Saturday, April 24, 2010

Out of the Vault - DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Part 3

This is it, the big finale of Frank Miller's DK2: The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

As we saw in part 2, Miller's Superman had let himself be beaten up by a giant Brainiac robot while Batman had finally made his big public debut by leading his bat-army in open rebellion against the government.

Issue 3 opens with Batman making a video-conference call to a weird green alien with wife and son who turns out to be Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who left Earth long ago. Hal is convinced to return to Earth, at least temporarily.

From there, we see the aftermath of the battle in Metropolis, with lots of grit and floating debris which was clearly influenced by the fact that 9/11 was so fresh in people's minds. Captain Marvel has a brief scene with Wonder Woman and dies.

And it's supposed to be powerful and sentimental (Wonder Woman even cries), but the problem with this scene is the same as with all the other scenes in this miniseries that try to evoke strong sentiment.

Number one, Miller takes the lazy way out by not giving the characters any on-screen time to build a connection with the audience, but just depending on the audience's connection with the characters through other artists' work. For instance, up to this point, Cap has appeared in ten panels and spoken four lines of dialogue. Then he dies and we're suddenly supposed to feel this big wave of emotion, when Miller has given us no reason to care. Miller does the same thing, but even more egregiously later, when Superman digs through the rubble of the Daily Planet building and finds a locket with photos of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. It's supposed to be this powerful moment where Superman says goodbye to Lois, but how powerful can it be when there has been absolutely no mention of Lois before? Last issue, Supes was fucking Wonder Woman and has acted all along as if Lois never existed.

Number two, it's hard to feel the emotions Miller wants us to feel in these moments because these scenes are bracketed by silly political satire and ever-more-incoherent diatribes that create emotional distance from the story and characters. What's more, he has suddenly gone from portraying completely fictional cabinet members (like SecState Robert "Buzz" Ruger-Exxon) to caricaturing actual members of the Bush administration like Ari Fleischer and Donald Rumsfeld.

And Peter Sanderson, for one, wrote a very long, three-part review that takes a generally positive view of the series overall, and seems to be colored in part by the fact that Miller's political message in issue 3 has basically morphed into "Bush sux, y'all." But taking this fantasy story into the real world gives it all kinds of disturbing dimensions, especially when you've cast Batman's army in the Al Qaeda role.

So Superman leaves the wreckage with his daughter, and there are some nice graphic effects (including one very graceful image of the two flying with delicate linework that looks as if someone else ghosted in just that little fragment--Miller's work is a lot of things, but it has never been delicate or graceful) as Superman schools his daughter on the need to be a good servant and steward to mankind. But then a holographic Batman appears to the two of them, thanks to a tiny transmitter implanted in Superman's head by the Atom. Batman orders Superman to work for him, and Superman falls in line, becoming Batman's stooge.

Batman has basically become a good guy version of Luthor at this point, a parallel made more disturbing by the fact that Miller depicts Bruce Wayne as having shaved his head bald. Miller's Wayne looks more like Luthor than his Luthor does.

Meanwhile, Carrie has hunted down a young precog who calls herself Saturn Girl, who has an ominous warning.

That's right, the mysterious assassin with the Joker smile and the Judge Doom eyes who died in issue two has come back in issue three. And Carrie is worried because she has also killed the guy pretty dead recently.

So now it's time for the big finale. Superman causes a distraction by battling U.S. troops, blowing fighter planes and helicopters out of the sky, and having an epiphany that he's actually not human after all...

Yeah, that's not an ominous sign or a complete betrayal of the character or anything. And the thing is, Miller might have made it work if he spent more time on Superman's character instead of wasting so much page space on meaningless kibitzing by anonymous observers and media talking heads. Half the series reads like comments from Internet trolls, which may be a satirical comment by Miller on the state of comics fandom, but that's not what I paid eight fucking bucks an issue to read.

Meanwhile, Lara and the Atom free the Kandorians, who then help Supergirl destroy Brainiac. It also looks as if Atom dies. Which is to say, one of the Kandorians tells him that he should take refuge on her body to avoid destruction, so he leaps onto her eyeball to swim in her tears, at which point the Kandorians ALL CUT LOOSE WITH THEIR HEAT VISION. Great plan, Ray.

