Late 2000 seems, by all accounts, to have been a turning point for the languishing Batman franchise. It was then that both Batman: DarKnight and the live-action Batman Beyond were cancelled, with Warner Bros. focusing on a Year One adaptation to be directed by Darren Aronofsky. In all likelihood, this was a direct response to the success of the film X-Men, which similarly ended discussion of the Bruce Wayne TV series. If Marvel could turn the X-Men, who had never before appeared on film, into nothing less than cinema gold, properties like Batman and Superman, with their successful cinematic histories, simply couldn’t be allowed to languish in development.
With Darren Aronofsky still attached as director, Frank Miller produced a screenplay entitled Batman: Year One. Miller and Aronofsky found that their respective visions for the film weren’t completely in harmony, and the two ended up exchanging several script revisions. The vision that ultimately emerged seems to have been closer to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver than to previous versions of Batman. Aronofsky also told Cinefantastique magazine that the film was to be a period piece set in the 1970s and that he aspired to capture a cinematic feel similar to The French Connection. One can understand why Aronofsky thought of Clint Eastwood, star of the Dirty Harry films, as a possible Batman when he considered adapting Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
Miller’s screenplay keeps many aspects of the comic-book Year One and even adapts a few scenes fairly directly. The script notably retains Catwoman and her origins as a whore – if anything, the script’s version of Catwoman increases the sexual content, including some rougher dialogue in scenes with her pimp and her possession of sadomasochistic tools more reminiscent of Miller’s subsequent Sin City work than his Year One. She later meets Batman as he rescues her in the Batmobile: when he fails to react as a bullet tears through his shoulder, the script notes that she’s “a little turned on.” She soon explains that she’s never met another real man. In fact, Catwoman gets the last shot of the film – as she finishes a cat burglary.
As in the comic-book version, Gordon is a more important character than in Batman Begins. In the screenplay, we first see Gordon with a gun in his mouth – though his wife’s calls to come to bed apparently change his mind. A subsequent scene between Gordon and his wife suggests some debate over raising children in Gotham, echoing a plot thread in the 1995 David Fincher film Se7en. Gordon is next seen applying for a transfer out of Gotham City, but Commissioner Loeb threatens Gordon’s wife. News of his wife’s pregnancy interrupts him with his gun in his mouth a second time. All of this clearly represents an intense heightening of the stresses on Gordon in Miller’s original comics version of Year One and stands in contrast to the much more stable Gordon who would eventually appear in Batman Begins.
In Miller’s script, Gordon then goes into a house alone to save a baby taken hostage, rescuing the captive as much from Loeb’s police force as from the gunman – a scene adapted fairly directly from the comics version. In the script, however, this scene inspires Bruce Wayne (watching the scene on TV) to become a vigilante. While having a tougher Gordon inspire Wayne makes sense, using screen time economically and rooting their later relationship, no such early connection between the two men has been seen elsewhere. Moreover, the gunman in this scene seems taken from the more violent, insane world of The Dark Knight Returns: he mutters in a frighteningly incoherent manner while holding the gun inside the child’s mouth and the child against his chest so that, if he fires, he will kill them both.
Later in the script, Gordon takes his wife out to a nice dinner and sees Loeb openly talking with a criminal. In response, Gordon goes over Loeb’s head – to Mayor Noone, who clearly feigns agreement with Gordon. Disregarding Noone’s advice to stay low, Gordon begins amassing evidence on police corruption – which he narrates in voiceover as a “Corruption Log.” Next, in another scene borrowed from the comic version, Flass leads a group of policemen in beating Gordon. After a scene in which Loeb meets with Mayor Noone, confirming Noone’s corruption, Loeb puts Gordon on the Batman case to keep the cop busy.
Gordon questions Harvey Dent, Gotham’s Assistant District Attorney (not yet risen to become head District Attorney), about Batman – just as he does, briefly, in the comics version. After his office and apartment are ransacked and his Corruption Log is stolen, Gordon is placed under more pressure by Loeb to catch Batman. Much as he does in the comic-book version of Year One, Gordon stages muggings in an attempt to entrap Batman.
Batman is later forced into a supposedly abandoned building as the police arrive. Just as in a scene in the comic-book version, the police drop a bomb on the building. In Miller’s script, an escaping Batman slips Gordon microfilm of the Corruption Log (which, having been stolen by Loeb, was claimed in turn by Catwoman) and hard evidence against Loeb. This evidence leads Dent to make his first corruption arrest.
After a warning from Batman, Gordon beats Flass for information, then drives hurriedly home, concerned for his wife Ann’s safety. He finds some cops loading the pregnant Ann into an SUV containing Loeb himself. Gordon shoots most of the cops but suffers a shot to the stomach in the process. He then confronts Loeb alongside Batman, whose mask has been torn off. After Batman saves Ann from Loeb, Gordon claims he can’t see without his glasses – exactly as he does at the end of Year One in the comics, though the comics version occurred after Batman rescued Gordon’s infant son, not his wife. This nice twist in the comic-book version, implying that Gordon knows Batman’s identity, comes off as more overt in the screenplay – and is absent from Batman Begins.
