Dark Knight III: The Master Race #3
Written by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello
Art by Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Clem Robins
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
“I’m broken, Boy Scout. I can’t do this anymore.”
There’s a recurring metaphor in Dark Knight III: The Master Race about fire. About it going out, and about it burning so furiously it cannot be contained. But ultimately, that fiery imagery cuts to the heart of this series — namely, while it has the name recognition and the resultant market share, this would-be blockbuster doesn’t possess the intensity, innovation or incandescent rage of its predecessors. While Brian Azzarello, Frank Miller and Andy Kubert have raised the stakes higher than ever as the survivors of Kandor have wreaked havoc across the Earth, there is no tension here — only the chill of a smoldering epic that is in danger of being snuffed out by mediocrity.
Like the song goes, it’s the end of the world as we know it — so why do we feel fine? Azzarello and Miller go for a global perspective with their third issue of this series, but it feels more like setup rather than the engaging, purposeful narratives of the first two series. Despite two issues building up the mystery, the return of Bruce Wayne comes almost as an afterthought, as this issue largely focuses on the Kandorians flexing their Kryptonian muscle, launching nuclear strikes in foreign countries and knocking out key infrastructure in our most bustling metropolises. And yet, despite this being a villain-centric third issue, there’s no sense of urgency or shock or even fear here — while there’s some limp commentary about addiction to smartphones and social media, none of these big, genocidal acts is ever treated by its characters as the horrors they should be.
To compound this, the Kandorian villains are just one-dimensionally malevolent — even their ringleader, Quar, doesn’t have any compelling motivation or personality traits. When you think of where the Dark Knight series first began — with a lost Harvey Dent lashing out against his would-be saviors, or a joyous Joker looking for one last caper against his longtime foe — you realize that this series already feels like a shadow of its former self. It all comes back to one thing — the Dark Knight series, at its core, was not built on its plot, but on its characterization, particularly that of Batman himself. Yet it’s difficult to reconcile the spry old man kicking up his feet in the Batmobile while saying that striking terror is the “best part of the job,” and the burned-out shell we see here. Even at his most decrepit, Batman’s defining characteristic is he’s too stubborn to know when to quit — so having Bruce be “forced” to retire or to seek Superman’s help feels less like an organic decision and more like the cold necessity of a plot device.
While Andy Kubert’s artwork felt like a workable substitution in the first issue, portraying a shiny and clean Gotham that belied its dark inhabitants, there’s an obvious lack of innovation here that really undercuts the carnage and insanity of a worldwide alien invasion. You can’t help but wonder what Miller in his heyday might have conjured up here, with a horde of flying homicidal maniacs bombing the Kremlin and knocking out communications across Times Square. You can’t help but think about the madness you’d see in Quar’s eyes as he threatens the world’s leaders, or the fear in the United Nations’ eyes as they scramble to maintain order. Even Superman’s big return feels hollow here, and it’s because while Kubert dutifully completes his layouts with workman-like efficiency, there’s no acting or energy here. Given the staccato pacing of this issue, bouncing between Batman, the Kandorians and reactions from ordinary citizens, this is not the kind of series that survives just based on an artist’s visual style — there has to be more inventiveness, depth and nuance to fully capture the texture of this story, especially if you want to follow up Frank Miller at his most potent.
Given the names involved in this project, there will be plenty of readers who find Dark Knight III: The Master Race #3 an entertaining enough read, and that’s their prerogative — but given their years of quality comics and the source material this creative team is building upon, experienced readers will know this is far from their best work. This isn’t revolutionary — it isn’t even iconic. At best, it’s acceptable. And for a creator as inventive and brilliant as Frank Miller, even being associated with a project that’s just “acceptable” feels something akin to blasphemy. You can see faint traces of Miller’s trademark style in the Green Lantern minicomic, with layouts from John Romita, Jr. and finishes from Miller himself — while it’s brutal with its storytelling and rough around the edges with its inking, there’s a perspective here that feels lacking in the rest of the series. It’s undeniably, unmistakably Miller — which is a quality the rest of this series desperately needs.
There’s a quality hook to this project, with Batman and Superman putting aside their differences to stop a race of conquerors far worse than anything we’ve ever seen. But ultimately, you can’t help but think that even at the end of the world, these cheap fireworks feels like nothing compared to the bad old days of the 1980s or the military-industrial complex of the early 2000s. Despite his controversies, Frank Miller should be considered a light of the industry, a roaring torch that led comics into a bold new era — and if DC Comics insists on evoking that legacy, they need to do more to live up to it, rather than cheapening it with a by-the-numbers rehash. But then again, maybe it’s true. Maybe you can’t recapture yesterday. Maybe the good things of the past need to remain just that — in the past. And maybe — just maybe — all fires must go out sometime. But if that’s the case, it’s a shame we all had to watch it happen.