COVERAGE - ANIMATED FEATURE REVIEW
Batman: Year One
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: October 18th, 2011
Synopsis: When Gotham City is in desperate need of heroes, two men take a stand for justice...but on opposite sides. Bruce Wayne returns home after years abroad to become a crimefighter, just as honest cop Lt. James Gordon moves to Gotham and finds corruption at every level. When Bruce becomes the masked vigilante Batman, the city explodes as his new nemesis Catwoman, the mob and Gordon all close in! Donít miss this thrilling DC Universe Animated Original Movie based on the groundbreaking story by Frank Miller and featuring Bryan Cranston, Ben McKenzie, Katee Sackhoff, Eliza Dushku, Alex Rocco and Jon Polito in its stellar voice cast. Experience a bold and dynamic vision of the Dark Knightís first year in action and the start of his enduring friendship with Jim Gordon.
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Batman: Year One Feature Review
By James Harvey
Adapting a popular story can be a tricky, regardless of the genre. Sticking so, so close to the source material can be an even trickier line to walk. Thankfully, the creative team behind Batman: Year One, the latest installment in the ongoing DC Universe Animated Original Movie line which slavishly follows the foundation from whence it came, manages to walk that fine line quite nicely. Yes, there are a couple missteps along the way, but overall, Batman: Year One remains yet another strong installment in the famed home video line.
Admittedly, for those who've read the Batman: Year One comic over and over, seeing it adapted like this can seem a bit weird. Now, let me emphasize that the team has done an extraordinary job. However, this is a story that's so engrained into our consciousness - the art, the words, all of it - that to see it come to life can seem a little jarring, especially the animation choices used. Flip open to nearly any part of the comic, then compare to what you see on screen. The detailed animation sometimes seem a little too detailed as compared to the stylized work found in the book. The animation can seem cleaner than the gritty dirt found on the page. This feeling does eventually go away, but I guarantee fans of the book will be sometimes taken aback by it.
Since this book is so revered, something nearly all comic book fans have read at one point or another, it's hard to image it looking any other way than what we see on the page. Like I said, it's a bit jarring at first, but as the movie progresses, I understand why the creative team adopted a more 'anime'-esque look for the movie. Now, the influences of David Mazzuchelli are still there. There are moments in the movie where it is unmistakable - plus the film freely uses actual images from the comic for things such as newspaper pictures and photos - but that tends to dissipate when the action sequences start up. Watch the brutal slugfest between Batman and Catwoman, for example. It's not as grungy as Miller likely envisioned it, and it seems very amped up from the source material, matching the type of action we'd see in any regular DTV from DC Comics. The action is just kicked up and it looks gorgeous and incredibly smoothe. Not every action sequence plays out this way, merely the big set pieces. The more intimate battles, such as Batman's first tussle with a group of thieves on a fire escape or Gordon and Flass duking it out, are more downplayed as opposed to others.
Just to note, as a result of the more 'anime'-esque look, some of the more gritty aspects of the original Batman: Year One comic are lost. For example, when Batman walks down the main drag of what is essentially Gotham's red light district, it feels more glitzy and dirty. It looks nice, yes, but it seems to lack that underlying sense of decay and desperation. There also seems to be some soft focus effects used quite frequently throughout the film, giving it a bit of a foggy hue. A small quibble, since Gotham (and the film itself) are animated fantastically, but the lack of grit does eek out on occasion.
Without question, this film belongs to Bryan Cranston and the character he plays here - James Gordon. That's part of the brilliance to the source material. We follow his story, along with Bruce Wayne's transformation into Batman, and it is engrossing. While Bruce Wayne may be the first person we meet in the movie, this is unmistakably Gordon's story. And Cranston brings this edge to Gordon, this sardonic wit, that just elevates the dialogue. You can almost see the droll dripping off each word as Gordon says, amusingly to himself, how he should give an opponent a handicap before just pummelling him. Cranston also brings an air of knowledge, of experience, and of regret, to the role. Cranston just hits every word, every piece of dialogue dead-on. He just encapsulates Gordon so perfectly it's hard to image anyone else as the famed policeman. Despite being stuck in what seems like an unwinnable situation, Cranston gives Gordon that right amount of perseverance, that he can overcome whatever hell Gotham throws at him.
