In the early Batman comics, the Dark Knight killed. I mean that literally. He lynched, stabbed, shot, and acid dunked his way through a monthly horde of condemned criminals. If you’re in the mood for serious cognitive dissonance, I recommend reading The Batman Chronicles Volume One. You’ll not only find a Batman unironically practicing a new murder method every month, but a Commissioner Gordon done up like a Silent Generation Sherlock Holmes, complete with pipe and cheerio grin. That pesky Batman! Why, with him wiping out our trash in such a fashion, how are we to fill our own quotas?
The vigilante mass murdering would change with the Comics Code, whitewashing Batman and the rogues gallery into a kinder, sillier Silver Age. This cumulated in the 1960’s TV show where, among other things, Batman got pelted with eggs by Vincent Price.
All of that changed once more in the 1980’s with two cataclysmic forces. Following Crisis on Infinite Earth, Frank Miller returned Batman to his darker roots with The Dark Knight Returns and then Batman: Year One. In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman movie presented a live action Dark Knight that had a lot less camp.
Year One is rife with Miller’s trademark fingerprints. Here Gotham City is a grimdark, gritty hellhole bathed in shadows and ominous shades, a pre-Giuliani NYC facsimile from end to end. It’s a place where you can’t walk twenty feet without bumping into a drug dealer, pimp, or Mafia soldier. Through their inner monologue, the protagonists come off as unhinged as they are heroic. Picture Travis Bickle in a flying rodent costume.
I have read Year One more than any other Batman book in my collection, nay, more than any other graphic novel I own, period. I’ve blazed through it and studied it and focused on single panels so much that the binding is coming loose. When I heard an animated version was landing on home video I went ballistic. I couldn’t wait to sit in front of my TV, book open in my lap to follow along. This demonstrates how pedantic I am about adaptations.
I was satisfied as well as disappointed. The movie is unbelievably faithful to its source material, using scenes story boarded verbatim from the original panels. Nothing at all has been altered from the narrative save extended sequences. This was all I could have asked for and more. So why the disappointment?
True to the graphic novel, Lieutenant James Gordon (Bryan Cranston) and Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) share narration throughout the story. The problem was about half of it got lost in translation. Gordon and Wayne had some killer, borderline dangerous streams of consciousness in the book. Why had they been watered down?
I was ready to take off points for this during rewatch until it hit me: screenwriting, of course! This is a movie I’m reviewing, not a graphic novel. While both are visual mediums, the animated Year One operates on the “show, don’t tell” principle. Those scenes don’t need to rely on the extra voiceover because the evidence is in front of the viewer. Kudos. There’s too much audience spoonfeeding these days. We are never trusted to think for ourselves.
Year One, as the title indicates, is an origin story. Lieutenant Gordon travels to Gotham City after an assault on a dirty cop forced him to transfer. Unfortunately, Gotham is about the worst place to enforce law by the book.
Gordon discovers that police corruption runs rampant. His new partner Detective Flass (Fred Tatasciore) would be number one in brutalizing and collateral damage if it weren’t for Brendon (Stephen Root), whose SWAT Team’s routine is to shoot until everything stops moving. The corruption travels all the way up to Commissioner Loeb (Jon Polito) who has ties to the local Mafia like almost everyone else in a position of power. Gordon ends up being in a clean cop among very filthy brethren, something his fellow officers come to resent.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has returned home after being abroad for over a decade. Still traumatized by his parents’ murder, he is plotting and planning the path that will lead to his masked vigilantism. He has also brought back the results of a regimen that has left him with the ability to, among other things, kick trees clean in half.
The problem is that even twelve years of intense training couldn’t prepare Bruce for superhero field work. His first night on reconnaissance ends with a near fatal bullet. Likewise, after donning the cape and cowl—little more than a Halloween costume at this point—he takes more punishment from a gang of burglarizing teenagers than he dishes out, almost killing one in the process. In keeping with the reformed Batman of the Silver Age, this one does not kill. However, this is Batman in metamorphosis, unrefined but beating his wings against the cocoon.
The two men forge their destinies from there. After Batman humiliates Loeb and all the other elite monsters at a party, Loeb wants the vigilante apprehended, preferably as a corpse. Gordon struggles with his orders to capture the Bat in a city where justice has failed. He also ends up having an affair with a pretty new detective (Katee Sackhoff) which strains his marriage with his pregnant wife (Grey DeLisle).
The first thing that stands out about Year One is the art and animation. It’s jarring and off putting at first, with traditional looking characters riding CGI vehicles or else superimposed against CG landscapes. This juxtaposition of styles is distracting, almost like I’m watching a badly attempted Fleischer rotoscope in the 21st century—until the characters start moving, that is.
The animation looks beautiful. The punches, kicks and spins move so fluidly and at such a tight framerate that I feel silly for nitpicking in the first place. The white-knuckle action feels alive, reminding me of Disney Renaissance era output. It’s that good.
All I can fault about Year One is the voice acting. Bryan Cranston is a perfect casting choice for Gordon. Since Breaking Bad his penchant for conveying a gritty alpha dog has become the stuff of legends. But I don’t hear it here, or much effort for that matter. I get that he’s downplaying that side of himself to portray a nicer guy, but he comes off as reading the script without much emotion or flavor.
Ben McKenzie is supposed to be a younger, naive, unexperienced Batman, but he reads his lines with less enthusiasm than Cranston. I could write this off as a personal bias; McKenzie is not Kevin Conroy or Peter Weller. All the same, his performance sounds too close to boredom and apathy for comfort.
The other cast members do fine. Eliza Dushku plays Selina Kyle/Catwoman with the right attitude. Jon Polito and Alex Rocco do scumbaggery the correct kind of justice in their respective roles as Loeb and Carmine “The Roman” Falcone. Steve Blum lends his talents to a convincing Red Light District pimp. I just wish the lead actors had put more power into their roles.
Fair word of warning: Batman: Year One does plenty to earn its PG-13 rating. There is plenty of violence, language, and sexuality in this kid unfriendly Batman tale. In other words, it is as faithful to a Frank Miller vehicle as a movie can get without an R. Like the book, the same scene where Selina Kyle is decked in dominatrix gear features a 13-year-old prostitute trying to peddle her underaged assets.
I have been let down by a lot of the DC direct-to-video animation line. There have been many cases where sprawling storylines were crammed and condensed into DC’s required 75-minutes-or-less parameters, often at the expense of characterization and threads. Batman: Year One is not one of those. Its short length is the perfect template for DC to get it right, and this is the closest I have seen them doing just that. Year One is a damned good adaptation, worth a purchase for any fan of Batman, Frank Miller or quality in general.
FINAL GRADE: A-