"Batman: Year One": Great Adaptation. Great Movie...?
Adaptations of books in Hollywood baffle me. They can manage to mangle A Midsummer Night’s Dream so badly that the author’s name has to become part of the title or we wouldn’t be able to tell it’s an adaptation. They can manage to miss the entire point of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Meanwhile, the comic books and graphic novels of Frank Miller are treated like holy writ in painstakingly accurate films that strain to include every word and every panel. This has led to the painfully awful Sin City, which looked great but failed utterly as a movie, and the laughably awful 300, which at least captured the original comic in all its kitschy, hyper-macho, aggressively simple-minded, and embarrassingly inaccurate glory.
Luckily, it seems that the adaptations have caught up to Miller’s better works, and the good news is that the animated adaptation of Batman: Year One is the best adaptation yet, capturing the urban grit and noir stylings of the original book by Miller and David Mazzuchelli and making a series of very smart edits and expansions to translate the comics to animation. In fact, those edits and expansions are so well done that it’s a bit of a disappointment when the movie insists on fealty to the source material to the detriment of the film. The original Batman: Year One story, serialized across four issues of the Batman comic book in the late 1980’s, is an absolute masterwork of sequential art narrative, and comparing it to this animated adaptation reveals a number of ways, large and small, that the story was so specifically tailored for the medium of comics that any strictly faithful adaptation in a moving medium is going to run into some serious problems.
Not everyone might want to read my McLuhan-wannabe blather comparing comics and animation as media, so for them I’ll start with a quick overview of the Blu-ray release itself. It is superb, with a set of bonuses that more than make up for the disappointing bonuses on Green Lantern: Emerald Knights. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the movie looks and sounds terrific, with a razor sharp high-definition transfer and a nicely detailed DTS-HDMA 5.1 soundtrack that gooses the visuals with perfectly executed subwoofer rumbles. A very good commentary track is included with voice director Andrea “Rockstar” Romano, co-director Sam Liu, co-producer Alan Burnett, and DC creative director Mike Carlin. The track splits nicely between trivia about the movie, comparison to the comic, and commentary on Batman and Jim Gordon as characters, making it easier to forgive the moments when the participants occasionally slip into repeating what’s happening on screen. If nothing else, it’s clear that they’re proud of the finished film and they should be.
The short running time of the film means that we get an extra “Catwoman” short film written by Paul Dini directed by Lauren Montgomery that’s slick, seedy fun. Eliza Dushku reprises her role in the film as Catwoman, nicely making up for her lack of screen time there and capturing the character’s sass beautifully. A highway shootout sequence is the real stunner of the short, integrating CGI and hand-drawn elements beautifully to bring a sense of speed and nail-biting suspense. However, I can’t quite make up my mind if an extended sequence set in a strip bar is just excessive fanboy pandering, a deliberate jab at the more fetishistic elements of superhero costumes, or both, but either way it runs just a bit too long for comfort. The Blu-ray also includes the usual preview for Justice League: Doom, the next DTV movie, along with looks at the last two as well. A 20-minute documentary places Batman: Year One in it’s historical context, although there’s no information in it that hasn’t already been presented in several past Batman-related DTV bonus features. A bonus examining the current Batman comics runs a numbing 40 minutes, and this longtime comic book fan was unable to maintain interest the whole way through. The two bonus Batman the Animated Series episodes are Catwoman-themed (“Catwalk” and “Cult of the Cat”); they’re not bad but not terrific and don’t look particularly good in their transfers. Finally, the Blu-ray comes with a digital copy of the movie (but not the “Catwoman” short) and selections from the digital copy of the Batman: Year One comic book, which is still unreadable on a large screen.
Now on to an extended comparison of the comic book and the film, so it won’t do much except spoil a lot of stuff if you haven’t experienced at least one of them.
There are many elements in the animated Batman: Year One that “plus” the original graphic novel by leaving things out as often as adding or editing them. First and foremost of these is the addition of sound, both in vocal performances and musical cues. However, comparing the vocal performances of the two leads highlights the challenge presented by adapting an older and well-beloved book. Despite the title, the story’s hero is really Jim Gordon, and Bryan Cranston beautifully inhabits his soul and matches the world-weary voice I’ve heard in my head for years. However, I’m growing increasingly impatient with unnecessary articulations of story elements that work better as mysteries, so my dislike of the additional explanation of some of Gordon’s past troubles is disproportionate to the material added. Ben McKenzie takes much longer to feel right as Bruce Wayne/Batman, although the fact that he develops so much more texture and nuance after he puts on the cowl makes me think that his stiff and wooden readings early in the film were a deliberate creative choice that I just don’t happen to agree with.
