When it was announced that Warner Brothers and DC Comics would be adapting the fan beloved story arc “Batman: Year One” into an animated movie, there was some concern about how the film would exist on its own merits in a world where so much of the material had already been used, albeit in an altered form, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. The major difference between Batman: Year One, the newly released feature-length straight-to-DVD animated film, and Batman Begins is simple — Frank “I love voiceovers” Miller.
In 1987 Frank Miller wrote a four-issue arc of DC Comics’ Batman series. Illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, the arc centered on a 25-year-old Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham City after a 13 year absence. Having trained his body and mind, Wayne was ready to take up the promise he had made on the graves of his parents and fight crime in a city so corrupt, the police aren’t afraid to smack around a holy man in broad daylight.
Mirroring Wayne’s ascension as Batman, the fabled protector of Gotham City, the “Batman: Year One” arc also detailed the first year in Gotham for future police commissioner Jim Gordon. A morally righteous man forced to relocate to Gotham after snitching on corrupt colleagues in Chicago, Gordon must balance his duty to protect order in Gotham with a growing respect for Batman as a force for said order.
The animated film directed by Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu is an almost direct adaptation of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s comic. Panels are brought to life with vibrant animation and some powerful (if slightly stiff) voice work by a cast led by Bryan Cranston (as Gordon) and Benjamin McKenzie (as Batman).
As mentioned earlier, it is Miller’s voice that shines the brightest in this project. His hardboiled ‘80s grit dialogue and copious voiceover narration gives the film an identity totally unique to any previous Batman film project. The Batman of Year One is more machine than man — self-programmed to wage an unending war against crime.
Bruce Wayne is the mask in which Batman hides behind during the rare moments he allows himself the opportunity to take a break from his night job as a vigilante. His bleak, emotionally cold analysis of Gotham’s corruption and lawlessness is reminiscent of Travis Bickle. This is a character that, if the film had been made in the ‘80s, would have been played by Wings Hauser.
In fact, the movie does a lot to sell its late ‘80s origins. “Batman: Year One,” the comic arc, is largely seen as a significant turning point in the way comics were being told. As seen in a larger shift in comic book culture, the book was one of many opening shots to the grim and gritty tone that would dominate comic books for nearly a decade. The cultural time capsule nature of the story is shown ample respect with a near pitch-perfect tribute to ‘80s crime films. Everything from the pulsating synth score that pops its head up throughout the film to a beautiful scene — ripped straight from the comics — in which Bruce Wayne goes on a reconnaissance mission in Gotham’s sex district gives the film the heft and grime of a real ‘80s crime film. This is Vice Squad with capes.
As you may have guessed by the previous mention of a sex district, this is not a film for any young child harboring a growing fascination with the Batman of Brave and the Bold. Batman: Year One has an adult (or “play adult,” to be honest) tone.
The film, much like the book, can be a bit too self-serious at moments and some of the voiceover dialogue suffers from that usual Frank Miller handicap — a debilitating love affair with hard boiled crime noir that sometimes borders on the kind of adorably funny that you would get when a child dresses up like a gangster for Halloween. There’s a grasp of the subject matter in Miller’s work and a real respect but the tone and over eagerness to ape that style all too often gives the dialogue an emotional hollowness. It looks like a tiger, smells like a tiger and even bites like a tiger but in reality it’s just a house cat with stripes who’s just learned how to curse.
Overall, though, Batman: Year One is a pretty remarkable achievement. Bryan Cranston gives great gravitas to the role of Lieutenant Gordon and the cop’s story arc — much more a focus than Batman’s, to be honest — is just as riveting in animated form as it was in the comic book.
If you’re looking for a Batman film to tide you over with before Christopher Nolan concludes his Dark Knight trilogy this summer, you won’t do much better than Year One, a short, sweet and — perhaps most importantly to the fans — faithful adaptation of one of the best Batman stories ever written.
The film is presented in a 1:78:1 aspect ratio in 1080p resolution. The score is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 in addition to French, Spanish and German. The image and audio are both stunning. While some of the animation is not as fluid as you might like, the character designs and choreography sell the action and keep the movie form feeling like the increasingly cheep animation you find on most television-based cartoons. While some of the dialogue is muddled at moments, for the most part the sound design is crisp and immersive.
Audio Commentary: This full-length filmmaker commentary includes participants co-director Sam Liu, voice director Andrea Romano, DC suit Mike Carlin and co-producer Alan Burnett. The track is informative and through and will offer a nice meaty dish to any looking for exhaustive background into the making of the film.
Heart of Vengeance: Returning Batman to His Roots: This nearly 20 minute feature features an assortment of creatives who have worked on the character of Batman in one capacity or another over the years. From his films to his comics to the filmmaking team behind Year One, the interview subjects assembled have a lot to say about the gradual transformation undergone by Batman during the ’70s and ’80s — from campy television star to grim dark knight.
Conversations with DC Comics: Featuring the 2011 Batman Creative Team: A 40 minute HD retrospective hosted by many of the creatives working on Batman currently working on Batman comics — plus a few stalwarts such as Danny O’Neil and Michael Uslan.
DC Showcase: Catwoman: A nearly 15 minute short film featuring Eliza Dushku voicing Catwoman (reprising her role from Year One), this is an action-packed slice of animation that may be light in the plot department but has some lovely choreographed violence. It also is a bit too much in the gratuitous T&A department — featuring one of the most painfully pervy scenes I’ve seen in a DC animated project.
Batman: Year One, Chapter One Digital Comic: A slideshow of the first issue in Miller and Mazzucchelli’s arc.
Assorted Sneak Peeks — Extended trailers (coupled with production interviews) are presented for the upcoming Justice League: Doom movie in addition to All-Star Superman and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights.
Bruce Timm Top Picks: Classic Episodes — Two episodes from the ’90s Batman series are presented, unfortunately not in HD. Episodes included are “Catwalk” and “Cult of the Cat.”
Warner Brothers presents Batman: Year One. Directed by: Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery. Starring: Eliza Dushku, Bryan Cranston, Katee Sackhoff and Benjamin McKenzie. Written by Tab Murphy. Running time: 64 min. Rating: PG-13. Originally released in 2011. Released on Blu-ray: October 18, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Batman: Year One, Bryan Cranston, DC Comics, Eliza Dushku, Frank Miller, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises