Back in 1986, Frank Miller turned the comics world on its ear with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This four-issue prestige-format limited series, which Mr. Miller wrote and pencilled (with inks by Klaus Janson and gorgeous colors by Lynn Varley), told the story of a bitter, middle-aged Bruce Wayne. In Miller’s story, Bruce had retired from being Batman following the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin, who was actually killed in-continuity in the Batman books a year or so later in the “A Death in the Family” story-line). But disgusted by the cess-pool of crime and corruption that Gotham City has become, Bruce puts back on the cape and cowl and resumes his one-man war against crime, leading to his final confrontation with the Joker and, ultimately, with Superman, who is now in the employ of the U.S. Government. Violent, gorgeous, and compelling, The Dark Knight Returns blew my mind when I read it (at far too young an age, back in 1988), and it still stands today as one of the finest comic book stories ever made (and certainly as one of the very best Batman stories ever told).
One might have thought that such a work could never be equaled, but the following year, in 1987, Frank Miller returned to Batman and told a story that is as good — if not even better — than The Dark Knight Returns. For four issues in the regular Batman comic (#404-407), Mr. Miller and David Mazzucchelli retold Batman’s origin in the story called Batman: Year One. Whereas The Dark Knight Returns was a huge, epic saga, Batman: Year One is a street-level, entirely stripped down Batman story. In fact, the genius of the story is that it isn’t really Bruce Wayne’s story at all. The focus is on a young James Gordon, as he attempts to survive his first year on the force in Gotham City. Batman: Year One is a tough, violent, gritty tale, populated by the corrupt and the broken. Even our heroes, Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, are presented as being far from perfect — but their heroism derives from their striving to battle past their flaws and imperfections and attempt to do the best they can in a city without hope. It’s one of Frank Miller’s very best-written tales, and David Mazzucchelli’s art continually takes my breath away with its gorgeous stylization (the man knows how to spot blacks better than pretty much anyone else in the business) and astonishing detail.
Like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One sits at the very top of the heap of comic book story-lines. It’s been mined for inspiration by several of the big-screen versions of Batman. Tim Burton’s Batman didn’t have anything to do with the story-lines of either The Dark Knight Returns or Year One, but was enormously influenced by the dark, gothic tone of both works. The superlative Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (the animated movie created after the first successful season of Batman: the Animated Series) borrowed heavily from Year One in its depiction of Batman’s origin (such as his casting about to find a way to inspire fear in the criminal element, and in specific Batman’s violent confrontation with the police in an abandoned tenement building). And Batman Begins hewed even closer to Year One in it’s version of Batman’s origin, using many characters and situations from Miller & Mazzucchelli’s work (Flass, Commissioner Loeb, Carmine Falcone) and even directly adapting numerous scenes (most notably the final rooftop scene in which Gordon tells Batman that there’s a new madman on the loose. ”Calls himself the Joker”).
But now, finally, we’re privileged to see a direct adaptation of Batman: Year One. It’s the latest direct-to-DVD animated film by Bruce Timm and all the fine folks at DC Animation, and it is an extremely solid effort.
The adaptation (by Tab Murphy) is extremely faithful to the source material — this might be the most faithful of all the animated adaptations DC has done — and doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the narrative. (James Gordon still cheats on his pregnant wife. Selina Kyle is still working as a prostitute when we first meet her.) Congrats to the folks at DC for having the guts to stick with those elements of the story! Although the animated style of the film doesn’t really represent David Mazzucchelli’s style, the character designs are quite faithful to his drawings (particularly Catwoman’s costume), and the film repeatedly replicates the composition of specific panels from the comics. (It’s a hoot to see some of the most famous imagery — like the shot of Bruce Wayne, seen from the back, shoulders hunched, walking into Gotham’s seedy East End, filled with neon signs for nude girls; or the shot of commissioner Gordon, seen from above, sitting in bed holding his gun, while his very-pregnant wife sleeps in her underwear behind him — replicated by the animation of the film.)
There’e even one moment when I felt that the film actually IMPROVES upon the source material. It’s the short scene, at the end of the film, when Gordon stands across from an unmasked Bruce Wayne. In the comic there’s just a quick aside, as Gordon comments that he’s practically blind without his glasses. It always seemed like a quick way for Frank Miller to ensure the story left Bruce Wayne’s secret identity unrevealed. But the film expands that moment, and turns Gordon’s comment into what I felt was an acknowledgment that he absolutely knows damn well that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but is choosing to pretend he doesn’t. This tiny little aside becomes a wonderful moment between these two new allies, and also strengthens Gordon’s character by showing that he is far from a fool who can easily have the wool pulled over his eyes by Bruce Wayne. It’s a great scene.
Any time these animated films don’t bring back the voice-casts from Bruce Timm’s DC animated shows I am disappointed. I would have LOVED to have heard Kevin Conroy speaking Frank Miller’s lines as Bruce Wayne/Batman! But it’s hard to complain when a voice cast of this caliber has been assembled. Ben McKenzie does a fine job as Bruce Wayne/Batman. I was a little worried by his reading of the opening monologue — Frank Miller’s dialogue is very stylized, and at first I thought Mr. McKenzie’s voice-work sounded stiff, but I quickly grew to enjoy his interpretation. Eliza Dushku is perfectly cast as Selina Kyle/Catwoman — she’s incredibly feminine but also fierce and not to be reckoned with. (Ms. Dushku also voices Selina in the Catwoman short included on the DVD, which is a nice touch of continuity. That short, by the way, was written by long-time Batman: the Animated Series writer Paul Dini!) It’s also fun to hear Katee Sackhoff as Sarah Essen, the beautiful, honest detective with whom Gordon has an affair. Ms. Sackhoff is perfect for the role, I just wish Essen had a bit more to do in the story.
But the real star of the film is Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as James Gordon. Talk about perfect casting. Mr. Cranston is magnificent as Gordon, bringing a huge amount of emotion and humanity to the role. In this story we get to see Gordon at his best and at his worst; making great decisions and terrible ones; in perfect control of certain situations and at other times getting his ass kicked. It’s a juicy role, and boy does Mr. Cranston tear into it. Phenomenal.
The over-all animation is quite good. It’s far more lush and environmental than the recent animated adaptation of All-Star Superman, which I thought looked disappointingly simplistic and flat. I still wish these animated DVDs had a slightly higher quality of animation. I wish this version of Gotham City had some of the dense, hyper-detailed, run-down horrible beauty of Neo-Tokyo in Akira, but I suppose hoping that these direct-to-DVD films could ever have animation that even halfway approaches a film like Akira, one of the greatest animated films ever, is foolish. Still, a fellow can dream. But don’t get me wrong, the animation is very solid. The character motion is smooth, and the designs are well-done. It’s interesting how the DC animated films featuring Batman seem to be better animated than the ones featuring other characters. (The other stand-out, animation-wise, of these DVDs from the past few years was Batman: Under the Red Hood. Read my review here.) Maybe it’s because of Bruce Timm and co.’s many years of experience animating Batman (dating back to Batman: The Animated Series from almost two decades ago), or perhaps the dark settings of Batman stories lend themselves to more stylized, interesting animation than the in-bright-sunlight setting of, say, most Superman stories. Either way, the animation in this adaptation left me satisfied if not overwhelmed.
Like most adaptations, Batman: Year One can’t come close to the magnificence of the original source material. If you’ve never read it, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. But this animated adaptation is very, very good — a wonderfully entertaining story and a very faithful adaptation of one of the best Batman stories of all time.