Animation Sidebar : “Batman : Year One”

Posted: April 14, 2013 in comics, movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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What the hell, these reviews of titles in Warner Premiere’s “DC Universe” straight-to-video animation line seem to be getting a reasonably healthy response around these parts, so let’s plug away and do at least a couple more until I’m bored with the whole thing and feel like getting back to horror, exploitation, and all that other good stuff, shall we? And seeing as how our first entrants in this little sidebar series took a look at the two-part Dark Knight Returns, based on Frank Miller’s justifiably legendary take on the “omega” phase of Batman’s crime-fighting career,  it seems only right that we next turn our attentions to 2011’s animated adaptation of Batman : Year One, based on Miller and artist David Mazzuchelli’s take on the Caped Crusader’s “alpha” period.

Again, a little background for those not steeped in comic lore : hot on the heels of the success of The Dark Knight mini-series, Bat-books editor-at-the-time Denny O’Neil (a fairly accomplished author of numerous well-regarded Batman stories in his own right), approached said title’s creator, Frank Miller, with a proposal to essentially give him carte-blanche to retell the Gotham Guardian’s origin story as a way of “re-setting the table” on the regular monthly Batman series. Miller agreed, but only wanted to write it, bringing in as his artistic partner on the project one David Mazzuchelli, with whom he had collaborated on a recent run of stories for Marvel’s Daredevil book. Mazzuchelli bought a distinctly noir-ish and cinematic sensibility to the proceedings, and the end result , while admittedly a fairly basic, if extrapolated, take on events we already knew which sees Bruce Wayne return to Gotham to embark on his one-man war on crime, form an uneasy alliance with then-Lieutenant Jim Gordon (who seems to be one of the few honest cops in town), have his first series of encounters with a prostitute-turned-cat-burglar named Selina Kyle, and go after the beating heart of the city’s organized crime operation in the form of Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, is nonetheless a deeply resonant character-driven piece with a pleasing “pulp detective” artistic sensibility that feels both nostalgic and oddly contemporary at the same time. If the word timeless comes to mind from the brief run-down just provided, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark, as this brief-but-no-doubt historic four-issue Batman run, which has since been collected in near-innumerable paperback and hardcover iterations, feels as fresh and vital today as it did when first published way back in 1987.

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The real genius of what Miller chose to do story-wise,though,  is that, despite the fact that we are granted numerous takes on the events depicted from the vantage points of both Batman and Catwoman, this is more or less Gordon’s tale, and we see get to see both the cesspool of corruption and vice that is Gotham City, as well as witness the dawn of a new age of weirdos in costumes, through his eyes. Miler’s version of Gordon is hardly a flawless hero — he’s stepping out on his pregnant wife with one of his colleagues on the force (who long-time Bat-fans will know becomes the second Mrs. Gordon at some unspecified future point), for instance, but by and large this is a decent guy trying to make sense of circumstances, and a city, that he can’t quite get his head around.

The powers that be in the suits at Warner and DC wisely decided to retain this Gordon-centric narrative structure when they adapted the story for home video release in 2011, and even more wisely opted to cast Bryan Cranston as Jimbo’s voice ‘artist,” so needless to say — expect some great things here. Yeah, okay, again it would have been nice (and frankly pretty gutsy) for directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery to have their animators hue a bit more closely to Mazzuchelli’s visual style, but the finished product probably would have been considered somewhat inaccessible for, at least, a non-comics audience (although I gotta wonder how much a “non-comics audience” would even care about this thing in the first place), but at least most of the characters in this one look like real people rather than the non-green Hulks of (the otherwise generally excellent ) The Dark Knight Returns.

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As far as the rest of the cast goes, Ben McKenzie positively nails it as Bruce Wayne/Batman, GreyDeLisle is pitch-perfect as the suffering-in-silence Barbara Gordon, Katee Sackhoff is suitably sultry as the object of Jim’s extra-curricular affections, Detective Sarah Essen, supposed “nerd culture” sex object Eliza Dushku inhabits Selina Kyle/Catwoman quite nicely, and it’s an out-and-out treat to hear the great Alex Rocco giving vocal “life” to Falcone. It’s Cranston’s show all the way, but these folks add plenty of spice to the stew.

On the technical specs front, Batman : Year One is available on three different home video formats : single-disc DVD, single-disc Blu-Ray, and a double-disc DVD “special edition.” All three feature superb widescreen picture and a genuinely dynamic 5.1 sound mix, as well as a rather risque but otherwise generally uninteresting Catwoman short, and a smattering of promo stuff for other entrants in the “DCU” line. The Blu-Ray and two-disc DVD also feature a pretty sold little mini-documentary on the genesis  of, and influences on,  Batman : Year One in its original comic book form, and a couple of episodes of the Batman animated TV series that are at least tangentially related to the main course on offer here (again with the food metaphors, sorry — haven’t eaten lunch yet).

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Final verdict, then : as with Miller’s Dark Knight, this is a seminal Bat-story that most definitely live up to all the hype, and its home video animated offspring is a faithful, exciting, well-constructed work that sticks to the character-driven narrative design of its printed-page progenitor for a highly-accessible translation that retains both the boldness and simplicity of Miller/Mazzuchelli while smoothing out its rough (but oh-so-lovely) edges just a bit.

Hell, just writing about it puts me in the mood to watch it again.

Comments
  1. Victor De Leon says:

    Amazing write up! I really enjoyed this film and I’m glad it’s on Netflix, too. You hit the nail on the head about some of the distinctions and the bold storytelling. I love Miller’s take on many heroes (Daredevil being my favorite) and here his and Mazzuchelli’s noir vision is intact. The voice cast was brilliant and like you said: It is Cranston all the way. (“Gordon-centric” love it!) I hold Batman:Year One in very high regard. I own both the regular issues and the graphic novel as well. Great job. A very fun read!

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      Thanks for the kind words, hang onto those original issues of Year One, because none of the collected editions, in either paperback or hardback, preserve Richmond Lewis’ original color scheme, and she’s rightly quite upset about that.

      • Victor De Leon says:

        Thanks! That’s good to know. Couldn’t have happened at a better time, too. I’m about to re-bag and re-box my collection.

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        Good luck with that! I know what a time-consuming chore that can be!

  2. Been wanting to see this. Perhaps this week I’ll watch it. Great write up.

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      As Victor just mentioned, it’s available on Netflix streaming, as well, so no reason not to see it!

  3. Bubbawheat says:

    This is one of the handful of DC Animated movies I haven’t seen yet, looking forward to watching it at some point in the near future.

  4. Bubbawheat says:

    I think it’s interesting that you give props to the voice of Batman, I thought he sounded incredibly stiff and unsuited to voice work. He over-enunciated and didn’t have enough emotion for me. Aside from that one weak point, everything else was pretty great, especially Alex Rocco.

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