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I can see “The Duck Knight Return!” being a divisive episode. There’s a lot going on, not only in terms of the narrative, but in terms of the meta-narratives and the references to the Darkwing Duck show from the nineties that prop up that meta-narratives. Darkwing Duck once in a while did do meta-episodes. There was an episode where Darkwing was warped into the “human world” where his adventures were animated as a popular TV show for said humans. Another episode involved Darkwing Duck, as the “actor,” visiting the studio in order to fight against the bizarre changes that the executives wanted to make on his show. Knowing about those kinds of episodes may help to make this episode feel more palpable, particularly to those who may have felt “The Duck Knight Returns!” follows up the “Darkwing Duck is a show within the DuckTales” reveal in a fairly disturbing, off-putting way?

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The thing that bothers me, personally, is all the superheroics criticisms. Yes, “you have to be crazy” to want dress up and fight crime, causing untold levels of property damage and harm to innocent civilians, which makes creeds like “Never kill” a stupidly low and irrelevant bar. (To briefly explain, those kinds of arguments never scale or are placed in context in relation to the supervillains–it often comes off like we’re just letting their escalations of destruction and injury pass.) So I wasn’t particularly enamored over the parts of this episode that satirized and ridiculed the concept of superheroism, which comes off the same as when the show does that to adventuring. I was a bit more accepting of the “grim and gritty” parody elements, although throwing shade towards overly-serious films is pretty much old hat nowadays. It works because “The Duck Knight Returns” bridges the gap by messing with the aesthetics of “dark” films (that trailer, Alistar Boorswan–voiced by a totally game Edgar Wright!–whining about Dewey ruining with his deep psychological masterpiece) while also delving into the terrifying, personal, dark deterioration of Jim Starling. Heroism–superheroism–is about saving the lives you can, and the inspiration that it triggers in those who witness it.

Those are the moments when “The Duck Knight Returns!” come alive. Drake Mallard’s story of how Darkwing Duck inspired him to fight off bullies and keep on getting up is one honest example. Launchpad’s reluctance with the crimes Sterling convinces him to do, and his end speech about true heroism, is another, no matter how silly it sounds. Those are the things that mean something, the rock upon which its characters hold onto steadily as Sterling grows more monstrous. It’s meant to be extremely off-putting when he suddenly grabs Drake, one of his biggest fans and just a really nice guy, and shoves him into a closet, turning to the camera with dangerous, hypno-swirl eyes. (Heck, when he knocks out the two security guards chasing him, it’s already meant to be an uncomfortable escalation.) There’s a thin, specific vocal tick that Jim Cummings switches to when that moment happens, a vocal tick that some people might be familiar with: the voice of Negaduck.

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Recognizing that heel turn saves the episode I think. Dewey’s ridiculous “creative choices” are amusing shade towards the ideas that catering to children may be not such a good idea (he admits he has no clue if they’re any good.) The Scrooge/Boorswan arguments are the typical jokey interplays between rich, clueless exec and competent, if deeply conceited, director that’s been used in pretty much every Hollywood satire ever. But the Jim Sterling/Drake Mallard fight, especially against the backdrop of fire and rain, is the strongest and most intense moment of the episode. Watching Mallard get slammed, crushed, and zapped in order to reach Sterling, always “getting back up” so everyone else can escape, is the true instillation of heroism, while Sterling’s too far blinded by the image and facade of heroism to realize how far down the hole of villainy he has fallen. But for a brief, brief moment, during Launchpad’s corny but effective speech, Sterling does reflects on how far he’s gone, and there’s a moment that maybe his soul can be saved–and he even saves Mallard and Launchpad from an explosion as a final act of redemption. But it’s too late. He’s in too deep–figuratively and literally. Down in the sewer, the purple dyes of his suit melt away into a familiar shade of yellow and orange. Sterling is gone. Hello, Negaduck. And goodbye, DuckTales.

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Stray observations

  • Sorry this review is a bit late. The internet at this hotel is suddenly weirdly spotty.
  • What sort of negates a lot of the superhero commentary here is that Lauchpad convinces Drake Mallard to maybe, actually, become a real masked hero. Establishing an actual Darkwing Duck outside the “show within the show” and into the Duck Universe is great, but it feels like the show is trying to have its commentary cake and eat it too. Just like what its done with adventuring.
  • There’s a lot of references here to the classic Darkwing Duck show (Sterling’s and Mallard’s inherent hatred of Gizmoduck being one thing), but I can’t possibly name them all. Let loose, commenters!
  • I do like how the episode creates a solid avenue that takes Launchpad’s fanboyism of Darkwing Duck and leads him to be the masked hero’s actual sidekick.
  • I was weirded out with the Launchpad/Drake fight in the trailer, but in retrospect, it’s meant to foreshadow Drake’s end fight and his eventual acceptance of being the new Darkwing Duck. It showcases that Drake is actually a decent fighter, but not a great one, which is exactly what the original Darkwing Duck was.
  • Another bit of foreshadowing? The “final” episode of the Darkwing Duck show revealed the villain Darkwing was fighting was... himself!?
  • I’m pretty sure that Dewey was doing “the perfect cast” against that green screen.
  • And that’s it for the DuckTales bomb! Thanks so much for following me these past nine days. It was tricky to accomplish these reviews while on vacation but I think I managed pretty well. It was a pretty mixed bag of episodes but they were all fun in their own specific ways.

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