Saturday, April 17, 2010

Out of the Vault - DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Part 2

So last week, we saw Frank Miller return to the storyline that redefined Batman, made him feel relevant and modern again. And we saw how the sequel seemed to have trouble measuring up. But surely Miller still had some gas left in his tank. Surely he still had some surprises in store for us.

He did, but that doesn't mean they were good surprises.

In the first issue, Miller had set up the world in fairly simple terms: Batman is gathering an army to fight a revolution against a corrupt United States government that has fallen under the influence of Luthor and Brainiac, fooling the public with a holographic President. Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel all work for Luthor, because Brainiac is holding their respective loved ones hostage--Mary Marvel for the Captain, the island of Themyscira for Wonder Woman, and the bottled city of Kandor for Superman (Lois Lane is never, ever mentioned, either in DKR or DK2) [ETA: Okay, reading ahead, I do see that I missed one mention of Lois, but I'll talk about that next week].

Issue 2 opens with more media talking heads, this time addressing the vital issue of the day: the government is banning a rock concert featuring three girls dressed as former superheroines. Only this time, Miller uses caricatures of real-life media figures George Stephanopolous, George Will and Don Imus (and I think the fat guy at the top is supposed to be Rush Limbaugh maybe--hard to tell).

Five full pages we spend on the debate over hot chix rights, after which Batman crashes the Batplane into LuthorCorp headquarters in the infamous scene which led to this comic being delayed for several months (the issue was being prepped for release when 9/11 happened, and suddenly the idea of crashing a flying vehicle into a skyscraper didn't seem so heroic).

And astoundingly, even though the scene has zero emotional resonance, and actually even less because of the ridiculous joke names Miller gives to the members of Luthor's cabinet, it still managed to anticipate or inspire at least one facet of Nolan's later Batman films, that of a cape that can be made rigid and used as a weapon.

And yes, as near as I can tell, Batman did just disembowel that guy. The Batman who prayed for Harvey Dent's rehabilitation and found himself unable to kill the Joker even after the villain had just killed an entire pack of Cub Scouts at the fair somehow has no problem killing U.S. government officials. Cause, you know, they're the real bad guys and all.

Meanwhile, as Batman is beating the crap out of Luthor, Wonder Woman flies to the North Pole to find a battered Superman in the wreckage of the former Fortress of Solitude, licking his wounds from the beating he received at Batman's hands last issue. And though I didn't mention it specifically last week, it needs to be said: though Miller's art in this series is pretty bad throughout, and his costume redesigns really bite, Wonder Woman turns out the worst of the lot. Miller's Wonder Woman is hideous.

We learn that Superman and Wonder Woman have a secret love child, a daughter named Lara. Superman, however, has given in to despair. He has no fight left in him. So Wonder Woman punches him, then screws him (in a series of 5 full-page panels which avoid nudity, leaving the couple wrapped in Superman's cape as they soar into orbit, then crash down into a volcano, causing an eruption--SYMBOLISM!)

At this point, the whole story erupts into mindless action. Luthor and Brainiac, determined to punish Superman for failing to stop Batman, send Brainiac out on a rampage, disguised as a giant alien robot. The plan is to humiliate Superman by making him publicly show himself a coward. So Superman decides to go Gandhi.

This is a ridiculous surrender by a guy who would never submit like this under any other writer. And judging from the overwrought reaction we see from all the people on the ground, I guess we're supposed to care. And maybe we would, if this Superman bore any relation to the real character we grew up with, other than the costume (and notice the insignia--it's more like the Fleischer animated Superman of the 40's than the modern iteration).

And meanwhile, Batman and his crew, now also including Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, are breaking into Arkham Asylum to free the most dangerous man in the world.

Plastic Man? This is what Miller had up his sleeve? Plastic Man is some sort of mad god now?

And meanwhile meanwhile, there's some dude with a Jokery face who wears an Ace of Spades over his left eye like a member of the Royal Flush Gang and dresses in costumes of other heroes (like Cosmic Boy and Element Lad of the Legion of Super-Heroes, or a certain other company's wall-crawler in this scene) offing heroes.

Who is he? Who knows? Who cares? He appears out of nowhere killing the Guardian and a few pages later is killed himself after he sets fire to Martian Manhunter (who is now a powerless drunk).

And meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, the National Guard has assembled to stop the Superchix concert, causing a national media sensation. Holy God, is this story all over the place or what?

Finally, as Brainiac is about to finish off Superman once and for all, his daughter shows up to kick ass.

And now we understand why Miller bent over backwards to show Superman as a weak-willed stooge--so that he could show us what a bad-ass his daughter is. It's clumsy and artificial and forced.

And finally comes the big climax, where Batman and his army finally make their big public debut, saving the Superchix concert from the National Guard while Plastic Man screams "Rodney King! Rodney King!" And I swear to God, it seems like Miller's trying to make some kind of political point here, but I can't fucking tell what it is, because it's going in so many directions.

By the end of the issue, there's been a whole lot of action, but damn little story, and I don't care about any of it. The villains are too obvious, the morals are confusing, and the characters aren't so much cardboard (Miller tries to give them some sort of depth) as just completely askew. Nothing makes any damn sense.

But at this point, I still have enough fond memory of DKR to still give Miller the benefit of the doubt. He's trying. I mean, he's failing totally, but he's trying some new things, at least. There's no way Miller can make this story good, no matter how good the third issue is, but I figure this second act muddle is as bad as things can get, right?


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