The news that Frank Miller’s classic 1987 storyline Batman: Year One was being adapted for a direct to DVD/Blu-ray/download movie was thus greeted with somewhat muted enthusiasm by yours truly, but after settling down to watch the film I’m happy to announce that this is, for the most part, an enjoyable and faithful version of one of the most celebrated Batman storylines.
Year One, as its name suggests, is a Batman origin story, spanning Bruce Wayne’s first twelve months in the cape and cowl as he initially hones his crime-fighting skills on the petty criminals populating the streets of Gotham before turning his attention to the city’s corrupt officials and organised crime rackets run by Carmine Falcone. Running in parallel with the emergence of the Dark Knight is a plotline that details Lt. James Gordon’s assignment to the Gotham City Police Department and the battle against corruption that will ultimately lead to him being made commissioner. Sound familiar? It should – Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins drew inspiration from Year One, but while hints of familiarity are shared between the 2005 blockbuster and this latest entry in the DC animated movie series, there are enough differences to warrant the existence – and the enjoyment – of both.
The film is produced by Bruce Timm, co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series, but it shares few visual cues with the iconic visual style of the classic television show. Instead, Year One errs toward a more gritty and realistic approach that is reminiscent of both David Mazzucchelli’s artwork from the original comics and anime movies such as Akira. Character animation is particularly good, especially in the action sequences where there’s an impressive fluidity to movement that makes these often complex scenes far easier to follow than might otherwise be the case. In fact, my only real complaint with regards to the look of the film are a few car sequences that lack a degree of polish – made all the more noticeable by similar examples elsewhere in the film being especially good.
Equally impressive is the movie’s cast, led by Ben McKenzie (The OC, Southland) as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Drive) as Lt. Gordon. McKenzie brings a suitably detached edge to his portrayal of a haunted young man taking his first tentative steps into life as a masked vigilante, an occasional uncertain quality to his voice lending a very human aspect to the character’s inner monologues. Despite not actually having as much screen time as you might expect, McKenzie makes a solid Batman, and is a more than worthy addition to the ranks of actors who have played the character over the years.
For the most part, however, Year One is James Gordon’s story, and Cranston puts in a sterling performance as the jaded police detective facing turmoil in both his work and private life. The actor is perfectly cast in the role; in fact, the highest praise I can give both Cranston and McKenzie is that I’d be interested to see them reprise their portrayals of Gordon and Batman/Bruce Wayne in whatever live-action movie follows The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film.
Elsewhere, other familiar names include Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) as Sarah Essen, the police detective with whom Gordon has an affair, and Eliza Dushku (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse) as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Sadly, while the casting of the latter in particular seems so perfect, Dushku proves to be one of Year One’s few disappointments, not because the actress is not suited to the role – she is – but rather because the character’s part in the storyline, as in the comic book, extends to little more than a handful of scenes.
Where Year One really excels is in its faithfulness to the source material. Scenes and dialogue from the comic book are brought brilliantly to life, most noticeably the sequence in which an injured Batman is trapped in an abandoned building and surrounded by a SWAT team, while the story’s more violent elements somewhat surprisingly survive the transition from page to animation intact; this is not an animated Batman film for young children – it’s dark in tone and particularly brutal in places, maintaining those aspects that made Miller’s story so successful in the first place. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s one of the best straight adaptations thus far produced as part of the DC Universe animated original movie series, and bodes well for the forthcoming version of Miller’s legendary The Dark Knight Returns.