The Best Movie Critic + review

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Batman: Year One

Justin here with the latest in my series of reviews of the DC Comics DTV movies, Batman: Year One.

Talk about irony. I didn’t expect to like the last DCAU Batman movie, Batman: Under the Red Hood. I’m very lukewarm on Judd Winick, writer both of the movie and the arc from which it was adapted. I don’t really like Jason Todd as a character. The whole Death in the Family story is one that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And I generally don’t like it when comics bring characters back from the dead. I loved that movie though.

Batman: Year One on the other hand was different.

The original story Year One was adapted from is widely considered a classic. Written by Frank Miller before he went crazy (or maybe when he was the good kind of crazy) and drawn by Daredevil collaborator, David Mazzucchelli, Year One is the definitive Batman origin story. Miller’s writing is effective and tight. The story is as much about James Gordon as it is about Batman, this story cemented Gordon’s place as a much more interesting and well-developed character than Bruce Wayne. Mazzucchelli is a modern master of comics art. He has the rare combination of being highly evocative and moody while also peerless story telling chops. You can pick up the comic and not read any of the word balloons and still know exactly what happened. (Brief side note: I cannot recommend Mazzucchelli’s recent solo book Asterios Polyp enough. If you’re a comics fan, you owe it to yourself to read this. It’s as good as Maus or Watchmen. Seriously.)

To get ready for the animated adaptation of Batman: Year One, I re-read the original series. I wish I hadn’t. Aside from really cementing how good the comic version was, it really showed how awful the movie adaptation was.

First off, I want to give credit to the things I liked. Brian Cranston is an inspired choice to play Gordon. He did decently well with what he had. When the live-action movie series is rebooted in a year or two, Cranston would be a solid choice to take that role as well. Elizabeth Dushku did a surprisingly good job as Catwoman. My biggest criticism of the original comic is that Catwoman is even in it. Her character arc seems forgotten and underdeveloped. Dushku made the most of it. For some reason, the cars in these movies are still computer animated, this was the most polished they’ve looked so far.

The biggest issue the movie had was its slavishness to the source material. Scenes are lifted directly from panels and dialogue is lifted directly from word balloons. The art budget wasn’t big enough to look as good as Mazzucchelli’s art. The dialogue worked fine on the page, but sounded remarkably stilted even from Cranston, who is an actor that I have great respect for. Some odd choices were made as to what parts of the internal monologues were used as voice over. In going for a middle ground, the movie lost something. More internal monologue would have given the story a greater flow; less would have given the movie a strong impressionistic bent.

This movie has overtaken Zach Snyder’s Watchmen as the best example of why comics shouldn’t be directly adapted. It’s cute to think that the panels can function as storyboards, and maybe for some middling comics, that’s the case. However, the best comics artists really understand that panels are a way of slicing time and emphasizing beats. When a powerful sequence of panels is shown as fluid motion, the magic is lost, and the achievement of the artist is diminished.

This point is going to be a little hard for me to properly illustrate... so first, I urge you to watch the trailer:

This highlights some key scenes from the movie and gives a pretty good idea of what the animation looks like.

OK, the entire page that follows is in that trailer. The elegance on the page was no where close to being captured by the movie.

It's not that I don't think there could be a good adaptation of Batman: Year One, it's that in the slavishness to the source material, something was lost. I'm not a believer that adaptations of comics can't be done, but that it's far more important to capture the spirit of the original, not the corpse. Case in point: Batman Begins used Year One as its primary source material and succeeded where this version failed.

Before you write my review off as pretentious fanboyism or whatever, please note that my wife also thought Batman: Year One was crap. She also liked Under the Red Hood, and generally has better taste than me. There are some things that I can’t be counted on to give an objective review to. I don’t think Batman movies fall into that category.

So here’s what I suggest: You may like the Batman: Year One, you could chance buying The Blu-Ray. It has an MSRP of $25.

For that $25, I can guarantee you that you’ll have a better time if you buy the comic for $15. That leaves $10 left. If you want to put it all in the Batman pot, pick up the first two issues of Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. The new issue hits stands next Wednesday. Snyder is writing the best Batman since maybe forever. That leaves us with $4 left. Let’s spend that on a root beer and a Twix. Awesome.

Of course you could just put that $25 towards a copy of Batman: Arkham City, which is going to be amazing.

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