Batman: Year One Review: Maybe Gotham's All I Deserve. Maybe It's Just My Time In Hell.
Batman: Year One is yet one more excellent entry in DC Animated’s pantheon. Coming off the success of last year’s excellent Batman: Under The Red Hood, it’s another adaptation of the character that’s taken directly off the page. In this case, co-directors Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu (who previously collaborated on Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths) undertook one of the more challenging offerings out there - Frank Miller’s legendary graphic novel about the birth of Batman and the personal trials of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon.
What made the comic book so striking, in addition to its fierce, hard-lined art style, was that its story was far more grim and dark than many previous tellings. Furthermore, it spent a large part of its time describing the events from Gordon’s perspective, allowing him to serve as a chorus not only for his own life, but for the growth and subsequent corruption and decay of Gotham City. The film is a near-perfect, direct adaptation, an unflinching look at the seedy underbelly of Gotham City (you’ll notice many scenes served as inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s films), and the development of its two greatest defenders, albeit ones who come from very different places. The film pulls no punches as it depicts Gordon as a dedicated, determined hardass who transferred from another city under a dark cloud, who wants to just step in line and follow along, but can’t bring himself to suffer the injustices and dirty dealings of Gotham’s police force.
At the same time, Gordon isn’t a perfect citizen by a long shot, and Year One also deals with his ill-advised extramarital affair with a co-worker (voiced by Katee Sackhoff), and the danger that his stubbornness and mistakes bring upon himself and his family. Interestingly, the Gordon side of the story is far more engaging than the Bruce Wayne side. Wayne is interesting enough, I suppose, but part of the disconnect stems from everyone’s collective knowledge of the Wayne/Batman dynamic. Gordon has a great deal more complexity to him, and it’s aided by the fact that the voice actor, Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), delivers his performance with far more grit and nuance. Which isn’t to say that Benjamin McKenzie is bad as Batman/Bruce Wayne, he’s just not nearly as good.
Similarly, the character of Bruce Wayne is a far less intriguing character once you pull away the cape. However, it’s still exciting to watch, and the stripped-down, tech-free Batman is always a novel take on the character. Bat-shurikens aside, Batman does little more than use his smarts and his brawn to get through his early adventures (eventually even having to steal a motorcycle for transportation), and watching him develop his knowledge and techniques was a joy. The remaining characters all perform admirably, including a minor but enjoyable part for Eliza Dushku, playing the prostitute/thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman. It’s a full-blown badass role, depicted as a smart, street-tough woman who can hold her own against the toughest of foes, but who lives down in the dirt because she’s given up hope on the city. The dialogue crackles with a hard-boiled intensity, and there’s an air of desperation and hopelessness in the novel that successfully transitions to the small screen.
But at the end of the day, it’s an animated movie, so it lives and dies by that animation. As has become the norm with DC animated fare, the animation for Year One is spectacular — not to mention a perfect example of the page come to life. It’s a washed out, dulled palette of grays and browns interspersed with occasional bursts of color for sharp contrast, showing Gotham as once a city of industry and innovation, and now more a blasted-out land of decay and decrepitude. Not to say it looks like a warzone, but more like a once-great monument that is crumbling all at once. The character animation is all hard lines and sharp angles, designed to create both a retro appeal but also to eliminate the possibility of mistaking this is a kid’s movie. Yet despite that seemingly dreary art design, it’s still a beautiful picture, and the characters move with a harsh grace that’s remarkable. Batman’s huge showdown in a collapsing building, as the cops storm in from all sides, is a harrowing and intense scene, aided by the stellar animation and the fluidity of the movement of the characters.
Despite its title, Batman: Year One is Jim Gordon’s show, and that’s not even remotely a bad thing. Cranston nails the character almost as perfectly as Gary Oldman does in Nolan’s films, depicting him as a flawed, world-weary but well-intentioned warrior who wants his life back, and sees saving the city as his salvation. Batman is on the forefront, to be sure, and is well-rendered, but it’s nice to see Gordon get his moment to shine. Batman: Year One is yet another fantastic animated entry from DC, a slick compliment to the novel that keeps the tone of the live-action films, but still manages to make its own mark in the crowded Batman universe.
P.S. - the DVD also includes a short film starring Dushku’s Catwoman. It’s fun, exciting, has an absolutely brilliant chase scene, and is decidedly not for children. Enjoy.
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