Monday, February 11, 2013

Movie Monday: Batman Year One

This week's Movie Monday is the animated movie Batman Year One!

I have found that the animated movies DC and Warner Bros. has produced in the last couple years to be very hit-or-miss; too juvenile for adults but too dark for kids, for the most part they seem neither fish nor fowl. So even though I love the subject matter, I haven't made a whole lot of effort to catch all of them.

But when I saw that Batman Year One was on Netflix WI, I put it on immediately. The original Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli mini-series is one of my all-time favorite Batman stories; it's terse brilliance not having dimmed much at all in the decades since it was published; and that's even considering all the thematic and visual pilfering from it by other comics and movies.
If you haven't read Batman Year One, I suggest you do, post haste. In case you haven't though, I'm not going to get into the plot details too heavily here; suffice it to say it tells two parallel stories: that of the young Bruce Wayne, just returning from years overseas, ready to bring unorthodox justice to Gotham; and honest cop Jim Gordon, banished to one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States with a pregnant wife in tow:
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The adaptation part by the filmmakers is spot on: there are large chunks of the comic directly transplanted to the screen (most of the stills you see above are Mazzucchelli's originals), and they do their best to approximate the linework that made the book so distinctive.

The problem I had with Batman Year One--and to me it's a near-fatal one--is the length. The movie runs just 64 minutes, which is simply too short to really do justice to the material, which was densely plotted and loaded with dialogue. To that end, large chunks of the story are cut away, with other scenes from the book being reproduced faithfully but having no impact, because none of these characters really resonate. The closest the movie comes is Jim Gordon (voiced by Bryan Cranston, a brilliant piece of casting that I would love to see repeated into live action when the Batman movies are rebooted), and that's because he get the majority of the screentime.

Batman (voiced robotically by Ben McKenzie) flits in and out of the story, and he's a big zero in the movie. None of the self-doubt and barely-controlled rage from the comic is present in this Dark Knight; he just meanders through scenes as the movie rushes to get to the next one. There are some other great actors at work here--Eliza Dushku as Catwoman and Katee Sackhoff as Sarah Essen--but again they get so little screentime that they don't make much of an impact. For instance, Essen is introduced in one scene, flirts with Gordon the next, is having an affair with him in the third, and the whole relationship is ended right after that. It feels like a minor detail in the movie, when in the comic it formed a large part of Gordon's complex character.

One of the other very distinctive parts of the Batman Year One comic series was the coloring by Richmond Lewis, who brought a wonderfully painterly, very non-comic book-y look that contrasted wonderfully against the giant slabs of black that make up Gotham City. Instead, there are scenes where the colors are almost neon in their brightness which seems like the wrong approach to take when trying to so faithfully replicate the comic book.

After watching the movie, I searched out reviews of it, most of which are uniformly positive. I have to admit I was flummoxed by this response, and while I don't ever want to impugn other people's motives, I have to wonder how many of these people who think it's one (or the) best comic book adaptations ever have read and loved the comic, and are filling in the gaps themselves and giving the movie a pass because of it. (I have a similar blind spot for the two adaptations of my favorite book The Razor's Edge; I love both movies but I think they probably don't work for anyone who hasn't read the book, as I have dozens of times).

I really wanted to like--love--Batman Year One, because I thought here was a chance to make down-and-dirty gritty crime thriller that just happened to have Batman in it, which is pretty much what the comic was. And while I appreciate the obvious love the filmmakers had for the source material, I think that devotional approach should have been jettisoned once it became clear that so much was going to have to be left out. As it stands, the animated version is a Cliff Notes version of the epic that is Batman Year One.

Post Script: Today will be the last Movie Monday post. Several factors were involved in this decision, and I don't come to it lightly, because once I start something I like to keep it going forever, especially when people are enjoying it. But my (mostly self-imposed) schedule has just become unmanageable, so something(s) had to give--and since Movie Monday's readership has been steadily decreasing over time, it felt like this was a good thing to give up. Thanks to everyone who followed along!


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