Superhero animation hasn’t changed as much in the last twenty years as comic books themselves, but it has made significant progress. In the old days, superheroes were considered small beans. In the seventies and early eighties, we were stuck with the goofy Hanna Barbera Super Friends episodes created by bored hacks on loan from The Huckleberry Hound Show. Beneath these productions one could sense a thinly concealed contempt for the material. What the Hanna Barbera folks never seemed to realize is that kids took this stuff seriously. When a couple of ten-year olds play Batman, after all, they do it with the conviction of Method actors.
The rise of fanboy culture solidified this attitude in teenagers and adults. Fans don’t see superheroes as being one step removed from Yogi Bear; they see superheroes as one step removed from Greek mythology. Once DC and Warner Brothers realized the kind of properties they had on their hands, they snapped to and started making shows and full-length films that approached the material with the same attitude as the comics themselves. Now Warner Brothers Animation has released a new film version of one of the classics of the genre: Frank Miller’s reworking of Batman’s origin story Batman: Year One, which started out as a four-issue series-within a series in 1987 and is now available in a single volume.
The central insight of Miller’s book was that Batman, taken at face value, seems almost plausible. While Superman is a superhuman ideal, Batman is—at least in the mind of a child or an emotionally-stunted fanboy—an achievable goal. More than any other character in the superhero pantheon, he lends himself to a more realistic depiction. The more real you make him, the more interesting he gets. Working with artist David Mazzucchelli and colorist Richmond Lewis, Miller created a Batman who owed more to the gritty cop movies of the 1970s than to any incarnation of the character up to that point. The question in the minds of many Batman fans was whether or not the makers of this new animated feature would follow suit and rethink animation in the same way.
The short answer is no. Batman: Year One is a faithful adaptation of a classic that fails to really capture the mystery and drama of the original work. This is not to condemn the film. Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, it is, in most ways, a perfectly entertaining feature in its own right. The makers of the film recognize that the strength of the story is that it is more about Lt. Jim Gordon’s fraught navigation of Gotham’s corrupt police force than about Bruce Wayne’s quest to become Batman.
What gives the film its hardboiled appeal is that Gordon is an honest man struggling mightily against a tide than seems all but insurmountable. The voice portrayal of Gordon by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is spot on—masculine but sensitive, weary but resolved. If the voice work by Ben McKenzie as Bruce Wayne is perfectly serviceable without being particularly evocative, well, I’m not sure that anyone has ever nailed the Dark Knight’s voice exactly right. The rest of the cast—filled out by pros like Alex Rocco and Joe Polito—is uniformly good.
Likewise the direction and art here are handsome and efficient. Batman, drawn gray and black, without the usual articulated six pack, has never looked better. Gotham is likewise muted and gloomy. This sets the tone of the story that follows, and although the filmmakers layer in a little more action than the book they mostly keep things at the emotional level of a drama. This film has fewer explosions than any other superhero animated feature in recent memory. Like most film noir, it’s really about conversations between people in conflict—conversations filled with lies, accusations, and evasions.
So what what’s wrong with the film? In a word: grit.
The visuals here, while somewhat suggestive of the art of Mazzucchelli and Lewis, lack the dirty, lived-in quality that made Batman: Year One so distinctive. The spaces of Gotham are open and wide rather than crowded and claustrophobic. While the film emphasizes blacks and grays, it doesn’t mute many of the other colors to match the unromantic simplicity of Lewis’s original work. Action scenes that—rendered on the page—were sloppily physical, here become clean and smooth. This might be due to the nature of the medium—animation simplifies and speeds up movement onscreen—but that explanation doesn’t change the fact that where the art of Mazzucchelli and Lewis looked revolutionary, the art of this film looks professional.
It may be too much to ask that a multi-million dollar animated film match the nasty-ass quality of a quartet of comics that originally sold for seventy-five cents each. The stakes here are much higher. Perhaps that explains why the filmmakers took out the smoking. In the Miller/Mazzucchelli/Lewis books, Jim Gordon smokes cigarettes like he’s Robert Mitchum. When he and Detective Sarah Essen, with whom he has a brief affair in both book and film, share a cigarette, Gordon tells us “I’m already tasting her lipstick on the cigarette” before telling her, “I could kiss you, Essen.” This erotic moment is diminished in the film by the absence of the smoking butt dangling from his lips.
The cigarettes have all been whitewashed out of the film (along with some cocaine use by a high level drug lord). The argument, I’m assuming, is that the film doesn’t want to display poor behavior in front of the kids who might be lining up to buy the usual Batman feature. That’s a nice policy. The pity here, though, is that this policy draws attention to the underlying reality that in many ways this is the usual Batman feature. Yes, it’s darker. It maybe the darkest animated superhero movie made thus far. But it’s still for the kids.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor