Frank Miller and Lana and Lilly Wachowski are creatives who couldn’t be more different. Their seminal works, “The Dark Knight Returns” and Matrix franchise, however, have much in common. Both stories were highly influential, inspiring many imitators — from “Spider-man: Reign” to Equilibrium — that never seemed to capture the same creative, critical, or cultural spark as the originals. (Though Equilibrium really tried.) In their popularity, both series became shorthand for describing a broad set of tropes: “The Dark Knight Returns” became synonymous with the Old Man, often dystopic takes on a character while The Matrix fused balletic Chinese martial arts choreography to help usher in the rise of digital filmmaking technologies.
Both also feature sequels generally viewed to have failed at recapturing the creative, critical, and cultural sparks of their original, while also seemingly undermining the original works.
You aren’t going to recreate something as cinematically cool as the lobby sequence from The Matrix or the final confrontation with the Joker. What else is there to do? That question of what comes next is a normal, worthwhile, one to consider if you were to treat the subsequent stories coming from these franchises as normal sequels. This isn’t to say there are not plot threads left dangling that could easily be developed, the idea the “war goes on.” But from a character standpoint the story has already ended, what else is there to explore? In the cases of The Matrix Reloaded and “DK3: The Master Race” (cowritten with Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Andy Kubert) the next frontier to explore are the characters themselves. These reflexive sequels are an enriching element in the body of the franchise. In both cases the creators use these sequels to complicate popular understandings around their more popular progenitors. In Reloaded, the Wachowskis complicate the surefooted binary ideology of the first film by expanding the role of the antagonistic machines and questioning the ethics of our heroes.
Now before going forward it’s worth noting that “DK3” features the number “three” in it and you might be wondering why I’m not mentioning “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.” “Strikes Again” is functionally not interested in reflecting back on “Returns.” That inflexibility (and DC’s desires) are perhaps why we have “DK3” the way it is: Frank Miller is always one who wants to thumb his nose and defy expectation.
Frank Miller’s original “The Dark Knight Returns,” is defined by its centrality to the title figure. There is the reference and impression of a history, and brief cutaways to other characters, but the plot of the series flows from the actions of Bruce Wayne. By sticking primarily with the internal perspective of Bruce, the Miller creates an intentionally biased view. This singular perspective helps to cover up the insanity of this Bruce Wayne. That isn’t a profound statement but taken in the context of Miller’s larger work (“Year One,” “Last Crusade,” “Strikes Again,” and I guess technically “All-Star Batman & Robin”) Batman frequently deals in repetitive failures. Frank Miller’s Batman is lifetimes worth of cyclical repetition and failure.
“The Master Race” breaks this cycle by decentrazling the character from the narrative. As the story begins, he is first proclaimed dead by Carrie Kelly before being revealed to finally be feeling the effects of (very) old age. As Baal and the freed inhabitants of Kandor begin to wreak havoc across the globe, Bruce is unable to meet the challenge by himself with his old methods. He actually needs help beyond his Girl Wonder for a change and rarely drives the plot of this book. Even with the help of his old friends and the Son of the Batman, the defense of Gotham City nearly fails. He winds up shot through the back by Baal’s heat vision, and in the final pages with a heartbeat monitor by artist Andy Kubert appears to (finally) die.
Of course, he is revived in the next issue via a Lazarus Pit.
Consider, also, how the climactic battle against Baal is shown. It further highlights Bruce Wayne’s powerlessness, even after being revived and primed. Batman isn’t involved, he’s effectively a cheerleader on the sideline as Superman stops holding back for a few pages and finishes Baal’s crusade. All Batman can do is look on in awe and commenting over the action in at first fragmentary bursts, until he fully realizes the gravity of the situation. “He’s been holding back. All these years . . . . There’s a certain geometry to physical violence. I like to think I’ve mastered it. Turns out I’m still a student.”Continued below
By displacing Batman from the action of the finale and inserting Superman, “Master Race” also gets to counter one of the other metanarratives that “Returns” developed: that Frank Miller, for some reason, hates Superman. This narratives development comes from an over-reading and emphasis on how Superman was used in “Returns,” as the final boss and mirror opposite of the anarchic Batman. Superman’s loyalty to the State is similarly as extreme as Batman’s individualism. Their inability to see beyond themselves is what inevitably brings them into conflict. Judging by how Miller draws the Man of Steel on the cover of “The Atom” #1 at the end of “Master Race” #1, he seems to view him the same as Batman: a monstrous, destructive individual you’re happy happens to be on your side.
