SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for "Dark Knight III: The Master Race" #9, on sale now
While originally presumed to be the final chapter in the life and career of Batman, Dark Knight III: The Master Race has actually presented itself to be quite the opposite. With Batman's youth restored and his mindset fundamentally changed, the final issue of the series sets itself up not as a curtain call, but instead a launch point for not only the next phase of the Dark Knight's adventures, but also those of his supporting cast, as well as several other players in the DC Universe.
Whatever Dark Knight IV might bring, it won't be a story that must be squeezed out of the remnants of what's come before – instead, the future of the Dark Knight Universe is one that's ripe with plenty of fertile potential, thanks to the seeds planted by DKIII scribes Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello.
The Dark Knight, Matriculant
The grim and gritty Batman from The Dark Knight Returns, and just about every other Batman comic from the past 30 years, is one considered to be the master of his crimefighting craft – especially by Batman himself. Intimidating and foreboding by way of his own confidence, few would dare to think that there was anything that this dark creature of the night had left to learn, and that's exactly how he's always wanted it. And as a crimefighting veteran, Bruce Wayne was rarely, if ever, seen looking for new approaches to his methods – until now.
Impacted by both Carrie Kelley's youthful insight and Superman's previously-unseen fighting tactics seen in this current issue, as well as his own second chance at life, Bruce now realizes that this second chance also comes with new opportunities to be a better Batman. When next seen, this Batman could very well be a more approachable one that doesn't always have to be right and is willing to listen to his allies – a little less grim and grit, and perhaps a little more give and take, would certainly align with the brighter future currently being hinted at in the mainstream Batman title. A nicer Batman, though, certainly wouldn't mean one that's any less deadly – already a master fighter, his acknowledgment that he still has a lot to learn stand to make him only more powerful a combatant.
Superman: The Dark Boy Scout, Superdad, Or Both?
The Man of Steel goes dark at the end of The Master Race – first by virtue of his previously unseen ferocity in dealing with the last remaining Kandorians, and then in the more figurative sense of going off the grid, presumably to be a full-time father as Clark Kent. This is an ironic contrast to his World's Finest partner, a Dark Knight who seems to be turning a little bit brighter, but also a curious parallel to Bruce's own status leading up to Batman's return in Frank Miller's original series – a hero who has vanished from the public eye, but makes a vengeful return. Could the role reversal seen between the two iconic heroes so far lead to an eventual Dark Knight-style return for Superman?
It's hard to imagine a DKU without one of its most prominent characters, especially one who has figured in so significantly to this and past Dark Knight storylines. But Clark has committed to teaching his daughter Lara the ways of humanity, a task he can best carry out as Clark, not Kal-El. This task highlights another contrast between Clark and Bruce – Bruce feels the time has come where he can learn from the younger generation, while Clark feels it's still his place to teach. Might Clark's teachings fail, with Lara feeling drawn back to her domineering Kryptonian heritage, requiring him to resurface as Superman to possibly oppose her? Or, like Carrie and Bruce, might Lara have a thing or two to instead teach Clark, perhaps about his heritage, leading to the return of a darker Superman?
Lara: The Next Wonder Woman, Superwoman, or Super-Villain?
One of The Master Race's most intriguing characters was Lara, whose shared Kryptonian / Amazonian bloodlines put her at odds with both sides of the conflict over the course of the story. Her desire to learn about humanity, largely brought on by her father, stands to add another side to her personality that could take her character in just about any direction. If she's able to learn to live among humans, as her parents have, will that put her at peace with her split heritage, or will it only cause further conflict within her? Even without indoctrinating her to humanity, her experience with the warring, invading revolutionaries from her father's world might be difficult to reconcile with the more isolationist tendencies of her mother's. The contrasts between these aspects of her character beg for exploration, whether it be within the confines of a Dark Knight IV, or as a standalone series of her own.
Return of The Justice League?
Dark Knight Universe Presents: Action Comics #1, the mini-comic contained in this issue, features a narrative of Clark's explanation of heroism to Lara as a means to both protect and inspire humanity, overlaid with sequences featuring many of the other heroes featured in The Master Race. Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and The Atom are briefly shown, and while no specific mention is made of The Justice League, the spotlight on each character showing them as humanity's heroes implicitly foreshadows the possibility of such a reunion. Both The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again featured several major character deaths, but The Master Race seems to go out of its way to preserve its featured players – conveniently leaving them available for a potential DKIV, if not additional series.
The 15 years that spanned between each series thus far were likely in large part driven by the implied finality of each story's conclusion – The Master Race, however, is more of a beginning than an ending, and with a new and largely unpainted canvas left in its wake, it shouldn't take another decade and a half for Miller and/or other creators to figure out what can come next in the Dark Knight's universe.