Though not a direct adaptation, Mask of the Phantasm incorporates a tremendous amount of ‘Year One’ influence. Bruce Wayne’s initial attempts at vigilante justice and the iconic moment in which a bat provides the inspiration for his alter ego’s persona are both reworked for the screen, while a showdown with the Gotham police force at a construction site is lifted directly from the comic book, though in the movie it takes place at a different point in Batman’s life. This somewhat loose style of adaptation represents a development in the life of ‘Year One’ on screen. Tim Burton only utilised the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, which as previously discussed was not a plot point unique to ‘Year One’, whereas Mask of the Phantasm devotes significant portions of its story to ‘Year One’ odes and references. The movie-going public was being made more overtly aware of Miller’s story.
This cinematic awareness would continue in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. Though a sequel to Burton’s Batman and therefore not centrally committed to depicting the beginnings of the character, it did feature several notable ‘Year One’ moments by way of flashback. This included a variation on the moment in which a bat flies through a window of Wayne Manor to give Bruce his crucial moment of inspiration. In an intriguing twist of fate, Schumacher, who had expressed a serious interest in filming a ‘Year One’ adaptation, forced a reboot of the cinematic Caped Crusader with his notorious 1997 release Batman & Robin. Darren Aronofsky was to work with Frank Miller on a direct cinematic adaptation of his origin story, but the project fell through.
The job of re-establishing Batman on screen fell to Christopher Nolan.
Batman Begins, like Mask of the Phantasm, features a number of nods and call-backs to ‘Year One’, but a crucial difference was that this film was a full depiction of the Dark Knight’s beginnings. Mask of the Phantasm was a Batman story with ‘Year One’ elements, while Batman Begins was a ‘Year One’ story with added features, for example the villain Scarecrow. Much of what was depicted in Nolan’s first Batman story was ‘Year One’ on screen, particularly the burgeoning relationship between Batman and Detective Jim Gordon. Together they deal with ‘Year One’ enemies such as Detective Flass and mob boss Carmine ‘The Roman’ Falcone, in the process embarking upon that famous showdown with the police that ends with a swarm of bats being summoned.
The final scene of Batman Begins is an unflinchingly direct nod, and provides an interesting caveat to the most famous aspect of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. For while Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was wildly popular, and the appearance of the character so striking that it ended up influencing how the character looks in the comics, the manner in which he was introduced to the trilogy was through a scene taken right out of Frank Miller’s story.
In the twenty-plus years since the publication of ‘Year One’ it seemed that everything had been done except a direct adaptation, and in 2011 it finally happened. A fully animated film version entitled Batman: Year One, it was like the comic had been set to motion. Intriguingly, after two decades of Batman films which had taken so much of their ethos directly from the comics, this adaptation came as part of a new trend of wholly faithful adaptation. Not only did Frank Miller’s origin story get a full film treatment, so did his influential ‘The Dark Knight Returns’.
With comprehensive adaptation in vogue, efforts were made to really emphasise the crucial aspects of the story on screen. This included getting Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston to voice Jim Gordon, truly encompassing the character’s determination and downright badass attitude in the comic Year One.
Since 1987 the influence of ‘Batman: Year One’ on screen has gone from casual to loose, to heavy and finally full. On screen the character is certainly not going anywhere; he is currently on tap to play a pivotal role in D.C. and Warner Bros.’ attempts to combat the success that Marvel has had in the cinema, starting with the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Perhaps the story of his origin no longer needs revisiting, but there can be little doubt that the enduring popularity of ‘Year One’ will continue to prompt theatrical references.
The modern on-screen Batman remembers where he came from.
Michael Dodd is a film critic for the magazine.