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SDCC2011: "Batman: Year One" Panel Report and Review


DC Animation’s latest DTV Batman: Year One made its world premiere at San Diego’s ComicCon on July 22, 2011 (with general release on October 18). A prevalent theme at the post-screening panel was the movie’s faithfulness to its source material, Frank Miller’s epochal miniseries from 1987. The production crew “tried to be as faithful to the comic as possible every step of the way,” said executive producer Bruce Timm. “How did you make it your own?” asked moderator Gary Miereanu. “We didn’t” said Timm, to audience applause. Panels were xeroxed for storyboards, and entire chunks of dialogue were included verbatim.

From this moment...none of you are safe.During the initial voice recording sessions, Eliza Dushku had prophetically asked Timm “So, this Catwoman character, she could come back, right?” A few weeks later, when the crew realized the film was still short even after re-adding some dropped scenes, Timm remembered they had a “wonderful” script Paul Dini had written for the DC Showcase series starring Catwoman. Dushku’s wish was granted, and she returned as Catwoman in the short, which is heavy on fight scenes.

Casting/dialogue director Andrea Romano discussed the selection of Year One‘s other voice actors. She had tried to work with Katee Sackhoff (Detective Essen) and Bryan Cranston (Jim Gordon) for years, but scheduling had never worked out. Cranston admitted to being slightly hesitant when approached, having memories of the campy 60s Batman live action series, until he read (and loved) the script. Ben McKenzie (Bruce Wayne) was already familiar with Miller’s comic and was recommended to Romano by Regina King (The Boondocks). It was McKenzie’s debut in animation, and Romano pointed out the parallel between McKenzie doing his very first voiceover and Wayne becoming Batman for the first time, with both them feeling their way to the same role.

In response to an fight scene that had been extended from the comic, co-director Sam Liu said the crew had to “amplify certain moments” from the comic that would have felt too short and unfulfilling onscreen. Timm noted that he was surprised that his imagination had filled in the blanks in that scene after rechecking the comic during production. Another audience member asked about the next Miller adaptation, a two-part movie of The Dark Knight Returns. How would it translate to the screen, since the story seemed R-rated? “It’s really not. You’re memory is playing you false” said Timm. “It’s going to be very very faithful to the comic and I will be very very surprised if we get an R rating.”

Many fans want to know how closely the film follows the comic. The answer is that this is an extremely close and reverent adaptation. Miller’s book is practically considered holy writ by DC (and everyone else), and nothing significant has been added or deleted. Viewers wondering if the movie would keep all of Miller’s pimps, prostitutes, and naughty words can rest easy—it’s all here. This is the most adult DC movie yet. Alert viewers who’ve recently reread Miller will notice only minor changes. The fight scenes have been lengthened, sometimes at the expense of Miller’s realism and his pacing. Miller’s Year Onewas a drama with action, not an action movie with drama.

The greater question is whether the movie deepens our understanding and experience of the comic, or if it’s just an effective translation. In other words, is this a comic book version of Masterpiece Theatre? The crew deserves credit for seeing the latent movement in Miller’s panels and freeing it—with results occasionally more vivid than the original, as in the intercutting of a sonogram with Gordon seething at target practice. Added touches such as the pearls falling like snow in slow motion as Bruce’s parents are killed, or how the bat in Bruce’s study practically harangues him into dressing up, are similarly welcome. On occasion the staging is muffed—the gag at the end of Gordon’s visit to Dent is diffused across several shots instead of one—but overall this cannot be considered a staid literary adaptation. That said, some translation problems have not been ironed out: in comics narration is confined to a box on the periphery of the panel. In animation and live action the voiceover is overlaid on the image and can take over the latter’s rhythm and pace. Thus, on occasion Year One can feel slow—and longer than it actually is.

One genuine disappointment about the movie of Year One is that it doesn’t truly capture the spirit of David Mazzucchelli’s art. The variety in his line work is absent (sharp thin lines prevail) along with his sense of rugged chiaroscuro. Nor does the film emulate Richmond Lewis’s expertly muted colors—instead there’s too much color and brightness. The overall look becomes simply more conventional, and the tone of Miller’s story is blunted in the bargain.

Speaking of bluntness, I regret to say that McKenzie’s Bruce Wayne does not work. He alternates between being pompous and stiff, his delivery lurching from the declamatory tone of someone reciting bad poetry to a flat, arrhythmic crawl. To be fair, as Batman he improves greatly and convincingly hisses menace, nowhere better than with the line, “None of you are safe.” As Gordon, Bryan Cranston is solid and unflashy—just like Gordon’s character. The voices for Falcone (Alex Rocco) and Loeb (Jon Polito) are excellent and practically leak sleaze. Christopher Drake’s score is effective but too contemporary for a film set in the ’80s.

Who will enjoyYear One the most? Probably those who haven’t read the comic. For those of us who have, this adaptation is an extremely well-rendered translation, and despite my nitpicks, it’s hard to find serious fault with it. But as a vision of Batman and his world, it only conveys what is on the page. It gives the comic life, but no further insight. I suppose that’s what the goal was all along, but it reminds us that the best DC animation re-envisioned the material it was based on, rather than simply visualizing it.

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