One things fans will latch on to is Ben McKenzie's voice performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Some will hate, hate, hate it...others will like it. Personally, I will admit it was a bit rough at first - his first bit of dialogue does sound stilted and rather stiff. But as the film progresses - including the birth of Wayne's career as Batman - McKenzie's performance does evolve. Having seen the finished product, my worries have subsided. His voice is different...but that's the point. He's still figuring out his two identities - both as Bruce Wayne and Batman - and we see him working through that in the film. His 'Batman voice' in the final moments seems more confident than it does at the film's start. Bruce starts the film lost and troubled, but gains confidence as he discovers his mission. My favorite bit of voice work of McKenzie's is when he's still in the chair, contemplating whether or not to ring for Alfred after his first disastrous night out on patrol. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something poetic about his delivery during that moment.
When McKenzie delivers the "None of you are safe" life during the story's infamous dinner sequence, you know he's nailed it.
There's no weak links in the cast, really. Everyone plays their role, no matter how small, by the book and pretty straight-laced. There's no over-the-top acting or weak deliveries. Even Eliza Dushku's take on Selina Kyle, which does border on being incredibly oversexualized, is able to reel it in when she needs to. Once again, Andrea Romano really hits every mark with this cast.
As always, special props to composer Christopher Drake for creating a great score to the feature. My favorite has to be the absolutely slimy guitar riff he uses when Bruce Wayne enters the Gotham 'red light' district on patrol. It adds this icky ambience to the scene and perfectly sets up what awaits for Wayne. I'm glad to see Drake as a regular fixture on these DTVs, and can't wait to see his work on Justice League: Doom and (hopefully) the two-part The Dark Knight Returns animated features coming in 2012.
The movie looks great and sounds great - check. However, where the film really stumbles is not really the fault of the film itself, but the source material. The Catwoman subplot seems extraneous here, despite the purpose it serves, and feels like a dangling plot thread by the time the film's over (though there's a good chance you'll have forgotten about it by the time the film wraps). The first-person narration that tied the events of the book so perfectly together doesn't seem to have the same pronounced effect here. It's still effective and allows us to really get inside the mind of both Gordon and Wayne, but it doesn't hold the story together as strongly as the comic. It acts more of a voice-over and lacks the same weight than the printed alternative. The effect does make the film feel a bit truncated and jumpy at times. That being said, McKenzie and Cranston do take a very noir, 1930s radio-show approach to the voice-over work and it add some gravitas, but a degree of the narration's cohesiveness is still lost.
In the end, I'd scratch this movie off as a success. As a life-long Batman fan, it is a thrill seeing Batman: Year One faithfully adapted, and perhaps that clouds my judgement. I can't think of another comic story as faithfully (and successfully) reproduced as this one right here. While there are a few hiccups in translation, which is understandable as the material jumps from one medium to another, I think the creative team can give themselves a healthy pat on the back. I have no question fans will be somewhat divided over this, particularly McKenzie's voice work and how the film plays the adaptation unwaveringly straight. There's no real deviations from the material save for the odd snippet here and there. This is Batman: Year One through and through, for better or for worse.
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Batman: Year One Feature Review
It is not about healing. Not about closure. In Batman: Year One, Bruce Wayne returns home to Gotham City and debuts as Batman just as Lieutenant Gordon struggles to start a family and uphold the law in a land without hope.
Batman: Year One is a story with a dual perspective. The narrative shifts between Bruce Wayne and Lieutenant Gordon. Both at times struggle as they climb the ladder of crime and corruption plaguing Gotham City. The movie itself eliminates any self-doubt that comes with direct adaptations of stories picked from DC Comics' vast history. The movie, like the original story, is grounded in more realism and timestamps take the viewers on a strict chronological journey through Batman's first year fighting crime.
The movie begins with Bruce Wayne arriving in Gotham by airplane and Lieutenant Gordon, by train. Both observe the sinister nature of the city. Almost immediately, Gordon witnesses something is not right with the Gotham City Police Department but he bites his tongue and waits. However, his honesty quickly becomes a problem in the crooked streets. Meanwhile, Wayne is becoming impatient and can't figure out what he is missing.
Gordon is assaulted and threatened by his peers while Wayne narrowly avoids death on a recon mission to the East End, one of the most destitute sections of Gotham. However, both are unrelenting. Gordon shows his attacker, Detective Flass, who is the boss in their partnership. Bleeding to death, Wayne receives a sign and knows how to utilize fear. Gordon quickly becomes a media darling and Batman's war on crime alleviates the public spirit. However, both are placed on a collision course with each other. Gordon is ordered to hunt down Batman or risk his career. Gordon soon caves and commits an affair with another detective and questions Batman's nature - criminal or hero?
