Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Batman: Year One" (2011)

Starring Benjamin McKenzie, Brian Cranston and Eliza Dushku
Written by Tab Murphy
Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery
Rated PG-13 - Language and violence
Running Time: 65 minutes

The latest DC Animated Universe venture adapts Frank Miller's classic "Year One" storyline, which redefined the origin of Batman in the 1980s.

The film opens as young Bruce Wayne (Benjamin McKenzie) returns to Gotham City after years abroad, training his mind and his body to fight crime.  At the same time, Lt. James Gordon (Brian Cranston) is also coming to Gotham.  But while Wayne is returning on a mission to reclaim Gotham from the scum, Gordon is there has a punishment - transferred after a flap at his previous precinct that branded him as an Internal Affairs rat.

The two find the city a pit of hopelessness and despair.  The Gotham PD is rife with corruption, all the way to the top, with Commissioner Gil Loeb (Jon Polito) in cahoots with local crime lord Carmine "The Roman" Falcone (Alex Rocco).  Gordon's partner, Detective Flass (Fred Tatasciore), is a thug who likes to shake down other thugs for cash and moonlights as an enforcer for Falcone's drug operations.

While Gordon struggles to bring some semblance of ethics to the GPD, he's also trying to come to grips with the concept that his wife is pregnant with their child, and how he can possibly raise a family in such a terrible city.  Meanwhile, Bruce tries to figure out how to make the criminals of Gotham fear him, and ultimately comes across the image of a bat, creating the alternate persona of Batman.

As the year drags on and Batman becomes a real threat to Falcone's criminal empire, Loeb tasks gordon with bringing him in.  At first, Gordon is fine with this mission; he sees Batman as a public threat, a nutjob who goes out at night and beats people up, even if they are criminals.  But as Gordon and new partner Detective Sarah Essen (Katee Sackhoff) witness Batman in action, he begins to realize that the Batman really is a hero, and strives to keep the conflict between Falcone, the GPD and the Batman from turning the city into a warzone. 

"Batman: Year One" is a straight-up adaptation of the comic book story arc, on down to many of the shot compositions taken directly from comic book panels.  In fact, much of "Year One" appears static, and quiet.  It moves at a slow pace, much slower than any of the previous DC Animated Universe films, which were mostly action-oriented.  The film's major, centerpiece action sequence has Batman wounded and cornered by Gotham's dirty, vicious SWAT team and it's corrupt leader Branden (Stephen Root).  But otherwise, "Year One" is a fairly quiet, almost noir-like animated film.

This is partly to the film's detriment.  It's such a straight adaptation that it's barely over an hour long, so even with its slow pace it practically rushes by.  I'm pretty sure you could read the graphic novel in the same amount of time it takes to watch the film.  As such, "Year One" feels like a slight film.  Much of the same themes and subject matter are also adapted in Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins," but that movie is over twice as long as "Year One," giving it more time to breathe and develop.  What works incredibly well as a four-issue comic book is just a little too still and sedate for an animated feature.  If the producers had decided to expand the story somehow, it might have worked out better. 

The cast is fine, though sadly the weak link is Benjamin McKenzie as Bruce Wayne/Batman.  He does an okay job, but nothing spectacular.  His "Batman voice" is quite good, but kind of obvious.  The real star here is Brian Cranston, who makes a truly excellent Jim Gordon.  Much of the film is Gordon's, as he's given the most screentime in the story, and Cranston carries it well.  Other characters come and go throughout the narrative, including brief appearances by Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Eliza Dushku) and Detective Essen, with whom Gordon eventually has an affair. 

So your enjoyment of "Batman: Year One" is pretty dependent on, well, your enjoyment of "Batman: Year One."  It's so identical to the source material that the two almost aren't worth separating.  If you enjoyed reading the comic book, you'll likely enjoy the film in the same way.  But at the same time, I can't escape a certain sense of disappointment.

Interestingly, the "Catwoman" short included on this blu-ray disc is actually a sequel to the film.  Eliza Dushku voices Catwoman as she tracks down the owner of a bracelet, cutting her way through a crime syndicate to do so.  It's a shame some of this material couldn't be integrated into the "Year One" feature, as it would've been just the shot in the arm the film needed to really seem special.  A bit of warning, though: there's an extended scene within of a strip tease.  It's probably not something you'd want to show the little ones.

See Also

Batman: Under the Red Hood
Batman: Gotham Knight