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Non-Review Review: Batman – Year One

 

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

With the release of The Dark Knight Rises just around the corner, it makes sense for Warner Brothers to capitalise on one of the greatest influences on Nolan’s trilogy. Frank Miller’s take on Batman – as defined in Year One and The Dark Knight Returns – was bold, brash, clever and iconoclastic. So it’s only fair that both stories are receiving animated adaptations for Warner Brothers. While Batman: Year One might be little more than a shot-for-shot and line-by-line adaptation of Frank Miller’s origin for the Dark Knight, there’s absolutely no shame in that. Year One is perhaps my favourite Batman story, and I think it’s one certainly worth telling.

“I shall become a bat…”

Of course, part of the problem with this Year One adaptation is that the ground has been covered before. I actually think that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is the best origin for the Caped Crusader – perfectly explaining the character’s background, motivations and techniques. Nolan’s script for Batman Begins owes a sizeable debt to Miller’s origin story, even if the writers are reluctant to acknowledge it. Both stories present a version of Gotham deeply controlled by the mob, with Jim Gordon as the only honest cop in the town. Both feature a confrontation between Batman and a police tactical unit that ends with Batman summoning a cloud of bats to help him escape. Both modelled Gotham itself on Chicago.

The finer details are undoubtedly different – Batman here is even less of a superhero than in Batman Begins. He doesn’t foil any grand terrorist scheme to attack Gotham, nor does he drive a Bat-mobile or anything so bold. Still, it’s possible to feel that an animated adaptation of Batman: Year One might be treading old ground – that we’ve literally been here and done that. In fact, if Warner Borthers reboot Batman after Nolan’s trilogy is finished, we might be covering the same ground even sooner again. I’m actually far more excited to see the two-part animated adaptation of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, despite the fact that it like it less as a story – there’s very much a sense that we haven’t seen that side of Batman before.

Motorcycle cop…

Still, there is one massive advantage that Year One has as a story in its own right, and also over Nolan’s Batman Begins. After all, you’re probably wondering how I can consider Year One to be my favourite Batman story if I think Batman Begins is a better origin for the eponymous character. The answer is made quite clear. Year One isn’t just the origin of Batman. It’s the origin of James Gordon, who I’d argue is one of the most fascinating characters in the entire Batman mythos.

It seems that Bruce Timm and Andrea Romano seem to realise this. Romano continues to do absolutely sterling work in compiling casts for these animated features. She has a wonderful knack for finding great voices for great characters. (While I’ll always prefer Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as an animated Batman and Joker, Under the Red Hood features Bruce Greenwood and John DiMaggio, who are almostas perfect.) Here it seems that Timm and Romano realise that Gordon is actually the far stronger part, and they secured the far greater actor for the role.

SWAT-ing a pest…

Bryan Cranston is simply amazing as Commissioner Gordon. It’s actually pitch-perfect casting, to the point where I wouldn’t mind seeing Cranston step into the job in the next live-action film. It’s very tough to read out Frank Miller dialogue without sounding incredibly stupid. Robert Rodriguez got extremely lucky in casting Sin City, and even there occasionally fine actors faltered. Cranston plays Miller’s beaten down Jim Gordon perfectly.

Cranston gets Miller’s dialogue in a way that Ben McKenzie struggles with. Cranston knows that you have to be able to modulate your voice – you can’t always be “on” or it seems silly. So Cranston’s Gordon is perfectly capable of flashes of ordinary humanity. “So I think it’s a boy,” he remarks to himself of his baby, catching himself out on giving the child a name (“James Jr.”) before it’s born. It seems organic and natural.

Crouching billionaire, hidden badass…

And yet Cranston also manages to make Gordon seem as tough as nails when he needs to be. It’s hard not to like the guy when he confronts a former military veteran who has a significant size advantage. “It’s been years since I had to take out a Green Beret,” Gordon thinks. He pauses, before tossing the guy a baseball bat. “Even so, he deserves a handicap.” (Gordon proceeds to brilliantly, and brutally, hand the guy his backside, in what is an impressive moment.)

In fact, the entire film’s choreography is superb. I’m impressed at the quality that Warner Brothers can release in this format, especially given that I imagine the budget is quite restricted. The action set pieces here are quite spectacular, and seem much more dynamic that the sequences Timm used to produce back on Batman: The Animated Series. The rest of the production is also suitably top-notch as well.

