Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fan Film Theatre - Feature Presentations: "Batman Beyond: Year One" (Aaron Schoenke, 2002)


Directed by Aaron Schoenke

Written by Aaron Schoenke, Sean Schoenke and Michael Teitelbaum
Based on the DC Comic Characters Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini and Glen Murakami

Produced by Sean Schoenke
Original Motion Picture Score composed by Sean Schoenke

Aaron Schoenke … Terry McGinnis/Batman
Keala Thomas … Bruce Wayne
John Mann-Krieger … Merrick Thompson
Megan Dunn … Tipsy
Adam Poole … Voodoo
Matt Smith ... Johnny Hotwire
Hunter Canning ... Ace the Joker
Rachel Eisaman ... Quinn the Joker
Daniel Weiss ... Slash the Joker
Arinze Ikemefuna ... Bones the Joker
Matt Mizirahi ... Druggy
Sean Schoenke ... Warren McGinnis
Adam Elesie ... Matt McGinnis
Tammy Park ... Dana Tan
Mail Elfman ... Waitress
Jon Dabach ... Officer #1
Donnie Cohen-Cutier ... Officer #2
Zack Gross ... Kid #1
Alan Foreman ... Kid #2
Nicole Klepper ... Kid #3

A friend from Terry McGinnis’ days as a juvenile delinquent is released from prison. As they reminiscence about their old times, the past comes back to haunt them in the form of the gang they tried to enlist into; the Jokerz.


Creating and producing a film is a monumental task in and of itself. Doing so with an established property is that challenge heightened.

With the territory of fan production, several factors come into play that both enrich and threaten the production in a multitude of ways.


How faithful do you remain to the source material? How far must you compromise given the lack of official affiliation? Can you even pull off a project visually that anyone could see requires a budget you have no ability to facilitate? And even if you can pull it off, does your work live up to a standard of drama, narrative and character worthy of recognition?

These are questions that I can only imagine have fueled the fires of motivation in up and coming filmmaker Aaron Schoenke and his independent film company ‘Bat In The Sun’ Productions, all beginning with their 40 minute 2002 debut piece “Batman Beyond: Year One."

In their now-10 year odyssey of creating independent, unofficial film based on the Batman property, it’s clear to everyone who’s been paying attention that ‘Bat In The Sun’ has managed to pull off work that is of sizeable quality even from the very beginning. Truth be told that this first film doesn’t hold a candle to future endeavors in retrospect, but what “Year One” lacks in budgeted flair it more than makes up for in ingenuity.

The film details a case that hits close to home as we find Terry now hip deep in taking the mantle of Batman from an aging Bruce Wayne, donning the high-tech Batsuit now for over a year. After successfully taking down tech-criminal Johnny Hotwire, Terry is informed of the police decision to release Merrick Thompson, one of his friends from the days of petty vandalism and crime prior to being set on a straight path as a result of his father’s murder. Abandoning the crime fighting persona and approaching Merrick in reunion, Terry attempts to keep him from harm after Bruce learns of a hit put on the boy by the Jokerz, who’ve wanted revenge on Merrick since the botched robbery that landed him in prison in the first place.

Before going further, it’s clear that a lot of the momentum of the film’s creation is deflated due to the fact that “Batman Beyond” touched upon this very idea with the preceding Season Three episode “Big Time,” in which a friend from Terry’s past, this time named Charles Bigelow, is released from jail and Terry attempts to help keep him from repeating his criminal mistakes.

When the same story exists in official form, it’s admittedly quite difficult to ignore.

It doesn’t help that the story got a sequel with the episode “Betrayal.” Both of these were released in 2000, two years before “Year One” was produced. I suspect that it must’ve been determined that most people wouldn’t remember, but I’m not sure.

However, “Batman Beyond: Year One” still has its merits, most of which lie in the fact that it was a catalyst for later Batman work by Schoenke that would ultimately become successors to their progenitor. In the long run, it’s a first glimpse at what this particular team was capable of pulling off and, I have to say, they pull off quite a lot.

The production is modest and it shows; Gotham City is a far cry from the high rises and skyscrapers monoliths of the series. But attempts to establish the overall tone are made early and as often as is afforded, especially in the main titles with coursing red circuitry implements and most notably in what effects with the Batsuit itself could be managed. For the size of the production, the abilities of the Batsuit are handled very well. I especially loved the camouflage effects as Terry stalks a hapless drug addict.

The performances are actually quite genuine in the piece. Aaron’s own portrayal of McGinnis feels authentic, especially out of costume; it helped that he was within the right age range for the character since so often, these characters tend to be portrayed by far younger individuals. Early on in the flashbacks, the relationships between Terry, Merrick and Tipsy are built up in such a way that the resultant aftermath of what happens is plausible and that’s what I like the most about the film; the story is created with full awareness of the limitations and while the film can’t go in the overt science fiction direction the series usually took, it chooses to approach the material at a more character-driven angle. The decision pays off for the most part, weaving a tale that’s intricate to a point.


John Mann-Krieger also provides a well-orchestrated turn as Merrick, who’s arguably the focal point of the entire film even more so than Terry; more specifically the relationship between these two is that fixture, the entire precipice upon which the piece is built. His emotional disintegration in the third act feels authentic and there’s quite a bit of weight behind what happens to him in the aftermath of Batman’s confrontation with Voodoo, the Jokerz leader out for revenge.

The cinematography is more sub-standard than later ‘Bat In The Sun’ films and, in all honesty, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the idea to throw flashbacks into monochromatic tones of harsh blue and yellow. It makes sense just on principle, but I think a simple black & white, as clich√© as it might seem, would’ve been the better way to go. There’s more to enjoy both in light and camera movement than in color though. I especially loved the approach to lighting in the sequence of Batman stalking the addict. There’s great shadow play in the sequence; very expressionistic and bold.


There’s also the editing and camera work, most prominently in the final confrontation between Batman and the Jokerz. Even in their first attempt, Aaron and Co. created a strong knack for action pacing that would be perfected in films like “City of Scars” and “Seeds of Arkham.” There’s also a great homage to the “Beyond” universe with the use of Slappers, the nicotine-patch styled delivery systems of Bane’s Venom formula that’re used as an experimental narcotic amongst youngsters in the future.


In the end it’s interesting to review the film in retrospect, given the ending that the creative team behind the Animated DC Universe finally provided for “Beyond” with their fan-favorite “Epilogue” episode of “Justice League Unlimited.” Even for a piece that was written with only the original 3 Season run of the show to go off of, “Batman Beyond: Year One” actually fits nearly seamlessly into the storyline, building off of “Return of the Joker.”

Capped with a beautiful scene that hints at just how much Bruce influences Terry’s handling of the mantle, “Batman Beyond: Year One” ends with a triumphant moment of flight as Batman takes iconic red wing. When all’s said and done, the film has its strong points and, obviously, some weak ones as well. But ultimately, I think it succeeds in what it sets out to achieve, which is to demonstrate that with enough imagination and invention, a fan CAN pull off their own Batman production. Aaron set a bar that he and several other filmmakers have worked hard to raise over the last decade and a lot of the seeds planted in doing so can be found here among other early fan film efforts.

If you’re a fan of “Batman Beyond” you’ll be intrigued enough to finally see some sort of live action attempt of the material. Fans of guerrilla filmmaking should also get a kick out of the presentation of skill and craftsmanship from someone so young yet so passionate.



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