book and her motivations are utter bullshit. 

The most striking aspect of The Dark Knight Returns was seeing an old Bruce Wayne - Batman at the end of his career, near the end of his life, embarking on his final adventure. Granted, DKII almost FUBAR-ed everything, but I still think an old, shattered Bruce Wayne on his last legs is interesting to read about - it’s always been a standout characteristic of Miller’s Dark Knight series.

And then this book destroys that aspect completely by tossing Bruce into a Lazarus Pit and making him young again. Facepalm. It’s like Miller doesn’t even understand the appeal of his work. Sigh. I understand why it was done though: to ensure more and more and more Dark Knight books that sell like crazy (like this one did) get churned out which you can’t do if Bruce Wayne’s dead/practically dead.

The less said about the backups, the better - they’re included purely to justify the high price point of the individual issues by pumping up the page count. They add nothing to the main story and are absolutely pointless. All they show is how badly Miller’s art has deteriorated over the years. 

Other smaller parts of the book annoyed me: the social media captions dotted throughout were irritating and the news talking heads thing is played out but I suppose it’s an unavoidable feature of the Dark Knight series. The Bat-Army is just not a good idea. I know it’s a reversal of how the villains usually have lackeys but it doesn’t work for Batman who’s the perpetual lone wolf, occasionally accompanied by the Bat-family/Justice League. The Bat-Army look really dumb - and they’re useless! Deploying the bats in the finale was corny and silly - Miller/Azzarello trying to make up for Batman’s lack of involvement in the story up to that point. 

Positives? The set-pieces in themselves weren’t bad. The Kryptonite rain scene was cool for its originality and silliness while Wonder Woman and her Amazons defending their home was badass, like a DC version of Miller’s 300. I really enjoyed Andy Kubert’s pencils throughout. His style looked intentionally altered to resemble Miller’s style - or maybe that was just Klaus Janson’s inks (Janson’s style has always had a close resemblance to Miller’s). Brad Anderson’s colours are excellent too - the art team did a really good job. And that striking final page - yeah! 

DKIII: The Master Race turned out to be a bloated, shambolic wreck of a Batman story. Kudos on the ambitious scale of the story but the writing team’s execution was sorely lacking. It’s no DKII but unfortunately it’s not that much better either. A decidedly un-masterful Batman book from a former master storyteller.

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