October 18th, 2011

Two-Face... FOREVER!!!

Movie Review: How the BATMAN: YEAR ONE animated film missed the point

Let me get my bias out right away: I think Batman: Year One is one of the greatest comics ever made.

It's deserving of every bit of praise it receives, and maybe even more, as Frank Miller has done everything in his power to make old fans forget what so many new fans don't realize: he used to be fucking brilliant. But then, working with a masterful artist like David Mazzucchelli (whose recent Asterios Polyp is a modern comic masterpiece) certainly didn't hurt.

While I find that Frank Miller's more-celebrated opus The Dark Knight Returns seems to get uglier and more dated with each passing year, B:YO still shines as a powerfully humane story of crime and heroism. More than that, it's also an incredibly minimalistic comic that represents the antithesis of how bloated and empty most comic storytelling is today.

Whereas most comics are filled with pointless splash pages and two-page spreads to pad out fluff stories to fill trade paperbacks, Miller and Mazzucchelli could tell entire scenes in just a couple panels, or sometimes even just one. Every single line of dialogue mattered. Every word counted. As a long-winded bastard myself, I admire the hell out of anyone who can tell a powerful story by saying very little, or even nothing at all.

So yes, I hold B:YO very close to my heart. As such, I admit that I was prejudiced against the mere prospect of a Batman: Year One animated film, particularly as I've been underwhelmed by all of DC's animated features over the past few years. Even their best adaptations--Justice League: New Frontier and All Star Superman--play like rushed Cliff's Notes of much better graphic novels. Considering that this is largely due to WB Animations' stupid and arbitrary 75-minute running time limit, I was especially dismayed to learn that Batman: Year One would run at little over an HOUR. No way in hell they could do justice to B:YO in that little time!

Except then I read this interview with Bruce Timm, where he said, "When we the finished and timed the storyboard for Batman: Year One we found it came up a little bit short. This was a new one for us! We’d put pretty much the entire comic in the movie and didn’t want to pad it and create new scenes that weren’t in the comic." So I didn't know WHAT to think anymore. Could they have done it? Were they able to tell the entire graphic novel in just an hour? Would they do it justice?

Well, we watched it last week. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I can give this an objective review. I have no idea what someone would make of this if they haven't read the original graphic novel. I don't know how well it would hold up as a film on its own merits. The worst part is, I can remember the last time I felt this way: when I tried to review Watchmen. By which I mean, Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie*.

I imagine some of you are already going, "Oh dear."

What the movies of Watchmen and Batman: Year One have in common is that they're both technically very faithful. Often times, a bit TOO faithful, where it's clear that they virtually used the comic as a storyboard. This would be bad enough, since you can't tell the same story the exact same way across two different types of media, but the changes/cuts they DO make miss the point again and again and again. Because the original comic is so tightly written, the removal of a single line can cut out the entire heart of a scene.

Collapse )

And yet, after all my complaints, I should stress that this isn't a bad movie. I'm sure it'd be enjoyed by someone who never read the comic. In fact, based on the reviews I'm seeing from people who HAVE read it, I wouldn't be surprised if I'm in the minority of those bothered by these changes. But personally, I see absolutely no reason for this film to exist if they didn't really do it right. The original comic is a nuanced, layered look at two heroes who complement each other, who face their own flaws as well as their enemies, and ultimately change the course of the corrupt city around them. The movie is about two good guys who show up and beat the bad guys. The comic is a masterpiece of comics art and writing. The movie features standard animation and mediocre voice acting, with a couple great exceptions.

It's a good movie based on a GREAT comic, and there's no reason to watch it as anything other than an interesting experiment. If you haven't read the comic, I say just do that instead. Otherwise, Batman: Year One is worth a rental, if only so it can encourage you to reread the comic, which everybody should do. It's a story which deserves to be reevaluated for the modern era, as it's too often misunderstood by fan and filmmaker alike.

*Here's the thing: I admire what Snyder did (and what he attempted to do) with Watchmen. It was an impossible task, and I think he gave a legitimate interpretation of the source material, which is such a rich and complex work that literally no one can agree about what's really important in that story. It's truly a rorschach test for readers, and the film was simply what Snyder saw in the inkblot. Even still, it was only a fraction of the original story, and like B:YO, was hindered by its slavish adherence to the source material without fully understanding the story. There's a reason why Snyder's brilliant opening credits sequence--which wasn't adapted from any part of the comic itself--was a better Watchmen movie than the film as a whole.