DVD Review: Batman - Year One

PrintE-mail Written by Robin Pierce

Review: Batman: Year One (12) / Directed by: Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery / Written by: Tab Murphy, Frank Miller / Starring: Ben McKenzie, Bryan Cranston, Eliza Dushku, Katee Sackhoff, Jon Polito, Alex Rocco

The Bat is back... Or rather, The Bat debuts....

Batman’s second most important graphic novel, Batman: Year One is a tough, gritty read. The brainchild of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli is an uncompromising look at the seedy, downright nasty, vice ridden underbelly of Gotham City. Gotham is run by crime, the police are bought and paid for - foot soldiers of a corrupt police commissioner himself, firmly in the pocket of gang boss Falcone.

Into this hell comes a young police lieutenant, James Gordon. A tough, honest cop. An idealist whose commitment to serving the badge and what it stands for rather than his own personal gain is evident from the second he arrives.

Returning to Gotham after several years away is socialite and heir to millions Bruce Wayne, another idealist who seeks vengeance having witnessed the mugging and double murder of his parents as a child.

Hold on.

Haven’t we seen all this before?

Well, yes, in a way we have. Although as faithful to the novel as its lean 61 minute running time will allow, this does sound an awful lot like the set-up for Batman Begins, doesn’t it?

But the set up is where the similarities end. In this DC Universe animated feature, we see not only the beginnings of Batman and Gordon’s fight on crime, but we also see Selina (Catwoman) Kyle’s origins. Previous to Miller’s reinvention, she was just a cat burglar, over the years she became an animal activist who was a cat burglar, Tim Burton had poor Selina thrown out of the top of a skyscraper and survive to become the feline felon (which never made sense, really). In this uncompromising and realistic take on the story, Selina Kyle is a prostitute working for a pimp who also has an underage teen in his stable. Seeing Batman in action, she decides to take an alter ego of her own.

Batman himself is fallible. He’s perfecting his craft and style and prone to make mistakes. During his first forays, he’s lucky to make it back to Wayne Manor alive. Incidentally, there is no batmobile or batcave here. There’s only an early version of the costume and the utility belt - and even the belt is useless because it catches fire just when he needs it the most.

No Joker yet, though he gets a mention, no Riddler, Penguin, Ras Al Ghul, or Two Face, though an un-scarred Harvey Dent makes an appearance. Even faithful Alfred has very little to say, displaying none of the dry sarcasm that would become his trademark.

In all honesty, this is as gripping and true to the original source Batman film I’ve ever seen. It is also easily the best animated adaptation we’ve ever seen - it’s as simple as that. And this comes from someone who has at times argued vehemently over the past couple of years that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was the best stab at a Batman movie.

Sadly Batman animated favourite Kevin Conroy doesn’t voice the Dark Knight on this occasion, he is replaced by Ben Mckenzie, with Bryan Cranston taking the role of Gordon. Fair enough, I guess - the characters are at the beginning of their careers here and younger voices were called for. Similarly, Adrienne Barbeau isn’t behind the slinky, seductive tones of Catwoman.

However, Buffy and Dollhouse fans will be happy with the casting of bad-girl vampire slayer and fan favourite Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle, while Battlestar Galactica goddess Katie Sackhoff voices Sarah Essen, a female colleague of Gordon’s. Sadly though - her character isn’t as fully realised as some of the rest.

The animation is guaranteed to make the jaws of Batman fans gape open with its exhilarating, vertigo inducing pace. It’s slick and at times, photo realistic with smoothness to the motion that is particularly noticeable during Batman’s fight sequences, particularly when you look at the flowing of the cape.

As with several of the recent animations released under the Warner Premiere label, there’s a shorter animated feature to support the main attraction. Previously on Green Lantern: First Flight we were introduced to DC staple The Spectre in his own short. On Batman: Year One, that honour goes to Catwoman. If you thought The Spectre pushed the boundaries of taste a little bit by having the vengeful spirit subject a villain to a graphic death by paper cuts, then this short throws all caution to the wind by having Catwoman working in Gotham’s red light district in pursuit of a felon.

Behold some overt animated pole dancing in an eight minute cartoon that encompasses not only a beloved comic book character, but also white slavery and prostitution. I’m bewildered that the disc merited only a 12 rating, but delighted that it pushed the limits harder than any animated adaptation we’ve previously seen from DC, and that includes last year’s Batman: Under the Red Hood which opened with a manic over the edge Joker beating Robin to a pulp with a crowbar.

There’s only one problem with these movies - and that’s the weird distribution patterns. They tend to be limited to only one outlet. Batman & Superman: Public Enemies was (and still is) an Amazon exclusive in the UK, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths was an Asda exclusive. Batman: Year One is available in the UK only at HMV, but I recommend you seek out your nearest branch or hit their website and check this film out.

At the beginning of the review, I mentioned that Year One is the second most important Batman graphic novel. So, what’s the first? The Dark Knight Returns, of course. That’s currently in the works for release as an animated feature in 2012.

Batman: Year One is out now on DVD/Blu-ray from HMV

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