As is tradition at every San Diego Comic Con for at least the past three years, Warner Brothers Animation premiered their latest straight to DVD/Blu-Ray DC Comics animated feature film for the Comic Con audience in Ballroom 20. Last year, it was the incredibly well received “Batman: Under the Red Hood”. Considering the source material for that particular movie was not one of the most loved comic book stories from the past several years, to put it mildly, the producers had no where to go but up really. Needless to say, that is NOT the case here; Frank Miller’s 1987 four issue exploration of the Dark Knight’s origins Batman: Year One is one of the most well regarded super hero stories, of, like…ever. Appearing over a mere four issues of Batman’s series (issues #404-407 to be exact) the story has been collected and reproduced many times over, and is considered one of, if not the, definitive Batman story. The finger prints of writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli are all over Chirstopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. So in doing an adaptation, I’m sure Bruce Timm and company felt no pressure at all.
Producer Bruce Timm and co-directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery tackled Frank Miller’s seminal story much in the same way that Zack Snyder’s big screen version of Alan Moore’s Watchmen just took the original graphic novel and more or less just shot it, panel for frame. Batman Year One is probably even more faithful to the source material than even the Watchmen film was. Since the orginal comic book story was only 96 pages long, this is one of the rare DC Universe animated films that didn’t feel gutted by its brief 75 minute running time; instead it felt just right. The animation really captured Mazzucchelli’s rendition of the characters, and the sepia toned look of the comics was replicated perfectly here as well. Even though certain DC animated films like The New Frontier and All Star Superman have been pretty faithful to their comic book sources, so far nothing else has come as close to replicating the original comics with as much success as Batman: Year One has.
For those of you reading this who haven’t read the original story (and really, you probably should) here is a synopsis of events. First off, the name of this movie should always have been called Batman and Gordon: Year One, but I guess that wouldn’t have sold as many comics, or moved as many DVD’s. Nevertheless, the story here is as much about officer Jim Gordon’s first year in Gotham as it is about Batman’s. The story starts with the simultaneous arrival in Gotham City of both twenty five year old Bruce Wayne and a young Lt. James Gordon. Bruce has been travelling the world (presumably learning to be a bad ass) for the past twelve years, and Gordon is a soon to be family man with a very pregnant wife. The Gotham City Police force, run by Commissioner Loeb, is extremely crooked, and James Gordon has a a very hard time adjusting to the extreme corruption everywhere around him. The one cop who takes a shine to Gordon, Lt. Flass, ends up being just as bad as everyone else around him, and ends up taking a baseball bat to him in an effort to make him fall in line. The only ray of light in Gordon’s world is fellow cop Sarah Essen, with whom he begins an affair.
During Gordon’s ordeal with the police force, we have Bruce Wayne’s attempts at becoming a lethal force for justice on the mean streets of Gotham City….. and not being very good at it. He goes into the ghettos of Gotham in disguise, but ends up looking more like a crazy homeless war vet than a dark avenger of the night. This of course is all before a giant bat busts through his closed window, shattering the glass and standing atop a bust of his father’s head. This is maybe THE most melodramatic rendition of how Bruce Wayne chose to become Batman, but for some reason here it just works. As Batman bumbles his way through his first adventures (many of which were directly incorporated into Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins) Gordon begins his man hunt for the true identity of his new masked vigilante, and highly suspects millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne to be suspect #1. Bruce does his best to throw off Gordon, especially in one hilarious naughty scene involving Wayne’s lack of underwear in front of Gordon’s wife Barbara.
Eventually, Batman begins to go after the highest corrupt figures in Gotham, like the Police chief and crime lord Carmine Falcone, to name but a few. He even inspires streetwalker Selina Kyle to take on a new profession as Catwoman. It isn’t long before the man who is tasked with chasing him down begins to admire the vigilante who respects the law and human life more than his own fellow police officers.
I realize this may be blasphemous to many, but I think in most ways the animated adaptation of Year One is better than the original comics, as faithful as it is to almost the last detail. Still, even as faithful as it is, some changes were made, and I think mostly for the better. Much of Frank Miller’s florid noir “voice over” is omitted, letting the scenes and the action speak for themselves, and I think this is ultimately a good thing. The original fight between Bruce Wayne and a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle, which was only two panels in the original comic, was expanded into something much cooler and longer for the film. There are other smaller examples of the adaptation improving on the source material, although almost everything was left intact. At the Q&A for the movie at Comic Con, the moderator asked Bruce Timm how he managed to make Year One “his own.” Timm’s answer was simply “we didn’t.” This was Miller’s book, through and through.
The second biggest asset the movie has, aside from how faithful it is, is the incredible cast. The voice acting is pretty flawless here, with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) doing the heavy lifting as James Gordon. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff plays the part of Lt. Sarah Essen, the only other honest cop in Gotham, whom ultimately has a scandalous affair with the future stalwart Commissioner Gordon. The real Sackhoff looks very much like the drawings of Essen done by David Mazzucchelli in the orginal comics, so it was only appropriate that she was cast to play her. Southland’s Ben McKenzie was perfectly fine as young Bruce Wayne, but let’s face it…the animated voices of Batman have include people like Bruce Greenwood and the legendary Kevin Conroy, so he had some big shoes to fill. He does a decent enough job, but he doesn’t make the same impression as any of those other Batman voice actors. Alex Rocco is Carmine Falcone (a character created for Year One and appropriated with great success in Batman Begins) and it is playing to type as much as anything I’ve ever heard. Speaking of playing to type, Eliza Dushku, who has been playing bad girls ever since her original big splash as Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plays Catwoman/Selina Kyle, and does a more than decent job.
Overall, if you are fan of the original comic book series (and even if you’re not) there is no reason not to enjoy this version of Batman’s first year on the job. The talent behind this project go out of their way to bring life to Frank Miller’s classic tale, and really do him a great honor with this movie. It should be noted that it does not appear that Frank Miller was consulted in any way for the making of this film, and when asked at the Legendary Comics panel at this year’s Con whether he has even seen it the finished film, to which he replied with a very curt “no” which suggests he’s not happy with this project. Oh well, his loss. Everyone else should do themselves a favor and buy or rent this movie when it arrives on October 18th, 2011. These animated DC Universe movies appear to only get better as time moves on, and Batman: Year One is no exception.
Look for interviews with Ben Mackenzie and Katie Sackhoff coming soon.