Of all the comics I’ve read throughout the years, I think I’ve read Batman: Year One the most, so it’s sort of strange that it’s not a particularly memorable comic to me. Sure, there are memorable moments like when Bruce goes undercover for the first time, his monologue that ends with “yes, Father. I shall become a bat,” and his battle with the riot cops in an abandoned building, but these are vignettes in an otherwise structureless narrative. In short, Batman is defined by his villains, and a story without a central villain comes off as unmemorable no matter how many memorable moments actually occurred.
And so, when DC’s animated division announced that they were turning Batman: Year One into their next film project, I was immediately excited for it because it’s my favorite Batman comic of all time, but halfway through the movie, I realized that I honestly couldn’t figure out why.
The film in and of itself isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the animation is perhaps the best that DC Animated has produced so far. Bruce Timm and company have always tried to push the boundaries of animated film narrative and have had varying degrees of success when trying to match the look of a particular comic to a particular film. More importantly, Timm and his team strive to create faithful adaptations of the source material which almost begs the question; for what purpose?
Initially, these animated projects could easily be judged upon how well the film adapted the source material. In fact, one of the central complaints surrounding most live action super-hero movies is how much they deviate from the source material, and these animated projects could be seen as the answer to that particular problem. Because animated films are cheaper to make, and go directly to DVD, Timm and company don’t have to worry about the same problems that the major studios have to worry about like the demographics of people who will purchase the material, where to shoot the film, what actors will be a bigger draw, etc. Of course, voice casting is still somewhat of a concern, but if Timm and his crew are ever concerned about whether a particular Batman will work or not, they will typically just cast Kevin Conroy and move on.
The first DC Animated film Superman: Doomsday was a train wreck of a film that tried to condense Death of Superman, Reign of Supermen, and Return of Superman into 80 minutes. To be fair, it was their first attempt, but it was an indication that audiences didn’t want a film that took liberties with narrative, but instead, they wanted faithful recreations of their favorite stories.
Considering the number of animated films that they have produced thus far, one could spend an enormous amount of time picking apart the individual narratives, the source material they originated from, and which worked and which didn’t, but for the sake of brevity, Justice League: The New Frontier and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse are the two most important to my point.
From a purely technical perspective, Justice League: The New Frontier is an absolute masterpiece. The animation looks like Darwyn Cooke had done it himself and while the story doesn’t include everything from the source material, it includes enough to be considered a faithful adaptation.
Meanwhile, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse also captures the look and the feel of Michael Turner’s artwork, but something seems off. In terms of faithfulness to the source material, this film is almost shot for shot exactly like the comic (with the exception of the ending, but the liberties it takes enhance the narrative rather than detract from it), so why is it so unwatchable?
Perhaps it’s the difference in artistic styles. Maybe Justice League: The New Frontier works so much better than Superman/Batman: Apocalypse because Cooke’s style lends itself better to animation than Michael Turner’s. After all, Cooke has a very animated style to it that is much more in line with Batman: The Animated Series while Turner’s art emphasizes the god-like qualities of super-heroes. Turner’s art emphasizes the “super” in super-hero with every character sporting more muscle tone and definition than could ever be seen on the human body and while Cooke sometimes exaggerates the bodies of his heroes, the cartoonish quality is always present.
Then again, maybe Cooke is just a better writer than Jeph Loeb. To be fair, they are telling two different types of narratives with Cooke’s being a larger, sweeping epic, and Loeb’s focusing on a more select cast. But, still, these two stories are still comparable to one another. They both strive to explore the heart and purpose of the main characters rather than a mindless action-fest and historically, both narratives are important to the overall DC Canon (Cooke’s story reflecting a specific time-period and Loeb’s having the distinction of bringing the true Supergirl back to comics).
Honestly, though, these two narratives strike at the heart of the problem with any and all adaptations – some comics are meant to be adapted, and some simply are not.
So, how does Batman: Year One compare in the adaptation game?
In terms of staying true to the narrative, Batman: Year One is perhaps the most faithful of all DC Animated films. Everything from the comic is in the film and a few of the sequences have been extended because the source material itself is just a little too light for 80 minutes. But, again, just because something is a faithful adaptation doesn’t mean it’s a great movie any longer. The real question is whether or not Miller and Mazzucchelli’s comic can make the jump from comic to screen.
With the slightly exaggerated facial expressions and strong kinetic action, the animation perfectly captures the look of Mazzucchelli’s art. Any worries that the film would miss the mark in terms of art should be put to rest because it looks perfect and at times is shot for shot.
Unfortunately, some of Miller’s script just doesn’t quite work when spoken aloud. The aforementioned monologue of:
just doesn’t work when spoken aloud. Read silently, it is poetry and I would argue one of the most important and perfect speeches written in the Batman universe, but when spoken by Ben McKenzie, it just misses the mark. But don’t be mistaken in thinking that McKenzie is a bad Batman, because he isn’t – after all, he’s had plenty of practice playing a moody loner when he was on The O.C. – Kevin Conroy would have missed the mark just as much as McKenzie did with that line. The problem is that Miller’s writing has a musical quality about it that works in print, but doesn’t work when spoken. Ultimately, it’s no different than the problem that Sin City faced in its adaptation.
DC Animated has proven that comics can be adapted to film in a relatively easy and pain-free fashion, but now we have to consider the purpose of doing so. Maybe the purpose is to advertise the comics, but it seems that the comics are often what drive the sales of the DVDs. Some have argued for a more altruistic approach by saying that it’s all for the fans, but the comics already exist and can be read, so how can that justify their existence?
In the end, DC Animated faces a curious Catch-22: they can create faithful adaptations that are judged based upon how accurate they are to the source material, or they can create new and original narratives that say something about the characters beyond what the comics have established, but will never be considered as good as the adapted material.
Either way, the studio faces scrutiny and criticism for their decisions – which, I suppose, is the very essence of the comic book industry as a whole.