It's Frank Miller's much-hated sequel to The Dark Knight Returns (which I'll abbreviate to TDKR). His reaction to this... "I expected shock. I wanted it. I never make it my mission to reassure people. Time will make its own judgement."
It's quite interesting, actually.
(This review will be SPOILER-filled, by the way.)
Issues #1 and #2 aren't very good, to the point of being broken. I hate the premise and the portrayal of Superman (which is particularly disappointing after TDKR), along with to a lesser extent Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. I cry "bullshit". I don't think it works. It's necessary for the plot, but it has a fundamental plausibility hole and selling it needed far more effort than Miller's putting in here.
Once you're past that, though, issue #3 is great fun. It's ridiculous nonsense and at times borderline offensive, but also full of super-cool scenes and confrontations. The whole series is a pisstake. This breaks #1 and #2, but (most of) #3 is glorious. In principle, in fact, its goals aren't that dissimilar from those of the 1996 Adam West TV series, except it's being silly in a violently different way.
Fanboys screamed and howled. Of course. Inevitably. Fanboys take their loved franchise Very Seriously and want the world to do the same, c.f. TDKR. I've seen a quote saying, "A lot of fans feel that Miller wrote ["DK2"] as a big 'f*#& you' to everyone." That's sort of true. The thing is, though, that both TDKR and DK2 were trying to kick holes in the then-current state of American comics. In 1986, "grim and gritty" was a revolution that overturned the industry. In 2001, in large part thanks to TDKR itself, that had become the industry default. We'd just been through the 1990s. Rob Liefeld and Image Comics. Cynicism for its own sake. "Mature" content that actually meant "adolescent and nasty". (It's also worth noting that 2001 was the low point in U.S. comic book sales as a whole, at about 67 million, after the great comics crash of 1996.)
Frank Miller's also said this about DK2:
"I was out to remind readers about the inherent joy and wonder these superheroes offer, and also to celebrate their delicious absurdity. I saw the superheroes as Gods and Heroes in the Classic sense... I wanted to drag these Gods and Heroes out of that musty museum they'd been stuck in and drag them back to the streets where they belong."
Oh, and it's more of a JLA (or even a Superman) story than it is a Batman one.
Given all that, my issue with DK2's premise could be called either a bug or a feature. I don't believe in it... but am I meant to? Perhaps not. Silliness and self-aware excess is the point, after all. Look at some of the cameos. Elvis. A comedy Italian pope. Alfred E. Neuman from Mad magazine. Bat-Mite. Look at the Adam West winks in the self-destruct sequence codewords in issue #3. "Yes, I am from San Francisco, why do you ask?"
Issue #1 presents the USA as a happy-ish police state. It's rich, sleazy and has a Freedom From Information Act. You also really, really don't want to be a superhero. Batman and Carrie Kelley (hurrah!) start busting ex-superheroes out of horrible places and making important enemies, while Superman gets angry about Batman's inability to compromise and come to terms with the way things are. This ends in a big fight in which Batman beats the tar out of Superman (again) and delivers a bathetically weak one-liner.
You see, the big bads behind everything are Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Superman have been working for them for years, because their loved ones would have been killed if they hadn't. For Superman, it's Kaldor City in that bottle. Innocents will be killed if they don't help supervillains rule the Earth!
No, no, no. This is Superman, people. He fought this duo all the time. The baddies lost, lost, lost, lost, lost and then for a change lost. I just don't believe that he'd have surrendered like that, especially with Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel alongside him. Sorry, I don't accept it. The scenario's not inherently absurd, admittedly, and it would have been possible to sell it with a bit more effort in the set-up... but we don't get that. Luthor and Brainiac aren't being made to feel heavyweight enough.
This is doubly frustrating because the baddies have things approximately their way for 150-odd pages. Batman and his allies go around rescuing superheroes, sure, but Luthor and Brainiac do bad stuff and yet it doesn't really have much impact because the focus is all on the superheroes. Baddies and planetary catastrophes are just the language they operate in. Similarly, a new Joker's running around killing heroes... and it barely registers, because it's just one more goofy-looking costumed guy doing random stuff without context in a book that's full of that.
After a good 150 pages, something happens that actually slows down Luthor and Brainiac. Superman and Wonder Woman's daughter, Lara, trumps her parents and briefly becomes the coolest person in the book.
