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.
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.