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
Funny story: back at the turn of the century, before Batman Begins and The Dark Knight bought back the caped crusader’s cinematic credibility – much reduced after Joel Schumacher’s sordid shenanigans – Warner Brothers approached writer/director Darren Aronofsky, fresh from Requiem For A Dream, with a mind to having him steer a reboot of the Batman movies. Aronofsky, in his turn, came a-calling on Frank Miller, the co-creative force (with artist David Mazzucchelli) behind the seminal modern-day origin story of DC’s definitive vigilante. Batman: Year One was to be the basis for Aronofsky’s ill-fated reimagining, and a perfect basis it would have been, particularly in tandem with the talent involved in every corner... that is, had the project escaped development hell unscathed.
Needless to say, it did not. But there’s no sense in crying over spilt milk, especially considering the creative team Warner Brothers dropped Darren Aronofsky to pave the way for. The Nolans have done wonders for the franchise in the decade since that time; indeed, they too incorporated elements of Frank Miller’s seminal study of the Batman’s black beginnings into their films, going so far as to borrow a couple of characters wholesale, including mob boss Carmine Falcone, the jock cop Detective Flass, and of course Commissioner Loeb, the corrupt chief of Gotham City’s police force. To a one, then, the antagonists of Batman: Year One. The Nolans, however, found the conflict at the core of their reboot elsewhere.
So this year’s adaptation of Batman: Year One, courtesy DC Universe Animated Original Movies and MOI Animation, Korea’s pseudo-anime studio for hire, has been a long time coming. Depending on how you look at things, it’s been either an 11 year wait, or fully 24, because the original comic book was a late 80s affair... though it told a timeless tale if ever there was one to tell. Charting the rise of The Dark Knight over the course of a single year, its narrative began and ended – as does that of this mostly faithful feature – not with Batman, as you might expect, but Commissioner-to-be James Gordon, just arrived in Gotham City, with a wife, a baby in the making, and a mission from on high to root out corruption in the rank and file of GCPD. Bullied – beaten, even – by his fellow officers, chief amongst them the aforementioned Detective Flass, when they realise this new recruit won’t sit idly by while they use the law to advance their own standings at the expense of the safety of others, and tormented by the prospect of bringing an innocent life into “a city without hope,” as he sees it, Batman: Year One introduces us to James Gordon at a low point in his life. So far has this fundamentally decent man descended that he seeks refuge in the arms of Katee Sackhoff’s Detective Sarah Essen, never mind that there’s an infant in the offing.
The counterpoint to Gordon’s fall is of course the rise of The Dark Knight, who after years of intense training in lands far and distant finally puts into action his plan to go from zero to hero, by way of an attitude and some handy spandex. But Breaking Bad’s wry Bryan Cranston gets top billing in the credits as the principled future Commissioner for good reason, because for all intents and purposes, Batman: Year One is his story, as opposed to the caped crusader’s. Truth be told, that’s a real relief, because Benjamin McKenzie out of Southland as Bruce Wayne – and to a lesser extent his crime-fighting alter ego – is an absolute disaster; a bona fide sore thumb sticking out of what is otherwise a top-tier production. The art of voice acting is the essential sublimation of the voice actor, after all, and Benjamin McKenzie’s inexcusably stilted delivery only foregrounds the fact that he’s a dude sat in a sound booth somewhere, reading from a script to match the lip flaps of some pretty pictures. I can certainly understand the desire to bring in new blood to embody a younger iteration of everyone’s favourite caped crusader, but the casting of Benjamin McKenzie over fan favourite Kevin Conroy, for instance, only works against Batman: Year One. Had the focus of this hour-long animated movie demanded more than the bare minimum from McKenzie’s despondent detective, I dare say it would have been gone down very differently indeed.
But all is not lost. All is very far from lost, as a matter of fact, because virtually every other aspect of the latest in this line of shockingly competent comic book adaptations comes off. Eliza Dushku’s hooker-come-Catwoman is a little sidelined, I suppose – though the bonus short film starring none other than she on the DVD makes up multitudinously for that lack – and admittedly, the animation is rather more fluid and clean-cut than I’d have imagined of a cartoon based on Miller and Mazzucchelli’s distinctly dirty rendering of Gotham City and the ne’er-do-wells who call its seedier streets home. But otherwise? Batman: Year One is a treat. The script takes its cues straight from Miller’s spare storytelling, paring the dialogue down still more if anything; the pacing is so forth spot on; meanwhile the music by DC Universe cartoon composer Christopher Drake is appropriately ominous and intermittently bombastic, very much in the mode of Hans Zimmer’s superlative scores for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; and Bryan Cranston does a brilliant Bryan Cranston, which is to say, as a down-on-his-luck James Gordon, he makes for an excellent anti-hero.
Would that Batman: Year One were a pilot for the next Batman animated series... one more focused on the GCPD than The Animated Series, and more adult in tone than any of the cartoons that have come and invariably gone since. If wishes were horses, I’d ride this one into the ground! As it stands, it’s still a terrific little film, not nearly so broken by an at-best bland Batman as you might think, and in a few years’ time, the animated adaptation of another Frank Miller classic – namely The Dark Knight Returns – will be along to fill the void Batman: Year One leaves in its persuasive wake. That day can’t come soon enough.
'Batman: Year One' is out now on DVD/Blu-ray