Turning Batman in the spectator, the series is able to naturally reflect on itself through the eyes of Bruce and end with a profoundly different perspective for the character and series. He is no longer powered by the destructive impulses of the death drive. This new perspective isn’t shown just by a new-found respect for the Man of Steel. As Batman and Carrie Kelly prepare to go out on patrol once again she reveals a name and costume change, to be that universe’s Batwoman. “Damn I got it right this time. Batwoman . . . so much intelligence. So much potential. So much I can learn from her, it’s going to be a better life.” Miller and Azzarello’s ending internal monologue echoes Bruce’s final statements from “Returns” but show he has finally achieved true growth and understanding. With the final page, Adam Kubert pays homage to the famous stormy profile shot of Batman on the prowl at night, now with better company. By referencing and reenacting moments form “Returns,” “The Master Race” reveals how if not juvenile, pigheaded, the ideology of that first series is in retrospect.
The reflexivity in The Matrix sequels is a bit subtler than what is found in “Master Race.” The latter reflects through its title character and quotes/reinterprets phrases and imagery from itself. In Reloaded, reflection instead comes through the complication of the first films ideology as the series protagonist continue their battle against the machines.
In his video essay “Everything is A Remix: The Matrix”, Robert Wilson makes it clear that The Matrix is a melting pot of world philosophy, literature, and film references. The key to that films success is how it was able to unite them in a cinematic ideology of its own that justifies itself, from its aesthetics to violence. This ideology is symbolically represented in the act of taking the red pill. (A symbol that has since been perverted by reactionary conservatives in a bid to justify their feelings of inadequacy and grievance.) In awaking to see the “true” world around him, Neo and the rest of the protagonists are able to enter and exit the Matrix with ease and become supremely powerful action heroes in a matter of cinematic minutes. By taking the red pill, Neo begins his messianic quest to free everyone and end the Matrix. This new vision also justifies their use of deadly force against would be civilians, now figured as if not the “enemy,” then, unwitting combatants who do not realize the dark power structure they are all supporting. As the Woman in the Red Dress training sequence emphasizes, don’t really think about anyone else around you but the mission. That seductive woman can become an Agent in the blink of an eye. This allows for the disregard of civilian casualties as they fight their shadow war against their machine oppressors.
As awesome as the lobby sequence is, it’s all predicated on Neo and Trinity blowing away innocent civilians who have nothing but the misfortune of working and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Removed from the films internal justifications, Neo and Trinity are just another pair of mass shooters bringing terror with every bullet from their litany of other firearms.
Reloaded questions the ethics of these operating procedures and assumptions, by revealing that this war is just yet another system of control (Part 1 Part 2). The Wachowskis and editor Zach Staenberg structure the sequence like an ouroboros by feeding the camera and cuts through the many screens of the Architect’s office as Neo and his creator question one another. Even if this is the sixth time they’ve had this conversation, the infinite screens that envelope the room show the infinite possibilities within these moments. The screens become a background actor in their own way, responding to the Architect’s pointed questions before Neo eventually, responds.Continued below
Much like how Bruce Wayne is able to break his insane cycle after one last death, The Matrix franchise faces a similar breaking point with the new-old knowledge from the Architect. Under lesser storytellers, this would be the moment where The Matrix collapsed on itself into nihilism. If everything you thought was shown to be lie . . . again, what is there left to believe? Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus aren’t the badass freedom fighters they thought they were. They killed hundreds of people in the name of a false freedom. Of course, Neo doesn’t get to wallow in this self-doubt for long, he has to go save Trinity. Revolutions is undoubtedly the weakest of the trilogy, but that’s because in response to Reloaded the cast is forced to rely on less lofty more human ideas of brotherhood and love to make sense of everything. They no longer have the veneer of cool around them — only the human desire to survive another day. Those core ideals of community, friendship, and love as the final core driver for the final film isn’t as sexy or post-modernist cool as what came before them. But they are at the core of the series overall.
I have difficulty saying that “The Master Race” and Reloaded aren’t as good as their predecessors. Both lack the novelty of the originals. However, they both do an excellent job justifying themselves, especially when they compromise the ideologies of said originals. “Master Race” and Reloaded’s perceived shortcomings come from their inability to justify themselves. As the reflection, it cannot exist first. That does not stop them from being enriching agents in the body of the franchise as whole, powerful texts that question their forbearers and audiences. That active questioning is just antithetical to contemporary franchise storytelling. The presumed role isn’t the one for the reflexive sequel, that is a complacency the roaming recursive text cannot have.