As the script winds down, Loeb faces criminal charges as Flass turns state’s evidence – just as he does at the end of the comic-book version. But Gordon isn’t seen in the last few pages – a major change from the comic-book version, to which Batman Begins remains closer in this regard.
But while the script is in some ways closer to the comic-book version of Year One than is Batman Begins, the script departs from Year One – and even the Batman mythos – in certain surprising ways.
Most dramatically, the adult Bruce is introduced as living not in Wayne Manor but in Gotham’s East End, the city’s ghetto where Catwoman got her start in Year One. (This recalls an alteration Miller made during his second stint writing the Marvel Comics series Daredevil, where he dramatically ended the character’s career as a prosperous and successful Manhattan lawyer and transplanted him to living in obscurity in lower-class Hell’s Kitchen.) Bruce lives with a very large, middle-aged black man named Little Al – shockingly, the screenplay’s version of Alfred. Little Al, we soon discover, promised his father (Big Al), who apparently found and informally adopted Bruce as a boy, that he would raise Bruce as a son. Later in the screenplay, Little Al hints that he served in Vietnam as a combat medic, giving him the needed skills to heal Batman when he returns home wounded.
Throughout the film, Bruce writes letters and speaks to his dead father about his growing rage and need for a sign to suggest his direction. He begins the film plagued by nightmares of his parents’ murders. Early in the film, Bruce even seems to be hallucinating. At times, his dead parents are drawn into the scene itself. He seems less insane by the end of the script, after Batman has given Bruce a way to vent his rage.
When he steps in to save Selina Kyle, who will later become Catwoman, from assault by a corrupt policeman, Bruce is knocked unconscious by Selina. She leaves him to awaken beside the corpse of her slain assailant, forced to flee the arriving police (much like Marv in Sin City) while believing himself the possible murderer. Bruce then decides to begin a war on crime, inspired by Gordon’s words after the incorruptible cop speaks with reporters. He breaks open a wooden box in his possession since he was taken in by Big Al – a box containing Thomas Wayne’s signet ring. Bruce starts his war by hunting down Selena but quickly gets sidetracked beating up muggers, skinheads, and drug dealers.
After a close bar fight, Bruce reads books and buys supplies. When he next attacks criminals, he wears hockey equipment. Like his idea of a war on crime, Wayne gets the idea for his Batman identity from television: watching a news report on his vigilantism, a reporter speaks of the mark left by Wayne’s signet ring as a bat-shape. She calls the vigilante “Bat-Man” and even delivers the famous Batman line (not used in Batman Begins) “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.” As Bruce smiles, thanking his father for the inspiration, we shockingly see that “he’s missing all his front teeth.” He then assembles his new tools, including steel dentures spraypainted white, a hockey mask spraypainted black, leather gloves with razor blades in the lining, and various chemical concoctions. His workshop becomes his Batcave, where he stores his Batmobile – a souped-up Lincoln Continental. In keeping with the tone of the script’s low-class Batman, the car’s been outfitted with a school bus engine (though we never see it assembled).
During his ensuing bloody war on crime, Batman encounters Catwoman and attempts to turn her in to the police for murdering the corrupt policeman. Catwoman explains that, after Bruce was unconscious, her pimp arrived and killed the man. She recognizes him by his eyes and knows his identity. She then gives him Gordon’s log, which she stole from Commissioner Loeb.
When Batman approaches Gordon with the Corruption Log, wishing to help, Gordon springs a trap and chases Batman into a supposedly abandoned building, which (as previously noted) the police bomb from a helicopter. Batman hides in a partially collapsed chimney, exploding outward at a police SWAT team sent in to make sure he’s dead. Instead of summoning bats as he does in the comic-book version and in Batman Begins, he escapes through Gotham’s network of underground tunnels.
A recovering Bruce and Little Al (who clearly has come to understand that Bruce is Batman) see a TV report on the missing Bruce Wayne, but Bruce refuses to claim his inheritance, calling his war on crime his true heritage. Bruce then intervenes to help Gordon save the policeman’s wife Ann from Commissioner Loeb – but Batman’s mask is torn off in the process. Batman saves Ann and departs, but not before carving a “Z” into Loeb’s face – a reference to The Mark of Zorro, the film he saw with his parents just before their murder.
In the script’s final pages, Bruce claims his inheritance and Wayne Manor between scenes. The world apparently thinks he’s been pursuing education in Europe. We briefly see Little Al visiting the estate, enjoying the posh surroundings.
