By Michael Dodd
In many ways we are living in a Golden Age of comic book cinema. Superhero movies are more than just big business, they gross astronomical amounts of money every year and the film-loving public’s appetite for them remains constant. The comics themselves are almost deified. Those unfamiliar with the source material of the blockbusters they enjoy are increasingly finding themselves engrossed as they look to explore the mythos even further. Meanwhile, ardent comic book readers will watch the cinematic adaptations with a careful eye for how much attention, and deference, has been paid to the original story.
The subject of adaptation is a fascinating one. A superhero movie may employ fragments of various stories from the comic canon of its main character or, like the upcoming Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, base its whole aesthetic on the style of the source. To examine levels of adaptation across the whole spectrum of the modern superhero movie is too vast a task to undertake here, but interesting indications of how important source materials are in comic book cinema can be found if we focus on perhaps the most well-known origin tale in all of comic book folklore: the birth of the Batman.
When D.C. Comics underwent a radical shake-up in the mid-eighties, taking down the multiverse in ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’, many of their established superheroes were effectively rebooted. This was true of Batman, but the problem was there was no need to redo his origin story. It was perfect just the way it was, and everyone who has even a passing familiarity with the character knows how it goes.
So when Frank Miller, the man who had made the Dark Knight dark again with his 1986 opus ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, was tasked with writing a modern version of this story, ‘Batman: Year One’, he kept the central theme and events the same but embellished certain aspects. With his take on things like the rule of the mob and corruption in Gotham before Batman came along, the character of Detective Jim Gordon and most importantly Bruce Wayne’s journey from traumatised young boy to avenging force of the night, Miller would subsequently influence nearly twenty-five years worth of cinematic depictions of the Caped Crusader.
The first on-screen milestone came with Tim Burton’s Batman, released just two years after the ‘Year One’ storyline was published. As the beginning of a franchise and thus the start of a cinematic story arc for the new, darker post-Crisis Batman, the movie drew inspiration from Frank Miller but funnily enough not so much from ‘Year One’. The tone and atmosphere of the film was certainly inspired by ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, but the most fascinating tool Burton utilised was a kind of comprehensive condensing.
The eternal link — some would say the horrific bond — between Batman and his arch-nemesis the Joker had to be established in the space of a two hour film. In order to do this, Burton took the ‘Year One’ story and Alan Moore’s one–shot Joker origin tale ‘The Killing Joke’, adapted them both into his movie and made them mirror images of each other. While Batman is responsible for mobster Jack Napier’s transformation into the Joker in the film, just as he is partly responsible for unwilling criminal Jack falling into a vat of chemicals in the comic, a new slant was provided in the movie with a flashback that confirmed a young Napier as the man who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents. ‘Year One’ therefore provided Batman with its most important plot point, but only by way of being combined with another story.
The success of Tim Burton’s Batman and its sequel Batman Returns paved the way for Batman: The Animated Series. One of the best-regarded depictions of the character by fans and critics alike, the series also inspired arguably the first serious adaptation of the ‘Year One’ storyline.
The feature-length Mask of the Phantasm is an underrated gem in the cinematic Batman canon. For a number of reasons, such as the decision to release it theatrically on short notice rather than direct-to-video as originally planned, it didn’t set the world on fire at the box office. It is however an acclaimed and popular work among Batman fans, much like the animated series from which it came, and part of that may be down to its interpretation of Frank Miller’s origin story.