Giving it his best shot…

While Gordon gets quite a bit of attention, and Cranston gets (and earns) top-billing, the story is just as tightly focused on Bruce Wayne. Decades after Miller’s work, it’s easy to take his characterisation for granted, but Miller’s take on the character was genuinely insightful. Presenting Bruce as a soldier fighting a war is a logical development, and one that fits. “The East End” of Gotham is “the enemy camp” to Bruce. He operates with military precision, something Gordon’s notices. “He operates between the hours of midnight and 4am. Concentrating his efforts in the East End. This Batman is working his way up the crime ladder. From junkie to pusher to supplier.”

More than that, there’s a very clear implication that Bruce is not a well man. While some writers like Steve Englehart had hinted at the idea before, Miller articulates the idea quite well. Nursing potentially fatal wounds, Bruce refuses to call for help because he has failed in his ‘mission.’ He is slavishly devoted to the idea of vengeance – the implication being that he’s been planning this from the night they died. “I’d rather die than wait another hour. I’ve already waited eighteen years.”

By Gordon, Cranston was a good choice!

This is a more aggressive, adversarial Batman. He’s got an edge to him. He’s occasionally unnerving to be around. It’s clear that Miller considers Bruce Wayne to be more than slightly unhinged, and it’s a fair comment about a guy who dresses as a flying rodent. The movie captures it quite well. There’s a moment as Bruce confronts a pimp, is genuinely frightening. “You can never escape me. Bullets don’t harm me. Nothing harms me. But I know pain. I know pain. Sometimes I share it… With someone like you.”

Benjamin McKenzie struggles a bit with the role – not as comfortable as Cranston when it comes to delivering Miller’s monologues. in fact, it’s hard to take his opening lines seriously. “Gotham City. Clean shafts of concrete and snowy rooftops. The work of men who died generations ago.”He makes a conscious decision to deadpan the narration and the monologues, because his delivery of dialogue is more engaging and impassioned. I get that he’s trying to present Bruce as a character who is cold and rational inside, but I don’t think it fits. Bruce’s tone shouldn’t deadpan reading those lines – it should be angry and contemptuous.

The reality of the situation dawns on him…

The rest of the cast is pretty great. Jon Polito is impressive as Commissioner Loeb. Eliza Dushku is effectively cast as Catwoman. Katee Sackhoff makes the best of a small role as Sarah Essen. Alex Rocco is great as the Roman. I am consistently impressed with the work that Andrea Romano puts into putting these casts together. While McKenzie is the weakest link, the rest are superb for the characters they play. There’s even a nice small role for the always great Stephen Root.

The direction is fantastic, as is the sound mixing on the film. The script is adapted almost verbatim, so a lot of the movie’s charm is in hearing the lines spoken by great actors against the backdrop of the Gotham soundscape, which is amazing. In fact, there’s one sequence here which is really fantastic. The sequence where Batman breaks into the Roman’s mansion is impressive in live action as it ever looked on the page.

He always knew how to make an entrance…

I also quite like Christopher Drake’s score. It’s an affectionate collection of Batman homages and references, without being too similar. For the most part, it evokes the scores that Hans Zimmer and James Howard wrote from Christopher Nolan, although I could swear I detected the faintest hint of Danny Elfman’s Catwoman score when Selina first tried out her familiar get-up. The movie’s final theme, appropriately enough, recall’s Moby’s cover of New Dawn Fades. An appropriate sentiment for a movie about Batman’s victory over the mob.

Batman: Year One maintains the high standards of the line, even if I think that Batman Begins is the best Batman origin in popular culture. That said, the film does give us Bryan Cranston as a kick-ass Gordon and a loving adaptation of a Frank Miller classic, so there’s really very little to complain about. If you are looking for a nice animate Batman film, you could certainly do a lot worse.

 

2 Responses

  1. Excellent review and one of my favourite batman adaptations. I agree Batman Begins is a better origin story but there is something about the quality of the animation and the succinctness of the story here that drew me in. Plus Brian Cranston gets Gordon down to a tee, like you I really wouldn’t mind seeing him in the next live action film

  2. You know, rewatching the movie again, I was thinking it would’ve been cool if the crazy guy who held the kids hostage turned out to be the future Joker. I mean, Batman Catwoman and Joker turned up in The Dark Knight Returns, and even aside from the ending about poisoning the Gotham Reservoir I was thinking Year One missed an opportunity to show a proto-Joker.

    Eh whatever, still a great story either way.

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