J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Batman: From panel to screen.

I’m a big fan of comic books. I’m also a big fan of movies. Ergo, I also really like to watch movie adaptations of comic properties.

Like everyone else on the planet, I really liked The Avengers. I’ve seen all the Marvel movies, actually. From Iron Man to Thor to Captain America, Marvel Studios has shown an astounding ability to make you feel like you’re watching a separate universe from ours, where crazy stuff like alien invasions and crazed monsters run wild almost exclusively in New York City. Just like the real Marvel comics. But through it all, they never lose their sense of fun, and a nice crisp pace to the action and personal moments.

DC, on the other hand, with the Dark Knight trilogy, and the upcoming Man of Steel movie, appear to have found a separate niche. They create worlds that seem completely mundane, and normal, like ours. The only difference is that they just so happen to have a Batman running around. It’s much more self contained, and only plucks choice elements from the source material. In fact, an argument could easily be made that the Dark Knight movies are crime dramas with a little Batman thrown in because, you know, it’s a Batman movie. It should be noted that the one time that they tried to make their movies more like Marvel’s, with Green Lantern, they did miserably at the box office. So maybe they should stick with that style.

But regardless, as entertaining as both styles are, they both miss capturing the full essence of bringing a sequential art story to a movie setting. Comics, in my opinion, hold the most potential for telling a story most accurately to the senses of any medium. It rarely (if ever) reaches that potential, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And even in the worst cases, it’s still far more versatile than any of its entertainment siblings. It can be more literary and visually striking from an artistic standpoint than movies, and can be more brisk and engaging than a novel.

As such, very few movies really get the comic book feel just right. But one recent release really did it nearly perfectly. That movie was The Dark Knight Returns, part 1.

Produced by many of the same minds that gave us the spectacular Batman:The Animated Series, this adaptation of Frank Miller’s defining work on Batman did a nearly perfect balancing act of staying almost religiously faithful to the comic, while changing subtle aspects that simply wouldn’t work in a movie setting. But that’s the difference, I think… they changed ONLY the pieces that wouldn’t fit well otherwise, and left everything else alone. It was the same kind of job I’d imagine a painter would do if he was called upon to touch up the Sistine Chapel, or the Mona Lisa. Change only what has to be changed, and leave the rest alone.

So many of the action scenes are drawn straight from the panels. When the movie starts, you see the exact same scene of Bruce Wayne driving a race car, pushing even that machine beyond its limits, like he has nothing left to live for. Like he has a death wish. The movie captures how he doesn’t care about living too much, and decides only to bail out and cheat death at the last possible second, just before his car rolls and explodes. It’s just the first page in the comic, but it sets everything up the same way. The only weakness, as the rest of the movie has to deal with and maneuver around, is having to take away parts of Batman’s internal dialogue. You see the race, you hear Bruce’s tech expert yell at him like he’s crazy and wants to die, but you don’t get the exact words of what’s going through his head.

One line in particular from the comic, a running theme for the rest of the book, I wish they’d found a way to stick into this.

“It would be a good death… but not good enough.”

Later, when he’s deciding that he absolutely must return, that life doesn’t make sense if he’s not Batman, a bat crashes through his study window:

The movie directly adopts this panel, to great effect. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

And when he returns as Batman, and dispatches a pimp abusing his streetwalker, and takes the bribe money from the cabbie to look the other way, it’s translated panel for panel in the movie:

And at the point where Batman chases the thugs who just robbed a bank to an old abandoned building, you even get the iconic piece of art of Batman leaping through the air, with lighting in the background:

So clearly, the movie holds immense respect for the source material. It’s to the point where it almost feels like they’re trying to translate the original work, instead of simply adapting it. It’s so noticeable, especially if you’ve read the comic anytime recently before watching.

In fact, there are only two areas in which I feel that it differs.

1) The internal narrative. I touched on this before, but this is the one that really hurts. Batman’s monologue in his head, being able to read his thoughts and know his reasoning behind his every action, his every step, even… is one of the more special parts of the original comic to me. And for obvious reasons, the movie’s producers decided not to add any of that. But for pacing reasons, they also took out some other lines for different reasons. Case in point, one of my favorite dialogue exchanges in the whole book.

They take out the line about “You’ve got lots of rights”, which is justified, I guess. But I really missed it.

But they made up for this with some lines that they really wanted to use, with other parts of the narrative instead.

I can’t even express how much I love the “Rubber bullets. Honest.” line here. It perfectly exemplifies Miller’s Batman in three simple words: he won’t kill you, but he has no qualms about detaining you as quickly and painfully as possible. The movie obviously feels the same way, and though it can’t have Batman say this, it goes out of its way to have the Mutant leader find a stray bullet, pick it up, and call out Batman for not being willing to kill his enemies. And then as a cherry on top, it gives us the EXACT bottom panel as a shot. It works so well, it’s almost breathtaking.

Many of the lines that Batman uses in narrative panels in the comic, they make other characters say or point out in the movie. And while it’s not as satisfying, and doesn’t let us into Batman’s character as much as some would like, it still works as gracefully as a movie can allow.

2) The Joker.

In the original comic, Batman’s greatest foe is depicted as being as bored of life as Bruce is, at the beginning. He’s as docile as a kitten, just wasting away in Arkham with a blank stare on his face. But when Batman returns, and becomes a major news item, it’s like it awakens the smile – and the monster within.

From that point on, for a while The Joker works behind the scenes, proving bombs and other nasty weapons to the highest bidder wanting to do criminal mayhem. He pretends to have rehabilitated, and fools the pop psych doctor into thinking he can salvage his failure with Harvey Dent into something greater still. Of course, in the second act, we all get the villain we know so well, and all the atrocities that come with him.

But the movie? The movie shows him even more respect. The entire time, we never get to see his face. We see only context clues that tell us that not only has he been out of commission for a while (presumably as long as Batman has been retired), but he has been a vegetable sitting in a chair for so long that somehow, the people of Gotham have mostly forgotten just how terrible a being he really is. The movie simply takes out all the bit parts with the Joker, and saves the above panel for the last frame of Part 1.

All in all, I loved this movie, and I feel like it’s one of the most accurate comic to movie adaptations ever made. I’m really looking forward to watching part 2 shortly, and at that point, I will draw all my conclusions. It could crash and burn in the second half, but so far, this fanboy is finding it to be a masterpiece.

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2013 by in Movies.
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