If you’re a fan of the medium, then you already know that Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One is one of the all-time great graphic novels, a brilliant work that’s had more than its share of failed imitators over the years. The story—which concerns the trials and tribulations of Bruce Wayne’s first foray into Batman-hood in an old-school Gotham City—has long been ear-marked for an animated retelling, but only recently did Warner Bros. finally decide to get the project animated, edited, and slapped onto Blu-ray discs (and DVD’s, if that’s your thing) for our consumption. Does the Batman: Year One Blu-ray experience live up to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One graphic novel? Find out after the jump, folks.
I’m not a fan of superheroics, be they on the silver screen or scribbled onto the pages of comic books. The exploits of Spiderman, Superman, and the X-Men have never truly compelled me, and while I can certainly appreciate the artistry that goes into the telling of their stories (and while I respect the innumerable followers that each of these characters have gathered over the years), when it comes to comics, I’ll take a Preacher or a Sin City over a Justice League or a Green Lantern any day of the week.
There is one exception, however: Batman.
Amongst all the other trades and graphic novels on my ever-expanding shelf (where you’ll find Locke and Key, Ex Machina, Y The Last Man, and 100 Bullets amongst The Walking Dead and the aforementioned Preacher series), I’ve got a metric assfull of Batman books: The Dark Knight Returns, Joker, All-Star Batman and Robin, the recently-released Batman: Noel, and dozens of other selections. If someone who isn’t into comics comes over and notices my giant Batman shrine, I’ll always offer to let them borrow three specific Batman books: The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, and—last but certainly not least—Year One. These are (in my humble opinion, of course) the best Batman books ever written.
Point being, when I discovered the Batman: Year One Blu-ray sitting in my mailbox, I was pretty jazzed. I’d noticed the film sitting on the shelf at my local Blu-ray retailer’s, and I’d even picked it up a few times and considered buying it. But at just over an hour in length (64 minutes), even my raving Batman love (not to mention the inclusion of Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, as Jim Gordon) was able to convince me that the disc was worth the cost. “Maybe,” I thought to myself, “I’ll rent it at some point, see if it’s worth adding to the collection.”
And so, getting the film for review ended up killing two birds with one stone: I found out if Batman: Year One was worth picking up on Blu-ray and I got to see the film. That’s the good news. Bad news is, it turns out that Warner Bros.’ Batman: Year One isn’t really worth picking up, not even if you’re a massive fan of Miller’s original story.
When it comes to explaining why this Bat-flick isn’t worth picking up, things get a little dicey. Yes, they’ve recreated Miller’s original story—almost word for word. Yes, they’ve included a raft of extras to make up for the film’s incredibly short run-time (we’ll get to those further down in this review). Yes, Bryan Cranston as Gordon is brilliant casting, and Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle is also a welcome addition. Yes, the anime style even fits the material more than I would’ve expected. And yet…
Kevin Conroy—who’s voiced various version of Batman over the years, most recently in the holy-crap-have-you-played-this-thing?!-it’s-so-awesome Batman: Arkham City video game (I’ve been playing through it for a second time in 3D, and it’s jaw-dropping)—doesn’t voice the Bat here, and the omission is more than glaring: it’s borderline unforgivable. The guy that does voice Bruce Wayne/Batman, a gentleman by the name of Ben McKenzie, is all wrong for the role. Someone must’ve told him that Batman’s cold and emotionless, so he took that and ran with it all the way down Gotham’s main street: the voice work McKenzie provides borders on robotic, soulless, and it makes enjoying Year One—where he’s in virtually every scene—a difficult prospect, indeed.
Furthermore, we have here another example of a geek-friendly property sticking too close to its source material. It’s a strange phenomenon, this, but we’ve seen it before: someone decides to turn something that every geek worth his or her salt knows and loves into a full-fledged movie, and rather than making it their own they decide to recreate the source material beat-for-beat onscreen. Sometimes, this works (as it did in Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City), but more often it just becomes tedious: rather than enjoying the film on its own merits, you’re playing a “Spot the Moment!” game with the film the entire time, recognizing things you’ve already seen before as they’re presented in a different medium. I’m not sure why this sort of recreation works with some properties while it fails with others, but this one’s one of the latter.
They were damned from the beginning here, though, and I’ll readily admit that. Had they branched out and altered the material, geeks—myself included—would’ve been climbing up their ass about “screwing with the source material”. Instead, they recreated it almost page-for-page, and still I’m complaining about it. I guess the bottom line here is: sometimes, things are meant to be translated to different mediums (Sin City, to reuse the most obvious example), and other times, they’re best left alone. Or, even more infrequently, they’re better off presented with a few key changes made to keep things interesting (AMC’s Walking Dead, for instance). This one was probably doomed from the start.
The Blu-ray does present the animation (from co-directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery) in as beautiful a format as you could ever want (I watched the film on an LED television, and it was gorgeous), though, and the alternate anime style doesn’t completely undermine the tone of the writing as I feared it might. The voicework is great whenever it’s not the guy playing Batman talking, and the extras—which include a series of behind-the-scenes interviews with the filmmakers and cast, the first chapter of the Batman: Year One digital comic, and a commentary by the cast and crew—are all pretty sweet, as are some of the disc’s other extras (a featurette about “returning Batman to his roots” for the film, a preview of DC Animated’s next film, Justice League: Doom, two Bruce Timm cartoons, and a preview of the recently-released DC Animated films All-Star Superman and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights). But in the end, I just wasn’t all that jazzed about the actual film.
On the plus side, though, it did inspire me to reread Batman: Year One for the umpteenth time, and if the film can drive just a few more Bat-fans towards Miller’s original work, it will have made a difference. If you’re interested in learning about Batman’s early days, though, I strongly recommend that you pick up the graphic novel this film’s based on before dropping your 20-some-odd bucks on this Blu-ray. The most die-hard Batman fans might enjoy it, I suppose, but there’s no denying that Miller’s version is the better of the two (and when you’re reading it, you can imagine Batman speaking with an appropriate voice…like, say, Kevin Conroy’s).
My grade? C+