After escaping a dangerous battle with the police, Batman refocuses on the pillar of corruption and seeks intelligence from crime boss, Carmine Falcone. However, Batman's exploits indirectly led to the birth of Catwoman, and she ruins his recon mission. As a result, Falcone issues the order to kidnap Gordon's infant son and wife. Bruce Wayne races to save them and after a daring confrontation atop a bridge, he saves Gordon's son. In the aftermath, huge strides are made in taking out internal corruption. Cat burglaries continue and the newly promoted Gordon has a new ally. And just in time, somebody threatened to poison the Gotham reservoir.
After the first time I read Year One it seemed like a gritty observation on humanity; an orphaned boy vows vengeance on those who would harm innocent lives and an honest cop with a stained reputation for upholding his own vows. The two heroes thrust themselves into what seems like an endless void of corruption, violence, and deceit. But as their resolve is tested over and over, they still stand up and persevere. Ultimately, they triumph and form a bond of friendship.
Now I grew up watching every Bruce Timm-related animated series; from Batman: The Animated Series up to the penultimate Justice League Unlimited, the DC Universe movies, the Nolan reboots, The Brave and The Bold, and Young Justice. Ultimately, the movie doesn't require viewers to be a comic book fan or someone who's an avid animation viewer. The movie itself presents simply how two men from different backgrounds and origins become heroes, mythic figures even.
The animation, itself, may turn off a few comic book fans though. David Mazzucchelli brought a distinct sensibility to the comic but even with the modern advances of animation, there was no way it could completely mimic his style. Ultimately, the movie comes close to the look and feel but if you want to really see Mazzucchelli's art in movement pick up the comic and flip the pages through your fingers real fast. I will admit, the one piece of animation that I disliked in the movie was when Bruce kicks that tree. One, I don't care if you're Batman that was a tree! Unless it was ravaged by termites... Two, the animation was really weak in depicting the act.
The cast chosen for this movie was tasked with bringing different sides out of their respective characters. Ben McKenzie, voice of "Batman and Bruce Wayne," gives us a young man with a tortured soul, a tragic past who unleashes his more intense and extreme side. Throughout the movie, McKenzie really intrigued me as the tones of both Wayne and Batman constantly shift as literally the victim slowly thaws out and strikes back with utter conviction.
Bryan Cranston ("James Gordon") brings the self-doubt of a man who wants to prove to if only himself, that he is doing good in the world. One of the things I loved about Year One is that at times, it's like the story is more about Gordon than Batman. Where else are you going to see Gordon shoot crooks and beat up a former Green Beret?
Eliza Dushku gives us an abrasive, fearless, and yet oddly maternal "Catwoman," a woman who quits her life as a prostitute to become a cat burglar. Dushku probably had the hardest part to play, endear a character to the audience without getting a three's a crowd vibe. While there's enough action from Commissioner Loeb and Falcone to address the theme of escalation, Catwoman also has to present that and the idea of the city taking back what was stolen from it. Yet, she isn't completely good or evil always ticking back and forth almost representing the fickle nature of humanity.
Christopher Drake, the composer, also has gone above and beyond for the score of this movie. Drake manages to capture the voice of Gotham, the best example is when Bruce Wayne beings walking through the East End and that dirty rhythm just reverberates the theme and sense of urban decay. I believe this is the first or one of the few times I wanted to listen to the score through the end credits.
This time around if you don't have a Blu-Ray player yet but want to buy the Blu-Ray combo version for the sake of thinking ahead, you're in luck! The standard DVD contains both the DC Showcase Catwoman short and the sneak peak of the next DC Universe film, Justice League: Doom.
This is the closest to an ideal adaptation that I've seen compared to past movies, aside from the odd omissions and edits; 70 assaults in 5 weeks instead of 78 or Sarah Essen's fate not mentioned. I was fine with the removal of both Superman references, as the core of story was more grounded and isolated from the DC Comic universe. As a result, mentioning Superman in passing negates the atmosphere that was set up in the first place. With a stroke of brilliance, to instead mention various cities from the comics since it indirectly name drops without taking away the sense this is a Batman movie. In the grand scheme of things, it'd be silly to say the other heroes don't exist and Batman's the only hero around but you can't exactly set yourself up to distract the fans but I give the movie two thumbs up for referencing Empire City...and it was the best adaptation so far.
Overall, Batman: Year One is a recommended purchase. The film presents a thought provoking look into the minds of two well-known characters as they push the main story to its conclusion, and the beginning of one of DC Comics' most famous partnerships.
Additional reviews: Original 2011 release - 2021 Commemorative Edition release
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