In light of the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 on DVD and Blu-ray (review coming soon), I watched the 2011 release by Warner Brothers Animation, Batman: Year One. Batman: Year One is an adaptation of a 1987 regular run Batman title (Issues 404-407), released in graphic novel form as Batman: Year One. Written by Frank Miller with art by David Mazzucchelli, the graphic novel often floats at or near the #1 spot on lists of the best Batman stories ever told, as well as the top 100 graphic novels of all time. I’ve found the graphic novel to be better than Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in part because it tells a classic Batman origin story and I prefer Mazzucchelli’s Gothic meets-noir-artwork in Batman: Year One to Miller’s scrawling style in Dark Knight Returns.
The animated film does a lot right, but misses in some areas, too.
If you’ve read Batman: Year One you know it could have been called the Commissioner Gordon story. It is the best Gordon story told in comic book form. It’s the same story adapted by Christopher Nolan for Gary Oldman’s Gordon in the Dark Knight movie trilogy. In fact despite the fact I only like (not love) that film trilogy, I believe Nolan adapted Gordon for his live action film better than the animated version did here. It may be because the animated version is illustrated a lot “cleaner” than the graphic novel, using brighter colors and less classic comic book style as the original source material did. Part of that is that the creators simply chose not to faithfully adapt the dark colors and drab Gotham City that Mazzucchelli created, opting instead for a standard, modern animated Batman film style. It’s comfortable and it’s fine, and will appeal to fans of most recent Batman animated series, for example. But it would have been fun to see the noir treatment here, which helped make the source material so good.
The animated film is faithful to Frank Miller’s story. Gordon’s storyline is the best part of both stories, and Batman’s origin is pretty standard stuff, having been done so many times over the years in comic and movie form. The inclusion, albeit briefly, of Selina Kyle/Catwoman is also a positive, and you wish that Miller would have made a Catwoman sequel with Mazzuchelli to show the further exploits of the character in the noir Year One world (for something close to that, I recommend the four-issue limited Catwoman series from 1989).
What makes Gordon good in the animated movie is voice actor Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Argo). His voice skill brings Gordon alive, and his performance is spirited enough that you could see Cranston playing Gordon in a live action version one day. The voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman is played by relative newcomer Ben McKenzie. There’s not a lot to say about McKenzie’s voice work here, other than it sounds like the Batman of past animated series, specifically Kevin Conroy. So it is good, just not a lot to do in this story but inner-head narration throughout the film and some limited dialogue, in that low, whispery, almost Dirty Harry-type voice. Eliza Dushku (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse) voices a solid Selina Kyle/Catwoman, but unfortunately the character has such a small role here that she doesn’t get too many lines. Even fewer lines go to a detective working with Gordon voiced by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) so it’s difficult to say much about her performance here. All the bad guys’ voices sort of ran together as gruff “mob boss” types.
At only an hour, overall the adaptation is a good one. It includes some good action sequences, and it gets into the head of Jim Gordon having to shuffle his life with a pregnant wife at home, his first duties in Gotham, police corruption and an ugly city, with no one to help him. Although the visuals are not all that stylized, the sound is something that really stands out. Kudos to the foley artist on this film, as the sound of the streets, the subway, keys rattling, cars roaring by–all immerse the viewer into the world of Gotham more than any other part of the film. And the soundtrack has a good Batman feel.
Batman: Year One is pretty much kid friendly, except some minor allusions to prostitution and drug busts, so it is one to drop in the DVD player to get kids into the Batman world. And it has enough to keep the attention of adult viewers. It’s available on Netflix, and for sale in most stores that sell DVD/Blu-rays as well as online.