[Spoilers] Review: ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again’, by Frank Miller

I’ll state here, for the record, that I’ve only really gotten into Western comics in the last year, and this review might very well reflect that.

I had very mixed feelings about The Dark Knight Strikes Again. I know this is hardly an original opinion, but I was asked by a friend, and once my reply reached this length, I decided that I might as well post it on a blog or something.

On the one hand, Strikes Again dutifully extrapolated the themes and ideas of The Dark Knight Returns to the global scale, where the subplots of Returns had revealed that there was still a lot going on. That being said, while the global stuff worked as a B plot, setting up the climactic finale of Returns, inflating the story to such a fantastical scope for an entire second series just killed the gritty realism that predominated the first one. That being said, after leaving off on such a note with the first series, I’m not sure that Miller could have done anything else in a sequel, without it coming across as anticlimactic. He wrote himself into a corner, and the only way out was a betrayal of the sentiment of the original series.

That being said, in its own right (rather than as a sequel to Returns), I really enjoyed the premise of an aged, divided Justice League fighting each other as Luthor and Braniac try to cement their grip on the world. The Hawks living with their kids in a forest; Captain Marvel living as a permanent summons after Batson died; Green Lantern living with his alien family — it all played out as a sort of ‘bad ending’ alternative to the future depicted in Kingdom Come. The scene in which Plastic Man grapples with the Elongated Man, and then talks shit about how Dibny’s only able to stretch and can’t turn into things, is easily my favourite.

But far surpassing my pleasure with the secondary characters was my distaste for the changes to three of the most important characters: Carrie, Clark, and Dick. Carrie’s transformation from Robin into Catgirl (who still used gadgets like Robin) was unnecessary, inexplicable, and in light of the traditional Batman–Catwoman relationship, kind of creepy — all the more so because they never addressed that last item. There were enough jokes about Batman shtupping Robin when Robin wasn’t a member of the opposite sex, and given how evident Frank Miller’s oversexed mind is throughout the rest of his work (including the rest of Strikes Again), I can’t help but feel that Carrie’s noticeable feminisation in the sequel is probably the product of some disgusting chthonic sexual impulse in Miller’s subconscious.

I liked the whole bit with Wonder Woman having Superman’s baby, and I liked that Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel joined Superman in the service of the bad guys — although it might have meant more if they had actually fought any of their fellow Leaguers, as Superman did. Lois Lane was memorialised only after we were reminded that she still existed, which pretty much sucks. While I loved the way that the Kandor plot was executed (especially the infiltration and escape via the Atom), I think that adding it to Superman’s motivation in the first place drastically cheapened the amazing, believable, purely ideological conflict that he had with Batman in the first series, which had been the apotheosis of every Superman–Batman argument ever.

Dick Grayson becoming a genetically altered regenerating new Joker was utter bullshit. How did he go that far off the deep end? Miller really needed to show us that in order to earn the right to pervert and then kill off that character. (Speaking of which: what the fuck was with flooding the Batcave with lava in order to kill one guy?) I know Batman is supposed to be a hardass, but the malicious lack of sympathy for his sidekick — from the same Batman who took the former Mutants under his wing at the end of Returns, no less — was incredible, in the oldest and most literal sense of the word. The fact that All Star was written to explain this baffling 180 brings Miller to a positively Congressional level of multi-layered, ass-covering self-contradiction, so deep in denial that it would make George Lucas start cracking jokes about rivers in Egypt.

But the worst aspect of Strikes Again, by far, was the best aspect of Returns: the depiction of the media. The way that Miller mocks our media culture in Returns — by adding just a dash of parody — is masterful. I loved the blowhard punditry on both sides of the issue; the simpletons interviewed on the street who miss the point entirely; the politically correct pity party masquerading as intellectualism and social awareness; and above all, the media’s lack of any intrinsic interest in social issues, which are brought up only in order to boost the ratings, and shoved back under the rug with contempt when a more promising story about some pop culture slut pops up. Utter genius.

By contrast, the depiction of news and social media in Strikes Again is almost nothing but a dizzying flurry of bright colours and obnoxious noises. The neat progression of small, television screen-shaped panels in Returns is replaced by a chaotic cascade of hideous cretins, vomiting forth their opinions from within neon popup windows. I see what Miller is trying to do here — commenting on how we’re drowning in a sea of information since the advent of the Internet — but the tack that he takes with it simply doesn’t work. Instead of that delicious dash of parodic winking, he’s dumped in the whole damned bottle. Things are bad in this age of light speed misinformation, but they ain’t that bad.

Overall, I’d say that The Dark Knight Strikes Again started with bold ideas and suffered from an utterly stygian execution. It was full of little pitfalls and missteps, which might not have brought the work down as far as they did, if not for the fact that they all landed on the same sore toe: an absolute lack of subtlety. Strikes Again is consistently loud, pompous, and bombastic where Returns was intimate, sombre, and thoughtful, and the absolutely horrendous art helped this notion strike home. Glimmers of the brilliance that made him famous still shine through, but Miller truly fits the stereotype of a great Old Master who, in his old age, has forgotten what made his early smash hits work so well, and descended into full scale hackery in a misguided attempt to resurrect the classics for which the public once adored him.

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