“From now on, none of you is safe.”
As a follow-up to his groundbreaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, writer-artist Frank Miller teamed with artist David Mazzucchelli for a grim yet modernized retelling of Batman’s origin, Batman: Year One. Considered hugely influential in the years that followed, it’s one of the most widely-read graphic novels of all time. Therefore, it’s only natural that Hollywood set it sights on it. This animated adaptation, part of the ongoing DC Universe direct-to-home-video releases, takes Miller’s work and brings it to life on screen.
Lt. James Gordon (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) transfers to the Gotham City Police Department only to find it rife with corruption. Gordon has to think of his pregnant wife at home, though, so he buckles down and tries to do the job. After traveling around the world for years, young millionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie, Southland) returns to Gotham. He’s secretly formulating a plan to strike back against the city’s criminals, but he’s still working out just the right way to do it. Over the course of one year, Gordon will be tempted and tested in numerous ways as he struggles to do the right thing. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, adopts a new persona to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.
Most of the DC Universe direct-to-disc adaptations have made considerable but necessary changes to the graphic novel source materials. This has been either to simplify years of continuity, or streamlining events that took place over multiple issues into a single 90-minute adventure tale. When I learned that Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One was next in line for the animation treatment, I assumed animators would give us a watered-down “action movie” version, toning down Miller’s darker elements and his, uh, personal indulgences. Imagine my surprise, then, to see this movie is a slavish recreation of the original. After watching it once, I sat down for a second viewing with the graphic novel in my lap, and marveled at how the animators faithfully captured each panel, shot-for-shot. There are some changes and additions, but they’re minor ones.
Visually, the creators have taken Mazzucchelli’s art and married it to a cleaner anime style, which evokes noirish anime such as Ghost in the Shell or Cowboy Bebop. Note that the Batman: Year One graphic novel was heavily inspired by noir as well, so these things go in circles. The important thing is that the movie looks great, full of gloomy atmosphere. The CGI backgrounds and vehicles stand out a little at first, but you get used to them. The character animation is where the movie really shines. I don’t know whether they used motion capture or not, but the hand-to-hand fight scenes are amazing. Batman and company have a lot of cool moves, but with a rough quality, so it looks like these punches and kicks actually hurt. Catwoman shows up in the movie, and her fighting moves are great, genuinely fast and catlike, but with the same brutal edge as the guys.
How will this movie play for those who haven’t read the comic? First, viewers will recognize several similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, as scenes from the original were worked right into Nolan’s film. Second, at a slim 64 minutes, the movie zips along at a fast pace with a lot of characters to follow, and casual Bat-fans might be confused. Third, those not familiar with Frank Miller and his work might be shocked at some of the very adult elements to the story. Sleazy stuff like prostitution, infidelity, and child endangerment mean this is not a flick for the kiddies.
Voice acting is a mixed bag. Cranston is appropriately gruff as Gordon. As this is just as much Gordon’s origin as much as Batman’s—if not more—he does a fine job carrying the movie. Eliza Dushku (Dollhouse) as Catwoman, Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) as a Gotham detective, and Grey Delisle (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) as Gordon’s wife are all great, giving their characters a lot of heart. McKenzie didn’t sell me with his Batman. He’s clearly going for a younger, naïve Batman, but what he gains in youthfulness he loses in the character’s usual authoritative “tough guy” nature.
The disc also comes with a short cartoon, DC Showcase: Catwoman, in which Catwoman (Dushku again) pursues a group of rival thieves and uncovers a crime more serious than petty theft. There’s some sweet action here, but also some totally adult scenes, including a bit in a strip club where Catwoman participates in some G.N.A.W. I.T. V.O.O.P. (Raise your hand if you get that reference!) Overall, the short is a lot of fun, and makes for a nice companion to the main film.
Audio and video are stellar, easily capturing the vivid colors and fluid movements. Bonus features kick off with a commentary by the filmmakers, going over the choices they made and a lot of smaller details viewers might miss the first time around. From there, we get “Heart of Vengeance,” a look back at the creation of the graphic novel. Frank Miller isn’t interviewed, but other comic professionals are quick to praise him enthusiastically. Then there is a roundtable discussion with four comic pros about Batman’s history and what the character means to them. There are also trailers for other DC Universe releases, a digital version of the graphic novel’s first chapter, and two bonus episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.
What is it about Frank Miller that inspires filmmakers to try to recreate his works so accurately? It’s been attempted in Sin City, 300, and now even more so in Batman: Year One. It’s so faithful to the source material, in fact, that whether you enjoy will it will be based on your previous familiarity with it. Fans will get a kick out of the movie, but casual viewers will want to put in their queues before deciding whether to buy.