Batman: Year One has always been among my favorite tales in the Batman mythos. Whenever you want to try and legitimize the fact that you are a grown man thumbing through glorified funny strips more commonly affiliated with the everyday trials and tribulations of Dagwood Bumstead or the predispositions of an indolent orange cat, there are a handful of superhero narratives you can bank on; this remains one of them.
I’m not alone in my thinking. Written by a Frank Miller fresh off his stint on the genre-defining Dark Knight Returns and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, the story arc, originally appearing in issues #404-407 of Batman in 1987, has been lavished with such praise as “brilliant,” and “a series that humanizes Batman without taking anything away from his original definition,” to “… not only one of the most important comics ever written… also among the best.”
“For the last time, it’s not a comic book: it’s a graphic novel! This stuff is serious, Dad. You just wouldn’t understand.”
In an interview for the animated version, screenwriter Tab Murphy, when asked if there was any toning down of the adult content or vast changes made in regards to such as themes of prostitution or violence, replied with “No, they asked me to be reverential to the [source] material… and I was extremely reverential.”
So you can see that the story brings with it some profundity and notoriety. But at the same time: high expectations. And you can imagine the obscenity of my raging nerd boner upon hearing that DC Universe Animated Original’s next project would be the vaunted Year One, especially after seeing this trailer:
(And for those of you still scratching your head at why a narrative so replete with cinematic elements hadn’t already made the transition to the big screen, need I remind you of the scrapped live-action Darren Aronofsky project that almost was?)
THE STORY, OR COMMISSIONER GORDON: YEAR ONE?
To those familiar with the present-day comics, an encounter between Gordon and Batman usually goes something like this:
Gordon in a third story office building room, perusing through files from a manilla folder, knowing Batman will be appearing momentarily beside him like some crouched and contemplative ninja on the nearby window ledge. Gordon reciting the information in front of him: “Tony Dominetti, presumed drug dealer and crime boss,” and looking up out of the corner of his eye as a dark shadow whips past the paned glass.
Batman’s voice, saying, “Yeah, I already scouted his place out last night. Ended up punching him thirteen consecutive times in the forehead until his face resembled some strange, misshapen lump of Play-Doh. He then confessed to me, in between each garbled and labored breath, every crime he’s ever committed, including the burglary of a single Cadbury Egg from CVS when he was eight. I also apprehended 450 felons, tried and convicted every criminal within a 20 mile radius of Gotham, and killed a prostitute by flicking her in her rotten taint. I was wearing Bat-gloves of course.”
Gordon nodding, saying “Well, good work then. Guess I’ll go work on a crossword puzzle or something,” but his words falling on deaf ears. Batman already gone, seen in silhouette through the window as he swings from an unseen building perch, carrying the hogtied aggregate of 4 bank robbers and the dead body of bin Laden in his free hand.
“So what have you got going on today, Jim?”
“Oh, same thing as any other day, really. A bunch of paperwork and legal mumbo jumbo while you savagely beat every criminal in the city into submission.”
But the title of Batman: Year One is misleading, almost a misnomer. It is just as much the story of newly hired Jim Gordon, pregnant wife in tow, acclimating himself to a Gotham City with police force and political officials as rife with corruption as the criminals that prowl every street corner, as it is young Bruce Wayne’s first donning of the Bat-mantle.
And the Gordon-centric nature really helps the story click. He’s like an urbanite version of Han Solo in juxtaposition to the Force; his gritty, street-level flavor added to the mix rationalizes the mythological, retributive force that is Batman. At first, they are enemies. Batman after all, is technically a criminal. But Gordon and Batman come to realize that they are each other’s perfect complements. Despite the fact that Batman is a vigilante operating by his own means, Gordon realizes that he can trust and depend on this loose cannon to help make a difference in the corrupt and squalor-filled Gotham more than he can his own colleagues or overseers.
The animated film wisely, doesn’t change the story at all. Everything is faithfully included. But comics are a visual medium as well as a written one. So were the animators able to recreate the iconic look of the story?
The comic, although well-drawn, is remarkable because of its realistic, almost minimalistic approach. Contrary to most comic books, nothing is overly-exaggerated, and this fits the mood of the tale perfectly; there are no billowing capes or grandiose poses encompassing four pages or Batmans the size of Ronnie Coleman. This is a Batman without a bat-signal, without a Robin, without green-haired clown nemeses, and one that is not yet the pinnacle of crimefighting and logical deduction.
The art and animation in the Year One film is nothing less than a treat to behold. The look is so evocative of the source material that it looks like David Mazzucchelli’s artwork was sealed away in some mad chemist’s lab and spurred to life through perverse scientific tomfoolery. You can tell from each slash of yellow light refracted off Gordon’s glasses to the posturing of Batman’s torso as he rescues a stray cat from sprays of machine gun fire to every crewcutted hair on Flass’s head that the animator’s were told to scrupulously recreate the distinctive look and feel of the comic, and they don’t disappoint for even a moment.