Then, issue #3 starts.
Almost everything here I love. Batman being rude to Superman, in a way that comes close to justifying the book's premise. "You're not smart enough." (That made me laugh.) Later and better still, his cup of tea after being tortured by Luthor. Green Lantern, HOLY SHIT. Plastic Man being insanely powerful (with the emphasis on "insane"). For instance, he fights soldiers by turning into a toilet, then flushing them. The mutant child rescue. The clever use of Ray Palmer. HAWKBOY. (Sorry, that's partly just me because I love Hawkman, but still.) The bickering between Green Arrow and the Question. ("What part of 'blow me' do you not understand, Mr Atlas-Shrugged-Is-The-Word-Of-God?") The gentle nod to Alfred. The Flash being disrespectful to Important Members of the U.S. Government. ("Now what the heck are you all finding so gosh-darned funny?")
It's funny, light-hearted and basically a ton of awesome. It's cool as hell. It's making its superheroes look magnificent (although there's still plenty to discuss with Batman and Superman).
In short, it's that joy Miller was aiming for. For any readers he hadn't lost with issues #1 and #2 (which is a lot of them), with issue #3 I think he succeeded. And I say that despite Martian Manhunter's cheap death not having the weight it deserved, Batman being a continuity-breaking psycho ("striking terror is the best part of the job") and Superman realising that he'd been wrong all along and accepting Batman's insistence that heroes should kill people!
It's time to get into Miller's politics and the book's contradictions.
This is not TDKR's Batman, who couldn't kill the Joker even at the end of issue #3. This Batman has "realised" that killing is just dandy and will even convince Superman of that. Ahem. He lets his subordinates use lethal force, enjoys Hawkboy murdering Lex Luthor and personally kills Dick Grayson. That said, though, he could have saved innumerable lives by finishing off Luthor when he had him at his mercy near the start of issue #2, but doesn't bother because he's practically jizzing his trunks about hurting and terrifying people.
With Superman... well, he has by far the harshest emotional material and I actually felt for him early in issue #3. He's the most important superhero here. Nonetheless, though, it's unclear from these pages alone whether Miller reveres him or despises him as an idiot and a patsy.
Then there's the sexual politics. Some of this is characterisation of a sleazy near-future, e.g. "News in the Nude". (I've no idea whether or not Miller was aware that Naked News had started "broadcasting" two years earlier.) Even so, though, one sometimes wonders. The Superchix. The porn star who's Big Barda. The bizarre way Miller draws women, with horizontally placed pelvises and a few panels that go beyond "deformed" into "not even physically possible, please attend some life classes". (I revere Miller as an artist, thanks to Sin City, but nothing excuses this.) The innuendo-laden dialogue, most obviously from Black Canary but also sometimes in more eyebrow-raising contexts:
LARA (issue #3 p20): "So how about sex?"
SUPERMAN (i.e. her father): "Excuse me?"
(Lara simply wants to ask a sensible question, to which the answer is "never with Terrans, they're fragile". Later...)
KALDOR CITY WOMAN (issue #3 p63): "Professor Palmer. I am Ava del Kimda. I want you inside me."
RAY PALMER: "Excuse me?"
(Again, there's a non-dirty reason for that. But don't tell me Miller wrote that line by accident.)
Given all that, I think we can dig deeper than usual into questionable smut. Or, in other words, the Robins. Both Carrie Kelley and Dick Grayson declare their love for Bruce, who on the last page reciprocates with the 16-year-old Carrie. The implication would seem to be that Dick let himself get turned into the Joker because Bruce rejected his sexual advances. There's plenty of room to take offence at all this... but, on one level, it's clever. TDKR's Batman was uninterested in women (to Alfred's chagrin), appeared to be keeping Selina at arm's length and only had one romantic relationship. The Joker. It was expressed through violence and mass murder, yes, but the subtext was a scream, e.g. its consummation in the Tunnel of Love.
Given all that, if you were a rejected Robin who wanted Bruce to take Dick, wouldn't becoming the next Joker be your logical choice?
TDKR helped inspire an entire new comics era and got called high art by Time and Rolling Stone. DK2 is widely hated and many fans pretend that it doesn't exist. It's heavily flawed. In some respects, it's terrible. I didn't think much of it in 2001, but this reread pleasantly surprised me. It's a lot more playful, interesting and entertaining than you'd think.