The Best DC Movie Is A Graphic Novel:
Batman: Earth One, Volume Two
The only bad thing about Batman: Earth One is how infrequently it comes out. Two volumes in three years -- that's a long wait.
DC wants to conquer bookstore readers who have become accustomed to purchasing at a more leisurely pace. At this point, with online sales and digital comics, the reasoning for that model might be out of date. But freed from the demands of a monthly book, the creative team of Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, and Jon Sibal can take the time to do their absolute best. The bat-proof is in the bat-pudding.
Not that there's anything campy about this work, which reimagines Batman beginning around 2013. It's a little grittier, it's a little grim, but more in the sense of being somewhat more realistic than mythic without turning relentlessly dark. Batman isn't yet "the Dark Knight," and he may never become that. He's just trying to pursue his sense of justice to the best of his ability.
Fox's television show Gotham borrows a few elements that had been swirling around but Johns and Frank perfected. Alfred chafes at the role of butler, being an old military friend of Thomas Wayne's who stepped in to protect young Bruce. Though Frank draws him as a weary old Christian Bale, it's not a stretch to hear Sean Pertwee's voice.
And the younger, more vibrant Jim Gordon has been played with before in comics (and again, on Gotham), but Johns' take is the strongest. Gordon understands the odds against him, but fights anyway, both a strong ally and an example to Batman.
The rethinking of Harvey Bullock may be the most radical. Instead of a world-weary slob of a detective, he's a young hot shot from Hollywood. When we see him in Volume Two, Gotham City has almost broken him -- the evil of the killer called "The Birthday Boy" in Volume One has driven Harvey to the bottom of a bottle, and if you read Volume One, it's understandable.
(That's recommended, by the way, but not necessary. This stands fairly well on its own.)
All of them back up Batman as he awkwardly faces The Riddler. Here he's an incarnation influenced by everything everyone thinks they know about him. He's clearly psychotic, and he functions with the remote malevolence of his portrayal in the Arkham videogames. But because these volumes are so infrequent, this is a character meant to have an impact, not longevity. For the casual reader, that may probably resonate more strongly.
As for Bruce himself, Johns manages to portray him without the weight of the Legend of the Dark Knight. Even in Frank Miller's seminal Year One, and Scott Snyder's Zero Year, you know who this guy is going to become. (And Gotham couldn't be more obvious.)
But this Bruce has gaps that he has to fill as they come up. He depends on Alfred not just for triage, but real guidance. The "butler" admits that he has as much responsibility for Batman, telling Bruce directly that he himself has made him "a living weapon." Jim Gordon notes that Batman is a sloppy detective, contaminating crime scenes and not quite thinking things through as clearly as he should. But there's trust -- tentative, but built on a shared sense of justice.
Then there are the Dents -- here a brother and sister, also old Gotham family and serving as District Attorney and Mayor respectively. This rethinking is the only one that rang a bit repetitive instead of fresh, but only because J. Michael Straczynski gave a similar, not identical, twist to Lex Luthor in Superman: Earth One.
Yet there's no evidence yet that those stories would even overlap. Just because we have a Superman and Teen Titans (and maybe a Wonder Woman someday) called Earth One doesn't mean they're a shared universe. There may just not be time, and that's okay. These creators are busy developing a modern version of our American myths -- which Superman and Batman really have become.
When Johns is at his best, he's amazing, and when able to play in a tight sandbox like this, he's definitely at his best. Freed from the demands of sprawling intercontinuity, he can just tell the story, and it's a good one.
That's with his frequent collaborator Frank, whose work just takes a step up from already tight and consistently good. Nothing feels rushed; no corners have been cut. Sibal inks tightly and Brad Anderson's colors give this a depth and atmosphere that proves this a true collaborative art.
Warner Brothers has their truest, most modern cinematic take on Batman right under their noses in Batman: Earth One. It still drops hints for Volume Three while standing on its own, and strikes the perfect balance between "yeah, that's believable" and "oh, yeah, THAT'S why we like Batman."
And we haven't even seen The Joker yet...
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