There was a time when I was incredibly eager to see what Frank Miller was up to. While I by and large missed his original run on Daredevil (I did follow his return to the character a few years after that initial run), I was a Frank Miller fan the moment I read The Dark Knight Returns #1. To me, this single issue remains one of my all time favorite comic books.
While the rest of that series (IMHO!) wasn’t quite as good as that first issue, I nonetheless was eager to follow whatever new works Mr. Miller had going. In 1987, he wrote a four part story entitled Batman: Year One. This story appeared in Batman #’s 404 through 407 and was illustrated by the great David Mazzucchelli. The story featured, natch, the “first” year of Batman’s career. However, the story devoted equal -perhaps even more!- time to the arrival and acclimation of one Jim Gordon to the rough streets of Gotham City.
Mr. Miller added interesting, and some not so interesting touches, to the “early” Batman legend (one can argue, for example, whether it was wise to retro-con Selena Kyle/Catwoman’s origin to be a one time prostitute). Overall, I felt the story was strong and presented a good primer on a gritty, almost noir “take” on the Dark Knight.
Now, many years later, DC Comics has released a film version of the four part comic book. It was released directly to DVD and, a couple of nights ago, I finally had a chance to see it.
It’s difficult, however, to put my thoughts into words regarding what I’ve seen. If what you want to see a very slavish copy of the mini-series done to film, then this feature is for you. Mr. Miller’s original story is followed almost panel by panel and with no apparent deviations (there may be a couple of flourishes here and there, but they are minimal). Likewise, the “look” of the comic book is also followed slavishly. David Mazzucchelli’s artwork is essentially carbon copied. Camera angles are replicated to the point where the only big difference in terms of art is that in the movie people are actually moving while in the comic book they are frozen in time.
So, again, if you want to see an almost reverential retelling of the story, this is for you.
One can argue about how best one can take a story and translate it to the screen. There are those who are irritated with liberties taken by a director or actor or screenwriter when doing a translation. “The book was better” is one of those cliched refrains. Others may pick apart certain aspects of a translation, noting that the author’s original intention was ignored. Often, the connotation is negative. Why didn’t they stick closer to the source material?
In this case, the people behind this animated movie did just that. However, the degree to which they did so wound up, in my opinion, harming the work, though not fatally. Let’s face it: Comic books are not movies and vice versa. What may work on a comic book page may not work when things are in motion. I’m not saying that Batman Year One is a failure. Far from it. The work is solid and I would recommend it to those interested in either Frank Miller or David Mazzucchelli or Batman or any combination of the three.
It’s just that…I wish the film’s makers had realized that they were indeed making a movie instead of a moving carbon copy of a comic book. They didn’t have to go with every angle and shadow that Mr. Mazzucchelli originally laid out. They could have tried to add their own flourishes. Mind you, what I’m suggesting is that there could have been a better balance…perhaps a little more. By all means use Mr. Miller’s story and Mr. Mazzucchelli’s artwork as the template for the adaptation but see where things could be “punched up”. My feeling is that the action sequences, in particular, could have worked better if the movie’s makers had decided to make a movie rather than a too perfect moving adaptation.
Still, I do recommend it, although with the above reservations.