Sunday, March 30, 2014

Batman: Year One (animated movie) review

    As a general rule, I believe that adaptation is a matter of being sufficiently skilled with the medium and having a good story. I believe good stories transcend their method of delivery and what makes a good movie might make a good video game. You just need to put the right amount of effort into it.

    Batman: Year One proves me wrong. The comic version is justifiably believed to be one of the best Batman stories of all time. It helped create the modern gritty Batman and is still entertaining to read. Unfortunately, the animated Batman: Year One is one of the most joyless experiences of my life.

    This isn't a failure of the animators, scripting, or voice actors. You would be hard pressed to find a more faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's work outside of Sin City. There's a few minor tweaks here and there but very few I'd disagree with. If my only complaint in changes is that I think Bruce Wayne's girlfriend in a single scene shouldn't be a paid escort, then you've done a reasonably good job of adapting something.

Bizarre as it sounds, this still image from the movie is more powerful than the scene it's in.
    It's just this is such an amazingly dull story. When read on the page, Gotham City is a gritty metropolis (small M) on the verge of collapse. James Gordon's arrival is akin to a good man getting misjudged at Heaven's gates and dumped in Hell. Bruce Wayne's return to Gotham City is a comedy of trial and error with the Batman not yet understanding how to strike fear in the hearts of criminals.

    The animated version shows all of the same scenes from the comic but, somehow, my mind generates a far more evocative mood than the filmmakers. Part of this is the passage of time is nebulous in comics while more distinct in movies. James Gordon and Batman struggle for months to achieve their potential but it feels like only a couple of weeks in the film.

    If there's a voice acting mistake, I'd say it was the fact everyone sounds so subdued. You can put whatever sort of emotional inflection into James Gordon and Batman's voices in the comic but here, they seem absurdly calm no matter what the situation. Even the iconic dinner scene where Batman confronts the Falcone family and their cronies seems like Batman is half-assing it.

Sorry Bruce, maybe you can honor your parents next time.
    This scene, in particular, stands out because it's the moment where Batman utilizes theatricality and deception for the first time in a big way. It's the equivalent of the moment in Batman Begins where he ties Falcone to a spotlight in order to make a makeshift Bat signal. Its iconic in comics history and, here, it's over in a flash and we barely get to register it. This is a time when Batman should be terrifying people.

    The length of the movie is also a problem. Even adapting every single element of the comic, this still only brings the story to roughly an hour. The addition of a fifteen minute Catwoman short only brings the movie to about an hour and fifteen minutes so I can't say I'm particularly impressed.

    There's good parts to the movie. I loved the depiction of Sarah Essen and felt the movie managed to capture the art style of the comic, already very stylized, well enough. The famous action sequence with the SWAT team worked well enough, though I felt the bat attack could have been done better. It's damning with faint praise as the only thing I can say is the movie's high points were "okay."

    What did I think of the Catwoman short? I can't say I was particularly impressed there either. The short highlights the treatment of women in comics by actually having Catwoman perform as a stripper in-costume and no one notice. Unfortunately, this is not irony. It's just Catwoman being treated as a sex object. I don't mind sexy Catwoman but it's problematic when that's all there is to the character.

    In short, Batman: Year One is just not worth the money. If you want to enjoy the story I recommend you purchase the original graphic novel. The movie is just an inferior retelling of a story which rightfully remains one of the best comics ever.


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