And then there's Batman, who has somehow off-screen allowed himself to be captured by Luthor. Seriously, he's just suddenly a prisoner in Luthor's headquarters with no more explanation than Luthor saying, "You picked the perfect day to blunder into my hands." Luthor beats up Batman while he gloats about his plan to destroy the world with orbital weapons, and Batman gloats about how Luthor's about to die. And then Green Lantern shows up to disarm all of Luthor's orbiting nukes, Flash shows up to free Batman, and suddenly, there's a new Godfather in town.

At this point, Miller has gone completely the opposite of his previous story. In DKR, Miller's Batman was a tired old man, a perfectionist too aware of his own failings, a hero regarded as a villain by the world at large, unable to kill even when the victim eminently deserves it. And now, Batman is the revolutionary leader of an army of terrorists (but, y'know, "good" terrorists according to Miller, because they're standing up to The Man), casually ordering deaths left and right. He's a criminal mastermind headed for fascist dictator territory, Che Guevara in tights. I think Miller wants us to admire that, but it's hard to tell.

So the "bad" guys are defeated and the "good" guys have won. But then Carrie is attacked by that goofy immortal assassin again, and Batman rushes back to the Batcave, where he learns that the mysterious hero-killer is none other than DICK GRAYSON???

And if there was something disturbing about the Joker's love-notes to Batman in DKR, this scene is just downright revolting.

Cuz look, if you think Dick Grayson's a lame character, fine, you've got a right to that opinion. But the dynamic between Bruce and Dick has been pretty well established for years now, Bruce as the stern, demanding, emotionally distant father figure, Dick resentful of living in his shadow but still striving to live up to his expectations. It wasn't world-shakingly original, but it worked.

Miller throws all that away and has them cussing at each other like that married couple in "The War of the Roses." It's strongly implied that they were lovers, and they have nothing but homicidal contempt for each other now. Dick has threatened to rape, torture and kill Carrie, and Batman beheads Robin before killing him. These are not the characters we grew up with; hell, this Batman isn't even the same guy we saw in Miller's previous series. These are asshole strangers in familiar costumes, and it pisses me off that they've somehow blundered into the story I was reading. Doesn't this place have security guards to keep the drunks out?

Then we get the "heartwarming" ending.

And in the end, it's all just baffling. I can't tell what Miller was trying to do here, and I can't tell if he failed or succeeded. Was this a serious adventure story, or an Andy Kaufman-style spoof that, like Kaufman, ended up more uncomfortable than funny? Is Miller advocating action against militaristic governments like Bush's, or is he goofing on the idiots who think revolutionaries are cool? Does he seriously think his darker take on Batman and Superman is good, or is this a coded message to the Image fanboys saying, "If this is what you like, then choke on it." Does he seriously think his running commentaries enhance the story, or is he making fun of Internet trolls?

I can't tell, and really, if this story were any good at all, I should be able to.

This is the Miller I hate, the Miller who made "The Spirit," and unfortunately, I think it's the Miller we're stuck with from now on.


A.C.K. said...

I like the review, but I have to question - how is it strongly implied they were lovers?

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

Some of it is subtle, and may just be me reading too much into it. Grayson's extreme jealousy and his use of the term "jailbait" for Carrie, implying an assumed sexual relationship. Also the way Batman puts his face close to Robin's, pinches his cheek and touches his nose. It seems awfully intimate. But you could argue that he's just belittling Robin, treating him like a kid.

It's the pet names that put it over the top for me. "Dickster" and "Bunky" are simply derisive. "Bobbin" is a playful rhyme on his name, and "Dondi" is a cruel slam on the fact that Dick's an orphan.

But then Bruce goes on to call Dick "button," "peach," "blossom," and "plum." Those are not names for kids. That's lovers' language.

At which point Dick screams out his final lines: "Damn you! I loved you!...I loved you! I would've done anything for you!"

Clearly stated? No. But strongly implied? I say yes.

Anonymous said...

I always felt that this was the beginning of Frank Miller's self-serving deprived fantasies coming to the fore. Excellent review.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Sums up my feelings fairly closely. I actually didn't hate the first two volumes, and thought that the series, while not great, started tolerably; but this last volume was an atrocity that has soured me on Miller, perhaps forever, despite his excellent earlier work.

Anonymous said...

Oh, one other comment-- Peter Sanderson's glowing review of DKSA is baffling.