“I’m much more able to approach it like I’m 7 years old than I used to be able to,” Frank Miller told the AV Club back in 2001 while doing press for The Dark Knight Strikes Again. With that statement, Miller inadvertently, if not prophetically, encapsulated the harshest criticisms DKSA (or DKII) would soon face.
As the November 25 release date of Dark Knight III: The Master Race approaches, it’s worth reflecting on the last time DC attempted to recapture the spark of The Dark Knight Returns—one of the few pop culture artifacts that deserves the oft-abused adjective, “seminal.” DKII arrived not quite 15 years after its predecessor tag teamed with Alan Moore’s Watchmen to legitimize the comic medium’s potential for adult high art. As he had done previously with Daredevil, Miller used Batman to illustrate that an individual who devotes his or her life to costumed vigilantism may not be especially well-adjusted. In 1986, this was a fresh perspective, and its masterful execution garnered justified commercial and critical acclaim while inspiring a litany of unfortunate imitators. (Remember Spawn?).
In 2001, Miller professionally reunited with DKR’s colorist and his then-wife Lynn Varley for the long-put-off sequel. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace stands as the closest analogue to the anticipation and subsequent backlash surrounding a sequel to a hallowed property, making DKII a polarizing, but singular, touchstone in the history of superhero comics.
As a 16-year-old in 2001, I rather enjoyed DKII, and didn’t fully comprehend the ire it provoked. Even setting aside unrealistic expectations on the part of audiences and critics, I understood that the three-issue mini-series lands far short of its namesake’s legacy. Attempting to equal DKR would’ve been an exercise in futility, but Miller and company didn’t even try to produce a book that felt like it belonged in the same continuity. Next to DKR’s perilous, doomed, urban environs and harsh dismantling of superhero tropes, DKII plays out like a Pokemon anime.
If judged as the heir apparent to DKR, DKII is a sad exercise in failure. But what if it had a different title? Frank Miller’s Justice League: The Electric Elseworld, or The Brave, The Bold, and The Badass, or Joel Schumacher’s Batnipples, Ahoy!, or anything that hinted at satire? What if DKII had been marketed as a non-canonical, standalone story, instead of a progression of DKR? From that angle, DKII scans as merely a flawed lark, as opposed to a borderline blasphemy.
Granted, the barbs aimed at DKII’s artwork hold water, if we indulge the instinct to cherry pick. Throughout the series, Miller inexplicably depicts the typically stylish Lex Luthor as a lumbering, pot-bellied oaf with disproportionately massive hands (and by that, I mean his hands are much bigger than average within the reality of DKII, where normal-sized hands are the same size as heads). When Catgirl leaps out of the Batmobile to assault the President’s cabinet, the soles of her feet appear attached to her rear. Not often, but every now and again objects appear so tactlessly smooshed together that it’s difficult to determine what’s supposed to be happening in a given panel. Like in this one:
That’s supposed to be “The Joker” murdering Creeper. I had to stare at it for an hour to figure that out.
Overall, DKII presents a hyperbolic, kitschy Gotham and Metropolis. It also presents a trio of ultra-sexualitzed teenage Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera proxies (it’s 2001, keep in mind) dubbed the “Superchix.” The President of the United States gets outed as a hologram, and George Stephanopoulos doesn’t care. Catgirl inadvertently swallows The Atom when he hides in her mouth during a rescue attempt, and during a climactic battle, Superman fights a robot dinosaur. The book reads as though a 7-year-old boy woke up one morning with the body and mass media awareness of a 50-something comic book artist, and set about crafting a Batman saga based loosely on a scenario he concocted with his box of action figures the previous day.
DKII looks somewhat garish and overstylized, not due to laziness, but as a result of a calculated, deliberate choice for garish overstylization; a completely appropriate approach for realizing the script. While a significant departure doomed to alienate devotees of the the original DKR, the art in DKII delivers the vulgar, neon-bombast of its apparent mission statement.
And while sacrosanct among comic nerds, DKR isn’t perfect, either. Back in ‘86, Miller wrote Superman as the Reagan Administration’s passive lackey, whose near-omnipotence has been nullified by terminal utilitarianism and/or deference to authority. Superman says, “‘Yes’ to anyone with a badge or a flag,” as Batman puts it. While Kal-El, the well-intended, pro-establishment antagonist, serves Miller’s point about the virtue of anti-establishmentarianism, the notion that Superman would attack his closest ally because Ronald Reagan asked him to is a ridiculous load of plot-eclipsing mischaracterization. Grant Morrison managed a more probable Superman, while also making Superman a Nazi, in The Multiversity: Mastermen.
Why it made sense to double down on this “Superman is useless government stooge” trope is anyone’s guess, but such characterization persists in DKII. The Last Kryptonian, once again, takes his marching orders from those in power. This time he answers to a shadow government cabal consisting of Lex Luthor and Brainiac, who’ve won The Man of Steel’s obedience by holding the Bottle City of Kandor hostage. The fact that, over the years, countless villains have unsuccessfully tried to one-up Superman by kidnapping and threatening Kandor, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and plenty of his other near-and-dears never gets mentioned. The same plan has failed many, many times before, but this time it worked, for no reason.
And the gross mischaracterizations in DKII don’t end with Superman. I can’t tell you what Miller did to Dick Grayson without spoiling the twist ending. Wonder Woman functions principally as Superman’s manic pixie dream girl. Hawk and Dove stop by for a panel because Miller just can’t resist an offensive even-by-2001-standards gay joke. Most egregiously, the troubled, conflicted Bruce Wayne of DKR disappears, giving way to the sadistic adolescent male power fantasy Miller fully realized, to the dismay of all, in All-Star. Sadly, DKII marks the first appearance of the goddamn Batman.
And yet, DKII also treats a few of the Justice League’s lesser-knowns with reverence and imagination. Lots of people who only buy a comic book once every 20 years were destined to read DKII due to its pedigree, and it’s not without merit that the book presents novices with glowing introductions to some of the DCU’s venerable supporting cast members. The Atom does or says something clever every time he’s on panel. The Question, a right-wing conspiracy nut (who just happens to be correct, this time), trades philosophical jibes with communist Oliver Queen, without either character succumbing to parody (surprising, given Miller’s post-9/11 shift to the far-right). Shazam gets a resonate, downright poetic death, despite the erstwhile Captain Marvel appearing in a scant few panels before departing the mortal coil. Hal Jordan shows up as a deus ex machina moreso than a character, but boy howdy, what a deus ex machina.
Ultimately, DKR and DKII share one indisputable asset: both are utterly unique and invulnerable to replication. Neither owes a tremendous amount to anything that came before, aside from the characters themselves. Innumerable attempts to imitate the former embarrassed themselves, and hardly anyone bothered to rip off DKII.
DKII is not as good as DKR, it’s not even in the same league, except that it’s every bit as weird. Maybe weirder. And that’s a lot more than anyone can say for the Phantom Menace.