Warner Bros’ new direct-to-video animated Batman: Year One is about as faithful an adaptation of the Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli source material as could be done – potentially to its own detriment. The problem being that the episodic nature of the comic doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the dramatic momentum needed for film. An issue about Batman getting into a fight with a bunch of pimps which in turn leads to a brawl with a pre-Catwoman Selena Kyle works on the page; on film, it halts the main thrust and drive of the film – namely that of the relationship between Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne/Batman. Year One is at it’s best when it focuses on the fraught almost Heat-like (picture Jim Gordon as Pacino and Batman as De Niro) relationship between the two. My review after the jump.
Bruce Wayne has just come back to Gotham – having trained extensively in martial arts post his parents’ untimely demise. From the plane looking down on the city, Wayne remarks of the filth and decay that has taken over the streets of his once great home. He vows to clean them up – no matter what the cost. At the same moment, Jim Gordon arrives with his wife Barbara ready to start a new life in Gotham only to quickly discover the rotten corruption at the heart of the city. The film tracks how these two men attempt to fix and restore Gotham – Gordon doing so by attempting to tightrope the tricky morally-grey politics behind the crime of the city, whilst Wayne (of course) dons a Bat costume taking out thugs vigilante style. It’s only a matter of time before Jim Gordon and Batman find themselves at odds.
There’s still novelty in seeing different sides to these beloved characters: Jim Gordon beating up corrupt police officers and leaving them naked in the road, Batman really struggling to fight his foes, often times losing the brawl and getting shot/beat up. Neither man is perfect or “superhero”-like – and it’s the introduction of such moral ambiguities – Batman’s incompetence, Gordon’s rashness and disloyalty – that makes the film stand out, much to the same effect as its comic counterpart.
The voice acting across the board is relatively strong. Ben McKenzie ably conveys the youthfulness and inexperience of a young Batman. Katee Sackhoff and Eliza Dushku both do the most they can with relatively brief screen-time. But (not surprisingly) the standout of the film is Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon. The gruff cold detached vocal inflections Cranston brings to the character suggest years of seen-it-all hard knock experience. This is a colder, meaner Gordon and Cranston’s presence lends a gravitas to the character previously unseen.
It may be sacrilegious to say but Batman: Year One could benefit from some slight deviations to the source material to better suit the film medium. As this is not the case – the film doesn’t necessarily stand out or add anything new to Frank Miller’s tale. One would still be better spent rereading the comic.
Quick to add: following the screening, Bruce Timm announced the next three DC Animated Universe films – 1) Justice League: Doom 2) an adaptation of Superman vs. The Elite 3) a two part retelling of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.
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