Characters move with fluidity against the muted colors of Gotham’s backdrop and all throughout the omnipresent gloom. The animators captured the look of Year One right down to the last guano droplet. So now all they had to do was find some voice actors that weren’t Fran Drescher and this dream film could be consummated.
THE SOUND AND VOICE ACTORS
And here’s where they first drop the ball. Don’t get me wrong. Emmy award winner Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle fame pulls off a laudable Lieutenant Gordon. He evokes an impressive range of contemplativeness, level-headedness, remorsefulness, and intensity, all at the appropriate times. And on the plus side, if they ever decide to go ahead with a live-action interpretation of Year One, this guy will have that much more experience with the character to go along with his already spot-on appearance.
Ben McKenzie from The O.C. as Bruce Wayne/Batman, however, just doesn’t work. Batman’s voice, especially an inexperienced, twenty five year old version’s obviously wouldn’t work as a carbon copy of the terse, gruff tenor we affiliate with the one in his prime or a rehash of Christian Bale’s “Cookie Monster chewing on shards of glass,” but McKenzie’s performance is just awkward, forced, and stiff. Less commanding and intimidating and more like a disenchanted teenager forced to read the latest except from Oedipus Rex in front of his high school English class. You can almost discern the awkward pause in some sequences as he licks his thumb to nicely flip to the next page in the script.
“And then I’m gonna break all your little fingers one by one unless you tell me where those hostages are you… uh… line? Line, goddamit!?”
If it were just this insipid delivery and nothing else, I could be persuaded to give the guy a mulligan. But it’s not just that. It’s also his complete lack of awareness to what is going on in the film. Batman can be taking on four armed criminals, questioning a prostitute’s age on the East End, reciting poetry, taking a shit, or folding laundry. It doesn’t matter. The inflection of his voice doesn’t change. At all.
Even when Batman drops in on pimp/drug dealer Jefferson Skeevers towards the end of the film and delivers the indelible: “You can never escape me. Bullets don’t harm me. Nothing harms me. But I know pain. I know pain. Sometimes I share it… with someone like you,” I was barely moved enough to bat an eyelash. The guy is set up with one of the most memorable Batman lines ever and still delivers with all the vivacity of a milquetoast recently roused from a mid-afternoon nap. Compare that to the first time I read the line in the comic and had implanted in me a double whammy of bodily secretions: a sopping wet nerdgasm on account of how bad-ass a line that is, and a rumpled trouser-full of steaming sympathy shit due to how downright terrified I felt for the poor guy.
“I am Bruce Wayne. I had sexual relations with this filthy whor — I mean, lovely woman last night and was definitely not running around the city as Batman. Would you like to imbibe some of this nice wine? No, I always talk like a robot after a long night of engaging in nothing but sexual intercourse, I assure you of that.”
Then again, I suppose the odds were stacked against McKenzie from the beginning. I know people grow weary of hearing about inimitable voice actors who define certain roles: “Why can’t we just enjoy the voice actor for who he is in the film and not make needless comparisons?” But just as with Peter Cullen’s paridigmatic Optimus Prime, you’re going to inevitably find yourself yearning for or mentally comparing Batman’s voice to Kevin Conroy’s (from Batman: TAS) unmistakable timbre no matter how good the fill-in is. I understand that Conroy can’t be used for everything and that this film needs to differentiate itself in that aspect. That’s fine. But take this discrepancy and turn it into opportunity. The current day Batman is a supremely confident and capable character who never wastes an action. When he throws a Batarang at some smug asshole villain only to have it soar a foot wide overhead, you can rest assured it’s because there was a stack of stymieing crates dangling above the villain’s head or that the Batarang is severing the hamstrings of fourteen incoming criminals behind the guy before sailing back to knock him unconscious. His parlance is much the same; reserved, reticent, almost stoical in nature, but when he needs to intimidate or “turn it up,” he can. Like my father: calm as a Zen Buddhist. But do something to set him off? Watch the fuck out.
With a young Batman in his formative years of crimefighting, you have the opportunity to do something different. You don’t need to follow the modern day protocol of Batman barely saying anything besides, “I’m Batman,” and “You are dogshit compared to me.” You have a less-refined version, one more hungry to sate the feelings of self-ascribed failure for his parent’s death, more inclined to display raw emotion. Why not implement this through the younger voice actor instead of picking up someone whose lines could have been duplicated with more prominence by the robotic bitch on your GPS?
As for the rest of the cast, despite much criticism, I thought Eliza Dushku as Catwoman was actually pretty solid. At least it appears as if she actually cracked open a mere page of the comic book to see if what her character was doing would correspond with one inkling of deviation in her voice. She doesn’t have the lingering, honey tinged sultriness of Adrienne Barbeau, but that’s fine. This is only year one in the Batman mythos after all. Kate Sackhoff as Gordon’s illicit lover Sarah Essen, Alex Rocco as Carmine Falcone, and Fred Tatasciore as Detective Flass are all pretty much “whatever.” They have considerably smaller roles and do well enough with what they’re given; not so bad that I feel inclined to waste a paragraph verbally abusing them, but not particularly good enough to merit any praise.