The screenplay also features Arkham Asylum, absent from the comics version of Year One. Gordon visits there to talk with the head of the asylum about Batman’s psychology. The asylum is run by Patricia Holcomb, rather than Jonathan Crane (as in Batman Begins). As Gordon arrives, we see “a young, very pale man” who “has green-ish hair” – an obvious reference to the Joker. But while the comic-book version of Year One ends with a scene in which Gordon refers to the Joker at large, as does Batman Begins, the screenplay has no such scene.
More subtly, the film script borrows from The Dark Knight Returns, including the interspersing of TV news programs that ironically juxtapose important commentary on the narrative with sports coverage and the like.
While Miller is famous for making Batman more violent, particularly in The Dark Knight Returns, the Bruce Wayne of Year One never seemed so psychotic. Bruce’s violence in Miller’s screenplay goes further than The Dark Knight Returns, however. In one sequence, Miller notes that “Bruce tears into the skinheads with all the joy of a child on Christmas.” Even the bat-like mark left by Wayne’s signet ring in criminals’ flesh is referenced as “the mark of the Bat,” recalling the gang members who choose to follow Batman in Dark Knight, while also evoking the classic comic strip hero the Phantom and his skull-faced signet ring. Later, as Batman kicks a criminal in the crotch, he expresses joy at a criminal resisting because it gives him the chance to use violence. While Batman spies on the mayor and the police commissioner in a corrupt meeting, he prepares to toss a hand grenade into the room. He stops because he hears Catwoman also snooping around, but he still runs over some guards with his Batmobile and then uses the grenade’s explosion to cover his escape. When he stops Loeb’s kidnapping of Gordon’s wife in an SUV, he does so exactly as Marv does in the first Sin City graphic novel – by jumping and kicking through the front windshield. He soon tosses a knife deep into Loeb’s eye. Bruce is so hardcore that he stitches his own wounds.
This violence extends to Catwoman as well: we see her cut razor blades into claws that she glues to her fingernails. Indeed, this violence seems to apply to the city as a whole, which seems to go beyond The Dark Knight Returns and is more aligned with Miller’s later work. Batman Begins pales by comparison. For example, a man named Sanchez seems to traffic in imported women from all over the world – who he keeps malnourished and crawling on his floor, presumably used for sexual purposes. He tosses them potato chips. Batman stabs him in the throat: “Instant tracheotomy,” Miller sardonically notes. When the police bomb the supposedly abandoned building in which Batman hides, we see burning homeless people inside the building as Batman flees, battered and unable to help them.
Interestingly, given that Batman Begins borrowed the idea of a tank-like Batmobile from The Dark Knight Returns, Miller’s script makes the Batmobile a spruced-up Lincoln Continental. Where Batman Begins borrows from The Dark Knight Returns, Miller’s own screenplay does not – and vice versa.
Twice while talking with Dent, Gordon calls Batman a “terrorist” – recalling Miller’s use of the same attribution in Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, his sequel to The Dark Knight Returns with a very different tone. Of course, in the wake of 9/11, such a reference would not likely go over well with the American public.
I certainly don’t wish to suggest that there’s nothing promising about Miller’s screenplay. Bruce’s lack of his family resources as he starts his career adds something to the character. Indeed, the script arguably demonstrates the power of the super-hero who lacks super-powers but still strikes out against crime better than more traditional versions. As the subsequent commentary will suggest, Bruce Wayne’s wealth and Batman’s vigilante mission have always been at odds, and writers have to provide justification for a son of privilege becoming an urban creature of the night. Miller largely dodges the hard work of dramatizing this, of making it believable. Instead, Miller abandons Wayne’s background in favor of heightened violence and realism, depicting Wayne as lower-class, even down-and-out. In some ways, the script can read as a guidebook for how to become such a vigilante – complete with a reference to The Anarchist’s Cookbook. It almost seems to beg viewers to take to the streets themselves, providing a road map for how to do so.
While this may illustrate the tensions within the Batman character, the end result simply isn’t Batman. In some ways, it’s more like Marvel’s character Punisher. Batman may be seen as the quintessential super-hero without super-powers, but such a departure from his traditional background seems an injustice to the character. The screenplay’s vision of Batman is a compelling and a vital one, one arguably more logical than the normal Batman formulation – and a bolder depiction of a super-hero vigilante with a generalized war against crime. But it’s just not Batman, and fans would have been vocal in saying so. Batman fans would certainly not have tolerated such a high-profile project making such fundamental changes to the character – nor its reinvention of Alfred as Little Al. Most fans of the comic, for all their admiration for Frank Miller, would likely feel grateful to get Batman Begins instead of Miller’s Year One screenplay.
The collapse of this film has been the subject of some gossip and was included in the book Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes. Reportedly, the film got as far as storyboards, completed in 2003. Most speculate that Warner Bros. wasn’t happy with the script and the direction the film had taken, including how much it had departed from the source material.
We’ll conclude our look at the road to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins next time, including work by the Wachowski Brothers and Joss Whedon, as well as the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s work with the character.
The above article is an excerpt from Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen, which is available cheaply in print and digital formats, including on Kindle.