Batman Year One Netflix Streaming DVD | Blu-ray
Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery
Starring Bryan Cranston, Benjamin McKenzie, Eliza Dushku, Katee Sackhoff, Alex Rocco
Warner Home Video
Originally Released: October 18, 2011
Speaking nostalgically, the Batman Year One comic series by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli instigates many happy memories for me. I, along with many other geeks, hold the earlier Miller Batman work in high esteem, and the Year One arc released back in 1987 is often regarded with much reverence. It, accompanied by titles like The Killing Joke and others, is often pointed to as being must-read material for new Batman readers.
Thus, when it was announced that Warner Brothers Animation and DC were going forward with an animated adaptation of the classic and timeless Batman Year One, it was a bittersweet moment. Would they stand true to the original material? Or make sweeping adaptations for the release?
Thankfully Batman Year One stays very close to the spirit of its original print incarnation. Released in 2011, Year One takes cues from both the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy and the original Year One comic series by Frank Miller; but also from the earlier DC animated released providing a brighter contrast to the darker tones of the original comic. As the story begins, the animated tale mimics the original comic release with voiceovers replacing the diary/journal entries used in print.
Notwithstanding the various, and clear, influences, directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery have put together a release that not only pays fitting tribute to the original content, but also stands on its own with surprising candor.
The title, as they often say, says it all. The plot focuses on Bruce Wayne’s first year as the Dark Knight (voiced by Benjamin McKenzie), in the crumbling immoral cesspit known as Gotham City. Staying particularly close to the plot of the comic, the chronicle doesn’t expose specifically how Wayne developed his skills, but instead how he returns to Gotham with a goal in mind to change the darkness and turn it against the criminal element of the city, which frequently includes crooked cops.
Parallel to Bruce Wayne’s journey is that of police officer Lieutenant James Gordon, voiced by the perplexing and hypnotic Bryan Cranston, famous of Breaking Bad. After exposing crooked cops in his original beat, he transfers to Gotham, with his wife Barbara. He is tormented by the corruption and darkness of the city, as he and his wife are expecting their first baby – how, he questions, could he bring a child into the world of madness that is Gotham?
As the Batman begins learning how the Dark Knight should be deployed in his one-man war against evil, Gordon begins learning of how deep the corruption goes in Gotham. Inevitably, the police turn their consideration to the mythos surrounding the vigilante who dresses up as a bat, causing the two main characters to appear to be against each other.
Broadly, as both take their baptisms of beatings, blood, bullets, and fire during this first year, the story tells the tale of how these two iconic figures from comic book history become united warriors against the felonious element of Gotham.
The voice work in Batman Year One is overwhelming. Stealing the show is Bryan Cranston, who puts on easily the best Gordon performance in animated Batman history. His grittiness and attitude permeates the character – and ironically enough, Gordon “kinda/sorta” resembles Walter White from the first few episodes of Breaking Bad as well.
It’s a genius move by the voice casting crew, and results in a brilliant and magnetic viewing experience. Cranston’s voice talents are just as commanding as his acting presence on-screen – he personifies Gordon magnificently. I hope DC learn from the experience and bring him back in the future.
Benjamin McKenzie does a creditable job as Wayne/Batman, his first in this specific voiced role for the Caped Crusader, though he has massive shoes to fill, as I found myself pondering past voices (notably that of Kevin Conroy), though that is my pining nostalgic madness propagating again. Also notable is Eliza Dushku, who plays a wonderful (though only supporting role of) Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. Katee Sackhoff is additionally an enchanting inclusion as the voice of Detective Sarah Essen.
In a classy move, the animated design of the characters draws after that of the original Miller comic, as opposed to the recent popular mainstream character designs. There are some variations thereof throughout, but they add to the final composition, making for a mesmerizing viewing experience. Using a variety of animation techniques, the final result is a crisp and clear rendition of the pages of the original comic book, without the muddy darkened tones from the print. Which, parenthetically, works exceptionally well in comic book format, and obviously the creators opted for a crisper and brighter tone to more accurately convey the story in animated format.
The soundtrack is also fitting for the short animated movie, with many cues from the score adrenalizing the action sequences and also some of the sparse quiet, emotional moments. Christopher Drake accomplishes a great deal with the music score of this film, without drowning out or overtaking the moments – rather wonderfully encapsulating and accompanying them. I couldn’t imagine watching this without his score in fact.
Like some of Frank Miller’s earlier publications, along with some of the explicit political commentary (notably absent in Year One, which may be why it did so well!) often he had an incredible depth of social commentary and symbolism. In Batman Year One, it was undoubtedly the most subtle of his attempts at this, and this is mirrored further in the adaptation. Some of these elements are “blink and you’ll miss it”, but they are there – sometimes hidden in plain sight, such as the reach and landscape of Wayne’s first vigilante experience in what passes for Gotham’s red light district. But they are there, and worth noting, so keep your eyes peeled for these moments.
A pleasant touch, as often is becoming trend in these animated movies, is the inclusion of ‘clippings’ from the original comic book released during the credits. With Batman Year One, it’s enjoyable seeing these pop up at the end; if anything else but to remind the audience how reverent the animators held this piece of work with their adaptation. Some scenes (such as the murder of Wayne’s parents) are almost damn near identical to the original print version.
Batman Year One is an animated epic that DC can be proud of. The primary fans of the comic will enjoy this as the love-letter-to-the-original that it is. Batman fans and comic book fans in general will also hold this in high esteem; and I think casual viewers will enjoy it as well. It’s worth seeing, and I’d suggest adding this one to the top of your queue and checking it out as soon as you have time.