GRAPHIC NOVEL VS THE ANIMATED FILM: SUBTLE NUANCES
You ever resize an image only to have it come out a blurred, pixelated monstrosity of its former self? Things just don’t look right anymore. There is perhaps no analogy more apt than that for the Year One animated film. There’s 70 minute of film to fill, and understandably, stuff needs to be embellished. And hot damn can you tell when this is the case.
Fights which constituted three brief, yet compelling panels in the comic turn into overblown two minute fight scenes. I understand that an animated film needs to take advantage of what sets it apart from the static page: namely movement, kinesthesia, choreography, what have you, especially in fight scenes. I can’t exactly fault them for doing this. They need to have the animators show their chops and the fight scenes look impressive enough. But in adding these unnecessary “bells and whistles,” the fact that they egregiously misinterpreted what is actually transpiring in the comic becomes painfully apparent. For instance:
Bruce Wayne walking through the seedy East End. In the comic, only a few hobos and prostitutes witness Batman’s confrontation with a belligerent pimp. In the movie, there are so many spectators and street vermin gathered around that it looks like they are moments away from reenacting a scene from West Side Story.
Batman, after dispatching a pimp, first sees Selina Kyle, crouched and glowering at him, “hissing like a cat,” as he describes it. “… Look[ing] like she knows what she’s doing.” When she tries to kick him, he blocks, thinking “… that’s good — she’s had karate training — but only karate.” In the next panel he is shown taking her out. In the animated film? They have a two minute fight scene, complete with Matrix style techno music in the background. But where is it revealed that Bruce is able to deduce her fighting style from a single kick thrown as it is through the monologue in the comic? That he is treating her as a dangerous opponent from the get go and not just as a crazed prostitute? Perhaps this can be seen as nitpicking, but it’s subtle nuances and little details such as this that secure the comic version of Year One as being great, and not just merely good. Why negate what could have been several instances of pivotal characterization and depth just to show Catwoman and Batman twirling around extravagantly in front of the camera, recoiling from each other’s maneuvers?
But the most offensive culprit comes from in final showdown on the bridge between Gordon and the thug holding his baby hostage (literally tucked underneath one arm like a football), already the most foolish scene from the comic, becomes downright preposterous. Gordon and the knife wielding thug trade a series of punches with one another all while the baby dangles precariously beneath the guy’s meaty forearm. Jesus. If you really need to fill up more time in the movie, make this scene occur entirely in decelerated Baywatch slow-mo, have Gordon recount through inner monologue the events which lead up to his baby’s birth (including the soliloquies of each anthropomorphic, bespectacled and mustachioed sperm cell swimming furiously up Barbara Gordon’s birth canal), show a flock of pigeons profusely shitting upon the bridge’s steel railings… anything would have been more conducive to the movie’s overall credibility. Instead we are left with a scene so dumb I found myself wishing the thug had a momentary lapse of judgment (or would that be sudden stroke of genius) and lifted the writhing infant in the manner of a makeshift shield to deflect an incoming punch.
“Please somebody save my baby!”
“Uhh… how do I put this delicately? Your baby was bludgeoned to death by your own fists when you decided to have a boxing match with the guy who was literally holding him underneath one arm.”
“Oh. Yeah. That wasn’t such a great idea in hindsight, was it?”
The most reiterant praise I’ve heard for the movie is undoubtedly, “But several instances in the film are lifted from the comic book panels, oftentimes verbatim! How can you go wrong?” This would be fantastic, if it weren’t for the fact that many of the quotes are myopic in scope; not enough of them is being used to relate the greater meaning that would have been translated to the fullest extent in the comics. That’s my major gripe with the additions to the film. The embellishments add nothing substantial to the plot or to the depth of the characters, and in most cases, actually detract from the overall logic. As I mentioned previously in praising Mazzucchelli’s artwork, the impressiveness stems from its simplicity and restraint. Adding a series of thirty five punches and Jeet Kune Do maneuvers kind of works contrary to that logic.
“What do I think about the source material? Well, I’m glad you asked; it was just a monumental contribution to the Batman mythos which… uh – line? Line, goddamit!?”
So there you have it. For the thousands of “tl;dr” readers out there, whereas Batman: Year One is one of the greatest comic books of all time, its animated counterpart, with its misinterpretations of the source material and lousy voice acting from the titular hero, ranks as just slightly above mediocre. Lower on the scale than the last DC Universe Animated Original’s last Batman endeavor, Batman: Under the Red Hood, one that didn’t have as highly revered a comic source backing it.
Russ still thinks a live-action version of Year One could work. Sure Batman Begins borrowed alot of its better elements from the story, but just imagine Cranston in the role of Gordon? Maybe we have our next Casting Call article. And as always, agree/disagree? Leave me a comment or scathing rebuke here.