The Dark Knight: Master Race has me a bit torn. If this was a stand-alone Elseworlds book, I think I would have put it down impressed and happy with the various plot twists, the artwork, and the fun tale of Batman vs a world of Supermen.
Instead, I felt like this book did not hold true to what I found to be the key themes of Returns and Strikes Again — namely that Batman can be a symbol: a rallying cry for the oppressed of Gotham, and that while the man might age and pass away, the symbol must never be allowed to die.
This shows itself in DKR when Batman rallies the Mutants to become his army and to keep the peace in Gotham during the blackout. It shows itself in DK2 when he trains the Mutants to be an army of Batboys, and Carrie continues her evolution into a stand-alone hero. Bruce fakes his death, and yet the symbol and the whispers still carry on that the Bat is still out there, still dedicated to saving the city and the world.
The Master Race starts off with this in mind, showing Carrie pretending to be the Bat, but quickly moves aside from that angle to show that truly – Batman is the one and only, and even aged and barely able to walk, he’s still the smartest man for the job.
Now, the 80’s and 90’s are gone, so the world view that colored the two previous series’ themes are as well. Thus it’s not surprising that the tone shifts quite a bit into a more hopeful and collaborative world. This feeling of superheroism is a welcome return from the early cynical views so that’s a high point of praise for what Azzarelo manages to do in Master Race. From a plot standpoint, he made sure to hit the tropes that people expect in DK books – we’ve got an armor scene, including Superman this time, and some expensive process to get Kryptonite in the mix. I enjoyed these moments, both as throwbacks and as homages to what made the original great – so it was nice to see the same pieces updated for this tale.
The breakout stars of the book would be the Kandorians. It’s a great plot point to show that the isolation and stagnation of their culture, trapped in their bottle world, can lead to a zealot like cult waiting to be released. I don’t know if there’s a hint of Miller’s past criticism of world religions like in some previous works, but it seems to be at least in the back of the script’s mind. I think it’s handled well as an extinction level villain and that their motivations make sense given the conditions they’ve lived in.
Seeing Superman finally able to let loose in his battle with them, was also an excellent moment – but the grudging respect Batman shows when he sees him finally let loose seems out of place for a man who kicked the hell out of him in the first and second installments. He truly despises the Boy Scout early on, because of his blind loyalty and naiveté, but now he’s like “Yeah, my boy!” Felt awkward.
The one thing I hated? Spoiler alert here:
Young god-damn Batman.
This might be my own bias showing here – as a Dad and every increasingly older “get off my lawn” kind of guy – but the whole series has been about an aged Batman still getting the job done. This feels like a step backwards in every way. It’s an awesome reveal, and again – if this was not a continuation of TDKR would be a great older Batman story – but it feels like a betrayal here, and I was so annoyed when it happened.
So while I think this suffers from the same issues as TDK2 – you can’t really recapture the lightning in the bottle, I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling. Frank Miller himself seems to find there to be something lacking, as he said in a recent interview – he’s coming back for Dark Knight 4. This might be a great idea, with a return to the style and the oppressive themes that made the original so groundbreaking.
Then again, there’s a chance it might be All-Star Batman and Robin, all over again.
Finally, let’s talk artwork. Kubert is sold as hell as always and emulates yet still manages to fully carbon-copy the exaggerated grittiness that Frank brings to the table. That’s a good thing in my opinion. Frank’s art is one of my absolute favorites in how lined and itchy it ends up but it’s a breath of fresh air to see this future Bats a little more human looking. Kubert’s emulation of Miller’s Wonder Woman and Kara? Those I far preferred in Franks’ stylized and neon drawings.
Regardless of your thoughts on the first two installments of The Dark Knight Returns/Strikes, the collected edition of 3 is a solid Batman tale, that has a lot of ups, downs and weird choices that still comes together. It’s not the best Batman book out there, but it’s worth a read. Don’t compare it to DKR and you’ll probably find it to be quite fun.