The origin of Batman is easily one of the most repeated and played out in all of comic book history. In the film world Tim Burton went over the basics and tied the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents to The Joker causing a kind of you created me/I created you dichotomy to the hero/villain relationship. People didn’t like that. Batman Begins is the only feature film to have covered the entire story from start to finish though. Before Batman Begins came about though Warner was working with Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller in adapting Miller’s comic Batman Year One to the screen. Elements of it exist in Nolan’s film but the eventual collapse of the Year One project goes down as one of the greatest movie projects never made. Fast forward a number of years and good old guardian of all that’s animated in the DC Universe, Bruce Timm, convinced Warner to fund an animated adaptation of the Batman Year One comic. Well, I finally got around to watching it last night. Click the link for my review!
Batman Year One, as its title suggests, covers Bruce Wayne’s (Benjamin McKenzie) first year of crime fighting duty as The Caped Crusader. Parallel to this is the story of Lieutenant Gordon’s (Bryan Cranston) first year in Gotham city. The story is almost presented like a diary of both character’s life, detailing their inner thoughts, strategies and and self doubts. This worked quite well in the comic book as the narration was presented as though they were from the characters diaries, each having a different handwriting and even style of paper indicating which character was talking. The trouble with heavy narration in film though is that you can end up running the risk of describing everything we’re seeing leading to a film that tells rather than lets us see. Batman Year One walks into that issue a number of times. For example, do we need Gordon telling us that he is watching how crooked Flass fights when we’re sat there watching him watch Flass fight. We can work out what’s going on in Gordon’s head without the narration. That said the way the narration is written does give us a doorway into the minds of both Bruce Wayne and James Gordon that serves to highlight the similarities in how they think. Both think through their actions, display strong morals and have the capability to be heroes. They just sit on different sides of the law.
What I’ve always liked about Batman Year One is how even by the end Bruce Wayne hasn’t become the perfect Batman. He makes mistakes, learns and adapts. At first he goes out thinking he’s thought things through only to get blind-sided by a child with a knife he wasn’t expecting. This Batman is fallible and I like that. Over the years Batman has been depicted with near demi-God levels of skill which is thankfully avoided here. Never been keen on just how super-human the comics have made him look. Batman is the hero that should get hurt. Hell, Knightfall was built entirely around that aspect of him but for some reason that has been forgotten over the years.
The bulk of the films story actually follows Lieutenant Gordon as he works to clean up Gotham by essentially becoming the hero Gotham needs. The cops inn Gotham are corrupted from top to bottom. At one point a pair of regular patrol-men shoot Bruce Wayne in the street on his first venture to fight crime and then discuss just ditching him. You know that wouldn’t be an issue with anyone in the police because even the current commissioner is tied into the crime world, he even goes to dinners with other Gotham dignitaries held by Carmine Falcone, the biggest of all the crime bosses. Gordon has his work cut out for him and the whole way threats are made against him and his pregnant wife.
As far as comic book adaptations go this is near exactly the comic. There’s a few changes to dialogue here and there and maybe a few panels missing but generally this is a straight retelling of the original Frank miller comic. The art style doesn’t match Millers too well though. It has that slightly Americanised attempt at anime look in certain scenes. Not an uncommon style these days but I would have preferred something a little rougher around the edges. Voice work is generally decent with quite a mixed cast of actors pulled in. Eliza Dushku provides the voice of Catwoman in a number of scenes although she kind of comes across as a bit of an aside to the main story at times. I’m not too keen on McKenzie as Batman though. His voice is too soft. Maybe it’s just because I always associate Kevin Conroy’s voice with Batman though. If anyone stands out it’s Bryan Cranston though. The guy has the perfect Lieutenant Gordon voice and would likely be a good pick to play the character on the big screen someday.
As this film version is so strictly based on the comic it does mean it comes in a little short. At only 1 hour long it could have easily been expanded upon. The trouble is that comics don’t follow the sort of story structure films do and so adapting them straight can mean the story doesn’t play out as smoothly as it does when read. What Year One could have done with is 15 minutes or so of extra scenes fleshing out the events, especially giving us more time with Batman and Catwoman. Maybe even going as far as to tie Catwoman’s story into the final act of the film to give her more of a purpose. In the comics you can get away with leaving a character as a side story because their story can always be picked up in the next issue. I do wonder though if it was out of respect for Miller’s work that they did avoid adding anything extra to the story in case what they added stuck out.
Overall though the film is very well animated and feels a lot like the comic brought to screen. It’s only real short comings is it’s strict adherence to the comics structure and script meaning it feels like like a film and more like a special extended one shot. It’ll be interesting to see if Warner and Bruce Timm attempt to produce some of the other stories that spawned off from the original comic. I’m sure fans would leap at the chance to buy a Long Halloween adaptation. Year One comes recommended but just don’t expect it to be as much of a filmic experience as some of the other animated Batman adventures.