The new Batman is out, and I’m not talking Arkham City. The direct-to-video feature film Batman: Year One is finally available to own. The question is: would your 64 minutes be better spent installing DLC? I don’t think so. After all, before you get all caught up in seeking out Batman skins you should get a good look at Bruce Wayne.
Batman: Year One is one of the best comic stories of all time. It’s Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s four-issue look at the first year that Bruce Wayne took on the cowl, and serves as the anchor to an iconic figure that has amassed countless interpretations. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins shook up the story a bit, but no one who has experienced both could argue against the fact that the movie owes a substantial amount to this now seminal text. That said, there are key differences and Begins is far from “the movie version” of this particular origin. Warner Bros. Animation saw fit to fill that gap with their direct-to-video release of a new animated feature, Batman: Year One, which is meant to be that one-to-one translation.
Year One begins with two newcomers moving to a corrupt city. Gotham’s role in this story was fairly unprecedented in 1987 when the books came out, but for us in 2011, it’s pretty much what you expect. Corrupt cops are worse than the criminals they pursue, and the better ones don’t live in Gotham. First off the train is Jim Gordon, whose first contact off the rails is Detective Flass, who wastes no time pushing his weight around by manhandling a citizen just because he can. While Gordon doesn’t do anything to stop it, he takes note of Flass, studying him in case a more significant confrontation should ever occur between them. Not only is he good, he’s smart.
Also arriving in Gotham is Bruce Wayne. It’s more of a homecoming for him, coming back after years abroad. He’s become a shell of his potential and he fills it with a quiet outrage that builds with a pressure that needs to be released, somehow. These two quiet men of discontent, are Gotham’s only hope.
Recently, especially after Nolan’s Dark Knight, it became common to hear that Batman and the Joker are essentially the same person only living out different circumstances. I never subscribed to that thought, but I would argue that Batman and Jim Gordon do share that kind of relationship. Each in some way does what the other can only dream. Jim would love to rid Gotham of its cowardly lot but restricts himself to working within the law. He’s a family man and uses his position in the police force to do what he can while staying on that side as firmly as any sane man could. Batman longs to be a family man and has tried to create that with various Robins and Batgirls, but at the end of the day, his war is one that exists within himself just as much as out on the streets. He fights for justice where the law has failed him. Year One is the story that forever unites these two heroes and presents the argument for why they need each other. Batman isn’t fighting a psychotic villain in this; he’s fighting the cops. It takes some time, but Gordon realizes that he is, too. This movie reminds you of a Batman that is human. Even Batman Begins takes liberties with this, and you may not even realize how fantastic the “Tumbler” is until you see a bloody Batman chase down thugs on his motorcycle.
The movie itself is animated in a mature style that pays explicit homage to the original comics. Even the gritty streets share the gold-and-maroon aesthetic of the comic, but also recall the mood of Taxi Driver. The voice acting is performed by a dream lineup including Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as Gordon and Ben McKenzie (The O.C., Southland) as Batman, with an equally impressive supporting cast to back them up. As with many things, it’s a daunting task to top the book, especially one as universally beloved as Year One, but looking for that sort of champion is the wrong way to approach this release. This movie is a supplement to the book. It’s something to watch and enjoy but not replace. It’s been nearly a decade since I read Year One the first time and watching this version expanded upon my initial ideas and interpretations. These characters have been with us, floating around in the zeitgeist, for generations now. To be able to add even a shred of something new to these characters’ essence is pretty substantial.
With a direct-to-video release you’re going to want something worth owning. Batman: Year One does a pretty good job, and I’d be hard pressed to suggest what it could have done better. The film is crisp and the color contrast allows for blacks that are darker than shadow. I’ve watched a lot of animated Batmen, and this was the first time I really took note of how strong an image his cape is as he slides deeper into a scene.
There’s a great roundtable conversation with people from DC Comics past and present, as well as a feature on the character and evolutions of Batman. A feature-length commentary with the creative team provides a richer understanding of the making of Batman: Year One. Next up is a digital comic of the first chapter of the original book, but it’s difficult to read and seems more like filler than the 10-minute previews of other Warner Bros. Animation titles -- which are surprisingly worth a watch.
The set also includes three shorts. Two are episodes from Bruce Timm’s earlier Batman-centric animated series. I was looking forward to watching these in hi-def but the quality is more akin to a VCR rip. Both episodes feature Catwoman to compliment the third bonus, the exclusive short simply called Catwoman, which is a mixed bag. The animation is sharp and it makes you think you’ve never seen this character move before, but the story is mundane and everything else is exploitive. Catwoman works a striptease into her crime-fighting for no other purpose other than to get close to the villain. Whatever happened to cartwheels? It’s a waste of a strong character who is portrayed at her toughest in Year One itself.