The Batman mythos has changed several times in the 70 year history of the character. In the past couple decades, he has been seen as a brooding detective and manhunter, among other things. Two stories are considered key in creating this depiction which has influenced comic, film and animation writers, and both were written by Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) .The first was “The Dark Knight Returns,” depicting an ending for Batman’s career, and the other has recently been animated for home release and is the subject of our review: “Batman – Year One.”
As you can surmise from the title, this particular story focuses on Bruce Wayne’s efforts to become the hero we know him better as. What the title doesn’t really reflect though is the fact that so much of this story also chronicles the beginnings of Jim Gordon’s rise to police commissioner, and at times it feels like this is more his story than Bruce’s.
It’s not an easy road for him though. The story begins in early January as Bruce flies into Gotham City, and musing about how criminals have taken over even though the view from the sky is nice. Meanwhile, Gordon arrives from Chicago and is picked up by Detective Flass, a large and somewhat brutish officer. Flass notes that Gordon has nothing to worry about because ‘cops got it made in Gotham.” They go to meet Commissioner Gil Loeb, who pretty much tells him the same thing and that there’s nothing to worry about even though Gordon made some kind of mistakes at his last job.
During Gordon’s first patrol, he sees what Flass means about cops, as Flass goes and beats up on some teenager standing on a corner, seemingly just for the fun of it. Gordon makes note of Flass’s fighting style for future reference. Flash forward to February and Flass is still making note about how the other detectives are worried since Gordon doesn’t take anything extra during the arrests.
Bruce meanwhile is doing martial arts training and realizes he needs something more in order to deal with ‘the enemy’ as he call them. Soon, he heads into Gotham (under a disguise) to take in the seedier parts of the city. His first encounter is rather eventful as he is offered services by a rather young girl, who is pushed aside by her pimp. Bruce takes exception to this and decide to teach the pimp a lesson… before he himself is stabbed in the leg by the girl looking to protect the pimp, along with several other folks. As Bruce defends himself, he’s attacked by a prostitute named Selina who leaves her customer to join the fray with her cat-like moves, right before the police show up to shoot Bruce…. pretty much for standing in the street.
Things don’t get any easier during this year for anyone involved. Gordon starts to get promoted through the ranks a bit while becoming a new father as well as a publicly noticed officer, with a new lieutenant named Sarah Eben at his command. Meanwhile, criminals begin to hear about a strange bat-like creature popping up at night and disrupting business, which makes the mayor and bosses like Carmine “The Roman” Falcone not too happy…
There are many elements to this story which play out like a late night detective flick. That’s the general feel of this movie with all the narration given by Gordon and Wayne. In this respect, the movie feels like the short animated piece on The Spectre which came out about a year back. At times it’s cool, but other times it’s a bit distracting. I understand the desire to remain totally faithful to Miller’s material, but I think at times it could’ve been toned down. Nevertheless, this adaptation of Year One largely works except for a couple spots (which I’ll get to in a moment.) The best work actually is in the depiction of Gordon as voiced by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad). Like I said earlier, this really feels a lot more like Gordon’s story at times more than a Batman one, and Cranston gives Gordon a bit of the hard-edged veteran vibe needed to carry the role. Bruce Wayne is portrayed by Ben Mckenzie (The OC) and does a decent job but initially is a bit hard to get used to. When he’s doing the opening narration while flying into Gotham, it’s a bit hard not to think of other actors such as Kevin Conroy (Batman TAS) or Bruce Greenwood (Batman: Under The Red Hood) who’ve voiced the character so authoritatively and although it’s easy to see that a young Bruce is what we’re hearing, McKenzie’s performance is a little lesser in comparison initially. Eventually though, McKenzie settles into a nice groove in alternating Bruce and Batman’s personas and the performances feel more natural from there. While ice nice to hear voice director Andrea Romano corral the cast such as Katee Sackhoff (Sarah Eben), Eliza Dushku (Selina) and Jon Polito (Commissioner Loeb) into a talented troupe, the performances by Cranston and McKenzie are key to the success of this film.
Equally important is the direction and this is where things get a bit weird. Batman Year One is co-directed by Sam Liu (Planet Hulk) and Lauren Montgomery (Superman/Batman: Apocalypse). There are a few high-speed action and fight sequences which have become Liu’s specialty of late in these comic-to-animation movies. Beyond that though I’m not sure where the division of labor lies. Some of the scenery is a bit drab though during the day. Also, there’s this one bit where Bruce jumps a long way from a rooftop onto a moving truck and it’s executed in such a way that my disbelief couldn’t be suspended. The movie largely looks decent but the overall art and animation quality wasn’t totally on par with others like “Under The Red Hood” and “Public Enemies.” There are still some small bits like a sign for VHS and Beta rentals reminding us when this story was created; it’s a nice touch to see the animators not forget the source material.
Along with this movie, there’s a couple other extras such as a behind the scenes short, a preview for “Justice League: Doom” as well as a 15-minute adventure focusing on Catwoman (again portrayed by Eliza Dushku). This one starts with Selina’s incredibly intelligent cat Isis evading a couple of gunmen to bring her a bracelet. Selina starts to investigate by heading to a local strip club to solve the mystery of the bracelet’s owner. It’s written by Paul Dini, who never fails to bring the goods, even in a short piece like this one.
Year One is one of the most influential Batman stories created and seeing it largely done justice here is very good for fans who might wonder what inspired Christopher Nolan to produce his most recent Batman films or what got Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale to create the excellent Batman stories “The Long Halloween” and “Dark Victory.” Although there’s some hiccups that prevent this from being the absolute best of Warner Animation’s adaptations of DC Comics materials, this DVD is a solid enough release to be worthy of purchase.