BATMAN: YEAR ONE — DVD adaptation review
I just got the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adaptation of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One miniseries, courtesy of Netflix. This was a story written back when Miller was still capable of doing good work, before he became a parody of himself, and I don’t even want to talk about the depths he’s sunk to recently. There’s plenty about that on the Internet already. This is about the movie adaptation, written by Tab Murphy, directed by Sam Liu & Lauren Montgomery, produced by Montgomery and Alan Burnett, and executive produced by Bruce Timm and Sam Register.
In the past, these adaptations of pre-existing comics stories, such as Justice League: The New Frontier and All-Star Superman, have tended to edit them down a great deal in order to fit them into the obligatory 70-odd-minute timeframe — anything longer would require a bigger budget than Warner Bros. is willing to allocate to one of these. Since this one came out to only 64 minutes, I was expecting a lot to be trimmed. But after watching the movie, I pulled my trade paperback of the original miniseries off the shelf (it’s the only Frank Miller comic I still own, and the only one other than The Dark Knight Returns that I ever owned) and compared the two. And it turns out that the movie barely cuts anything from the story, and even adds some new material. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the miniseries is only 4 issues long, much shorter than the others I mentioned. Another is that a great deal of it is told through narration. The main deletions in the movie version are these passages of narration, which tend to be trimmed down, replaced with dialogue, or shown visually rather than told. Other than that — and the removal of the comic’s references to smoking — the only significant thing that’s missing is a short scene of Bruce Wayne skiing and thinking to himself that he needs Jim Gordon as an ally. Dropping the skiing scene makes perfect sense — it’s pretty ridiculous of the comic to have Bruce performing elaborate skiing stunts just 8 days after he was repeatedly shot, burned, and otherwise very nearly killed in the tenement scene, and the movie’s approach of treating the skiing purely as a cover to explain Bruce’s injuries is a lot more reasonable. But having Bruce/Batman express a desire for an alliance with Gordon is something it would’ve been nice to keep in the film.
The new material that’s added is mostly expanded action; some stuff is added to make a couple of scenes even more over-the-top and Milleresque than they were in the comic (like Flass tossing the Hare Krishna at the train station halfway across the platform rather than just shoving him, or making a suspect’s car flip over during a chase). Some, as I said, is the portrayal of moments only described in narration in the original. But the best addition in the movie is that Jim Gordon’s wife Barbara gets significantly more screen time, dialogue, and presence. She was something of a cipher in the comic, but here she’s treated better — at least by the screenwriter and directors if not by Gordon himself, since the plot is extremely faithfully adapted. My favorite change (spoiler warning) is that in the comic, it’s Gordon’s own words that prompt him to come clean to Barbara about his affair, while Barbara is much more passive and mostly silent; but in the movie, it’s Barbara’s own disgust at Bruce Wayne’s evident womanizing that guilts Jim into confessing. It’s a definite improvement on Miller’s far more male-centric approach.
There are other directorial choices in the movie that also improve on Miller & Mazzucchelli’s storytelling. For instance, in the iconic scene where Batman crashes the corrupt politicians’ banquet at Falcone’s mansion to tell them none of them are safe now, the comic’s version focuses far more heavily on Batman’s preparations and actions, but the movie’s point of view stays mainly with the people inside and focuses on their confusion and fear as smoke fills the room, the lights go out, and the wall blows open. It’s evocative of Christopher Nolan’s approach to Batman’s debut in Batman Begins, where the viewpoint is that of the mobsters under attack and Batman remains a mysterious, largely unseen figure like the monster in a horror movie.
And that’s appropriate here, because Jim Gordon is far more the point of identification in this story, while Batman, particularly in the movie version, is a more remote, forbidding figure, a loner who isn’t particularly humanized. The casting plays into this. At first, I was put off by Bryan Cranston’s strong baritone as Gordon and Ben McKenzie’s nasal tenor as Batman. It was a very different approach than what I was used to. But once I got accustomed to it, both voices worked pretty well. McKenzie’s Batman reminded me in voice and manner of a cross between Jim Caviezel’s and Michael Emerson’s characters on Person of Interest (a show from The Dark Knight‘s screenwriter Jonathan Nolan), and was effective at conveying the sense of a colder, more forbidding Batman, one who’s obsessed to a perhaps pathological degree — not an approach to Batman I’m particularly fond of, but one that fits this story, in which Batman is a driven loner who hasn’t yet gained the alliances and partnerships that temper and humanize him later in his career. And Cranston’s Gordon is sympathetic once you get used to the flat, matter-of-fact, emotionally dull delivery that characterizes the film’s tone, like something out of a gritty ’70s crime drama (and there’s a dubbed-anime sense to it as well, with Cranston’s voice reminding me of Richard Epcar’s Batou on Ghost in the Shell, for instance). Katie Sackhoff plays Sarah Essen in much the same no-nonsense, passionless way, but I guess that fits these characters who are so battered down by the hell of living in Gotham at its most corrupt. Perhaps the most expressive player in the cast is Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. She works very well in the role.
The animation by Moi Animation Studio is top-notch stuff, and the visuals follow Mazzuchelli’s art very closely. The music by Christopher Drake is good and largely fits the ’80s-style setting of the film; in particular, there’s some music in the sequence where Gordon tails Detective Flass that reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s work. All in all, I’d say this is a very good adaptation that is at once extremely faithful to the original and an improvement upon it in a number of ways. If you liked the comic Batman: Year One, you should enjoy the movie.
I was pleased to discover that Warner Bros. has changed their policy of leaving their DC Showcase short subjects off of the rental editions of their DC Universe movies. This rented DVD does indeed include the DC Showcase: Catwoman short that was produced as a companion piece to the movie. Written by Paul Dini and directed by Montgomery, it’s something of a loose sequel to the movie, bringing back Dushku as Catwoman and including one other character from B:YO whose identity I don’t want to spoil (with all the other voices performed by animation stalwarts John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tara Strong, and Cree Summer), although it replaces the costume Mazzucchelli gave her in B:YO (which she also wears in the film, although it’s colored closer to black there) with her modern Darwyn Cooke-designed costume with the cat’s-eye goggles and the front zipper. And it is made to fit the tone of the movie somewhat, with a lot of violence and gunplay and an extended strip-club sequence that, while staying PG-13, features the most overt sexuality that’s ever been included in a DC Universe DVD movie to date. That part did feel somewhat gratuitous to me; did she really need to put on that show for so long in order to get close to the bad guy? Though maybe it makes sense in the context of Miller’s B:YO version of Catwoman as a former prostitute. At least she’s using her sexuality as a tool for her own purposes, I guess, but it still feels like pandering to the male audience, even though a woman directed the short. But it eventually gives way to an even more extended chase/fight sequence that follows through to the climax of the short and culminates with a set of chain reactions that owe more to Wile E. Coyote than Frank Miller and had me laughing long and hard.