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Batman: Year One Script Review



Before Batman Begins started to take shape, WB were looking at various ways to revive the Batman franchise: Batman Beyond had a script commissioned, Batman vs. Superman was this close to happening, and Batman: Year One, originally pitched to the studio by Joel Schumacher (in what surely must have been a “forgive me, I can do it right this time!” plea), ended up being developed by Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller. Here’s my review of the script that was born from the Year One project. Originally, Aronofsky pitched a Dark Knight Returns-style story with Clint Eastwood as Batman and wanted to shoot the movie in Tokyo. Sounds crazy, I know! If you don’t believe me check out David Hughes’ Comic Book Movies where Aronofsky talks briefly about the project.

Batman: Year One starts with Bruce Wayne awakening from a nightmare, yelling, screaming, asking his dead father for guidance. Bruce doesn’t live in Wayne Manor; he lives in an apartment above an automobile garage. He has done since he was a child, he was taken in by Big Al after fleeing the scene of his parents’ murder and now lives and works in the garage. Big Al is no longer around, his son, Little Al (who is set up to take the “Alfred” role) has acted as a father figure to Bruce.

This Bruce (mid-twenties) is angry; he needs some outlet, some way of channeling his rage. Little Al worries about him, he tells Bruce to go out and live a little, try and find a girlfriend. He knows Bruce is emotionally disturbed but can’t find a way to help him. Like the comic, Wayne narrates through voice-over. The story switches between Wayne and Gordon (who is the only straight cop in Gotham). Gordon, though not nearly as disturbed as Bruce, is pretty messed up. There are two scenes where we see him sat on his bathroom toilet contemplating blowing his head off – the second time he loads the gun and shoves the barrel into his mouth, only to be stopped when his wife, Ann, comes home to their apartment.

Bruce is inspired into action by a TV news report where Gordon declares a “War on Crime” after rescuing a child taken hostage by a crazy guy on the roof of a Dutton Heights apartment. Bruce has some clumsy attempts at crime fighting. Across the street from the garage “Mistress Selina” (black, 5’9”, 21 and stunning) resides in a whorehouse. Flass and his partner Campbell take a bribe from Selina’s pimp, Chi-Chi. Campbell, however, wants a little more and breaks into Selina’s apartment to force himself on her – Bruce intervenes only to be knocked unconscious by a baseball bat wielding Selina who then turns on Campbell. When the police arrive Bruce wakes up to see Campbell dead and Selina gone. He then gets out before the police have a chance to arrest him. Bruce, believing Selina has killed Campbell (it was really Chi-Chi) wants to find her as, and this is one of the few traditional parts of the Batman mythos kept completely intact, “Murder is not allowed.”

Bruce begins his assault on the Gotham underworld. Starting with the lowly pimps and working his way to the very top with Police Commissioner Loeb and Mayor Noone. He hones a disguise, going from a scar on his cheek, to a makeshift hockey mask and cape. Little Al hands him his father’s signet ring. An intertwined “T” and “W” is engraved on it. Wearing this on his crime fighting exploits, Bruce’s fists hammer the ring into the flesh of criminals, leaving a bat shaped indentation. He’s dubbed “The Bat-Man” and his disguise evolves into a more familiar look. Finding an abandoned underground rail system under Little Al’s garage, Bruce turns it into his Batcave and modifies a Lincoln Continental to act as his Batmobile.

Gordon, who is equally determined to clean up Gotham, finds himself running into brick walls. Loeb, his boss, basically controls organized crime in Gotham. Gordon is seething when he sees Loeb with super-pimp Emilio Estrada in one of Gotham’s fanciest restaurants. His wife, with a baby on the way, begins to worry about their future and Gordon’s application for a transfer is unsuccessful, instead he’s assigned to “The Bat-Man” case. Biting his tongue, but going along with it anyway, we see Gordon going to Arkham Asylum to talk to a specialist about The Bat-Man. This is really just an excuse to give us a glimpse of the Joker and be told that whoever Batman is, his problem started when he was a small boy. We also get to see Gordon interact with Assistant District Attorney Harvey Dent, Gordon suspects he’s Batman – these scenes are played close to the comic with Dent finding the concept laughable.