The animated acting of the characters is also marvelously done, taking the original comic book panels as starting points and bringing them to life through the smallest tics, twitches, and grace notes. The smallest sideward glances or slouches, or even the way Gordon’s eyeglasses will go from transparency to opaqueness, color the characters’ performances beautifully (and, as a side note, it’s these little humanizing touches that simply don’t exist or don’t work in motion comics, which is one reason they are so unsatisfying). The superb acting extends even to the toad-like Commissioner Loeb, gloriously voiced by Jon Polito, or mob boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (Alex Rocco). The movie also opts to charge up the few fight scenes in the comic to mostly good effect. The fight between Gordon and Flass early in the story is especially gripping, highlighting what a dangerous man Gordon really is.
Those bits of animated acting allowed the filmmakers to excise much of the voice-over narration that was present throughout the graphic novel. While most will describe the graphic novel as “cinematic,” the narration captions don’t owe as much to film noir as much as they owe to pulp fiction, tying Batman: Year One to the literary works of Daishell Hammett and Raymond Chandler rather than their cinematic adaptations. The pictures in comics leave less to the imagination than prose, but I’ve always felt that Miller’s use of the “voice-over” captions was more of a literary trick than a cinematic one. Since the film’s moving images can communicate as much or more information as the narrative captions, I think that a bit more effort could have excised them completely, which would have made for a stronger cinematic experience. As it stands, there are a few too many moments when the voice-over narrations are distracting or extraneous. You can play the scene where Gordon watches Detective Flass pounding a street punk without sound and still catch most of Gordon’s inner conflict. The smallest of changes and additions would make the voice-over detailing that inner conflict completely unnecessary. The problem is that there are a few scenes which only work with the inner monologue (such as the famous “I shall become a Bat” scene), and would require major reworking to remove them. The producers have stated numerous times that they wanted to stay as faithful to the comic as possible, so that much reworking is not an option. In the case of those voice-over narrations, I think that works to Batman: Year One‘s benefit as an adaptation but to its detriment as a movie.
It’s also a minor thing, but I find it odd that all of the tobacco use has been excised. I don’t think this was something the producers came up with organically and it doesn’t really affect the movie. However, if you can look at a story that involves drug dealers, dirty cops, mobsters putting infants in mortal peril, underage prostitutes, dominatrixes, people who cheat on their pregnant wives, reckless gunplay, people getting thrown through walls, and exceptionally deviant law-breaking behavior involving totemic animal outfits, and then seriously argue that the worst act someone might imitate from this movie is smoking, I may have to punch you in the face.
A larger problem with Batman: Year One are the few scenes which are faithful to the letter of Miller and Mazzuchelli’s artwork, but not its spirit. The best example is the “None of you are safe” dinner sequence, presented in comics below:
One of the reasons why Batman: Year One is such a highly regarded work is the way it expertly exploits the tools of comics, such as manipulation of panel size, to trigger very precise reactions from the reader. For the most part, Batman: Year One is told in tiny little panels, which often subconsciously reinforce the suffocating and corrupt world of Gotham City. The only reasons Miller and Mazzuchelli will open up a panel is either for an establishing shot to give a sense of space (the airport and train station at the start of the book, Wayne Manor, or the East End), or to increase the panel’s emotional impact. Examining the dinner scene in comics above shows all of this in play. On the first page, the first wide panel establishes the scene. The following two smaller panels exist largely to deliver long stretches of dialogue, although the second panel also yields an interesting juxtaposition. The four small panels in the bottom row and the staccato dialogue combine to simulate the way time seems to slow down during an adrenaline rush — pretty neat trick in a print medium.
Then we’re hit with the big reveal of the second page, which is the moment when Bruce Wayne becomes THE BATMAN. It is not an accident that you only get this reveal by turning the page. Not only is this panel of Batman much larger than those on the previous page, it’s the biggest single panel in the entire graphic novel up to that point (there’s only one that’s larger). This trick also freezes time because a reader will pause on that larger panel subconsciously. Every single thing about these two pages combines tools available almost exclusively to comics to give this moment tremendous psychological impact, which is why this scene is so memorable for everybody who’s ever read it.
This is the animated version of the same scene:
This adaptation succeeds in some ways and fails in others. The dialogue has become much less wordy; the comic uses vapid blabbering to communicate the cacophony of a large dinner party, while the movie wisely opts to focus in on the important conversation between Loeb and the Roman. However, even though the film stays visually true to the individual panels, it does not have the ability to change the size or shape of the screen the way the comic can alter panel size, which means Batman ends up becoming a relatively small element in a widescreen frame. The comic makes Batman a giant-sized exclamation point; the film makes him a guy walking through a hole in the wall. Even on a very large screen, this moment just doesn’t have the same impact that it does on the comic book page. For that matter, the explosion feels much smaller than it does on in print, where the giant sound effect bursting out of the panel borders communicates a sense of scale even though it’s one of the smallest elements on the page. Again, the cinematic ways to increase a moment’s psychological impact would break the film’s mandate to stay as true to the comic as possible, which ultimately undermines the scene’s effectiveness.
Similar changes occur during the climactic scene where Batman brings down the house on a GCPD SWAT team. The two-page sequence (page 1 and page 2) uses a lot of the same tools as the dinner scene: changing panel sizes, freezing a moment in time for maximum impact, and using sound effects as graphical elements to reinforce something in the scene. And, again, the movie makes some wise choices to turn this moment into film (exploiting sound, altering staging and camera angles for better cinematic impact), but the moment when Batman collapses the ceiling just doesn’t have the same psychological impact as the comic’s larger panel.
To be fair, there are lots of moments when the movie either substitutes the right cinematic technique for a comic book one (like several scenes of Selina Kyle leaping off fire escapes), or where the comic book technique can be mirrored by the cinematic one (the wide panel of Detective Essen suggesting “Share a cab?”). It’s telling that the moments that are the most visibly re-staged (“I shall become a Bat” scene and the climactic chase at the end of the story) are also some of the most effective pieces of animation in the film. Batman: Year One makes a lot of smart choices in adapting this material to film, and there really aren’t a lot of fumbles. However, the skill displayed elsewhere at being animation makes it more noticeable when the movie is just being an adapted comic book page.
The last problem that Batman: Year One has as a film adaptation are structural. The transitions as Batman: Year One jumps forward in time flow more smoothly in print than they do on screen. This is partially due to the narrative captions providing context (another reason why I look at them as tied to prose rather than noir voice-over because it’s important that the captions are read and not heard), but the book also signals those jumps with a date caption. The movie faithfully mirrors the date captions, but this is a technique that works better in print than it does on a screen, especially when the jumps vary from a day to weeks or more. It’s easy to flip back and forth between pages to compare datestamps because the experience of print is under the control of the reader. It’s far, far harder to do the same with a film, even on DVD (and yes, this is one of my issues with Young Justice). The end result is a somewhat disjointed narrative which fans of the book may not even notice, but which may leave a newcomer more confused than they should be.
Batman: Year One is also narratively different from a work like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, since it was serialized in the Batman comic book and still retains some traces of that heritage. This story was always intended to be a single part of a much larger, more continuous whole. There are elements that exist in the book which don’t pay off in the story at all, such as the entire Catwoman arc. It’s fun to see her show up in the comic because you know who she is and that she’ll show up again (and, in fact, Miller and Mazzuchelli increased her impact specifically because “Selina Kyle” existed previously and their Selina was so different than her previous incarnations). In contrast, the movie makes it much clearer exactly how superfluous Selina Kyle is to this story after her one initial scene. The punch line is that I suspect comic book fans will adore Batman: Year One, but that it won’t have the same impact to those unfamiliar with the source material (and the reaction of my colleague Maxie Zeus seems to bear that out).
I have spent more time on the movie’s slips than its successes, but I do want to make it clear that these slips are the exception and not the rule. I still greatly enjoyed Batman: Year One for the most part, and maintain that it is easily the best Frank Miller adaptation to date. However, it just doesn’t achieve escape velocity from the source material in the same way that All-Star Superman managed. Batman: Year One comes tantalizingly close to being a great animated film, but ends up settling for being a great animated adaptation.