The parts where Batman is in action are definitely the most entertaining parts of Year One. On an early venture he’s backed into the ladies’ bathroom of a seedy club called The Comet Lounge. Using knowledge he’s gained from reading The Anarchist Cookbook he concocts explosives from cleaning fluid and blows the place up. We have him escaping a SWAT team in an old apartment building and in the finale he confronts Loeb and shoves a pen through his eye blinding him (ouch!). We also get a scene that’s practically lifted from the end of the comic, where an unmasked Batman and a glasses-less Gordon share an exchange that pretty much seals their future alliance.

Year One ends with Wayne reclaiming his fortune – the heir to the empire had 15 years to show up or Wayne Industries would’ve been handed over to majority shareholders – his signet ring is his inheritance from his father, something Thomas handed young Bruce as he was bleeding to death outside the movie theatre. We also get a glimpse of Selina as Catwoman (now a fully-fledged cat burglar) as she steals a priceless oil painting from a Gotham penthouse.

While I am massive fan of both Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller's work I feel that both have completely missed the mark with this script. I have always preferred Miller’s Year One to his Dark Knight Returns. Year One’s beauty is in it’s simplicity, and while Dark Knight Returns is to Batman what Unforgiven was to the Western I felt it was very much a product of it’s time. A cynical Batman for a cynical decade. Year One was written as canon and DKR was an excellent “What If?” tale that DC have tried to separate from what they perceive as the “real” Batman. This Year One adaptation, while taking many scenes straight from the source somehow feels totally different. The violence is extreme and at times slightly gratuitous. It is easy to see why WB wouldn’t pull the trigger on this – they would never be able to market a movie like this to the mainstream audience, there’d be no “sex dungeon Selina” action figure or “Loeb with a pen jabbed in his eye” lunchbox. While Chris Nolan’s movie is about realism, Aronofsky’s vision is closer to the mark in terms of reality. No costumed bad guys, no PG violence, just a gritty and very dark vigilante tale. It's almost Death Wish in a Batsuit.

For me, where this script fails is where Batman Begins succeeds. I was never able to feel any kind of connection with this Bruce Wayne. I’ve always been interested in the hero myth, how we perceive heroes in both fact and fiction. Batman (along with Superman) is probably one of the most iconic hero myths of our time. Year One’s Batman is more coward than hero. The real hero is James Gordon; he's the guy we root for, he goes against everyone to stand up for what he believes in. He takes action, just like Begins’ Wayne, who travels the world looking for answers before realizing he has to look to himself to become the man that was born the night his parents were murdered. Aronofsky and Miller’s Wayne wants the answers given to him on a plate. There is no inner journey, something all true heroes make – just the desire to beat the crap out of criminals fulfilled. This “Bat-Man” (and he’s never referred to as “Batman”) seems to act for selfish reasons instead of for the good of Gotham.

I think Aronofsky was trying to create a contemporary American classic in the vein of Taxi Driver or The French Connection but blending it with the Batman mythos. However, his take really strays too far from our perceptions of Batman. David Goyer put the failure of Batman & Robin down to the fact it wasn’t in touch with the Batman zeitgeist of the time. Batman: Year One would’ve failed for similar reasons – it’s got more in common with the gritty crime thrillers of the 70s and 80s than it does with Batman. The lead character is pretty much impossible to empathize with and our only emotional way in to this story is through Jim Gordon. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to see a Jim Gordon movie, I want to see Batman, and a Batman that isn’t Travis Bickle.

I know WB didn’t like this script at all and I certainly feel the better interpretation of Batman is the one that’s making it to the silver screen – it’s probably worth realizing that this movie off the back of Batman & Robin would have pretty much buried the Batman franchise completely. If Schumacher’s last effort was the final nail in the coffin then Year One would’ve been the crazy guy who stormed the graveyard, dug up the coffin and put a bullet through the franchise’s corpse just to make sure. Batman: Year One is what happens when you hire a filmmaker who is all too willing to ignore the history of an iconic character in order to accomplish his vision.

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