“Ladies, gentlemen, you’ve eaten well. You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirit. But your feast is nearly over. From this moment on, none of you are safe. “
Batman Year One is the latest installment of DC’s short animated films that they release roughly three times a year. Year One is an adaption of the famous comic series of the same name that rebooted the Batman story in 1987. Because of the importance of the comic and the obvious iconic status it holds, DC decides to stick to a very loyal adaption of the tale. Because of this the movie has many hurdles to jump through as it it wrestles with itself as a film and an adaption. The story still holds the tales of both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon as they both arrive in Gotham City at the same time and both attempt to clean up the streets in their own respective ways. Can this movie work as both a film and adaption or will it fail to do both while in the process?
Batman Year One follows the story of Jim Gordon(voiced by the terrific Bryan Cranston) and Bruce Wayne (voiced by Ben McKenzie) as they both arrive in Gotham about the same time. Both of these men see the decaying and corrupted city for what it is, and both of them have goals for what they want to do with the city when they enter. The film takes place over the course of the first year that the two of them arrived starting in January and ending the next January. As the film progresses we see the differing methods that these two men have on trying to clean up Gotham; Bruce trying to clean up the city outside of the law and Gordon working inside of the law. There is a great contrast between the two characters that the film only touches on. The film really explores the state of Gotham when the two men arrive by showing the sheer corruption of the city as it is filled with corrupt politicians, a police force owned by the mob, and good people afraid of really trying to change anything. The core of the story is the impact that Batman has on Gotham after he arrives as he shakes the foundations of the city when he stands up to the corruption and fights not only criminals, but the entire police force. The plot for the movie is fairly difficult to explain because of the semi-episodic nature of the film. While there certainly is a story arc that ties everything together; the real continuous threads that carry the film are the character arcs of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne. The story takes place over the course of a year which therefore makes the film feel episodic, but like episodic tales, it’s the character threads that really make these stories feel tied together. While Batman’s story is solid; its been done before on the big screen with Batman Begins which leaves the character arc of Jim Gordon the most interesting part of the film to watch. Gordon comes to Gotham city with a very hopeless and pessimistic view on Gotham City as he begins the film questioning his decision to come to Gotham in the first place. His character arc is really about turning his pessimism and uncertainty of his decisions into a hopeful and confident police officer in Gotham. In the film he fights off corrupt police, blackmail, and even has to decide whether hunting Batman is right or wrong in the first place. Aside from the episodic nature of the story, the film also feels a little short(running at only64 minutes) as there are a few different subplots (mostly Catwoman’s role in the story) that get a nod or a mention, but never get fleshed out despite the fact that the film feels like it has the extra room for a couple of fleshed out subplots. Overall I believe the story of this film is ultimately flawed because it’s already been done before(mostly because Batman Begins borrowed heavily from the Year One comic). Its not that the story couldn’t have worked, but it’s that the episodic nature of the comic story and the masterful storytelling of Batman Begins has done this story in a better and ultimately more fulfilling way. The real strength of this story is that it focuses quite a bit on Gordon whose early development has yet to be seen. On its own the story does work on many levels, but its sad to see this straight adaption of the comic has already been done much better by the live action films.
As I mentioned the real strength of the film is its very dark and complex themes and terrific character arcs of Bruce Wayne/Batman and (only temporarily) Lt. Jim Gordon. There is a very interesting contrast between Gordon and Wayne that is evident in each of their opening scenes with Bruce hopeful that he can save the dying city of Gotham and Gordon seeing the decaying city as hopeless. What I really like about the character progression is that these characters nearly flip flop in perspectives by the end of the film and on their journeys to seeing things differently they meet on a mental and emotional level at the end of the film which I believe really puts a whole new sense of depth to the relationship that fans will come to know in the films and comics. These characters are in some ways a crutch for each other, but in so many other ways an inspiration to each other that keeps both them going even if these characters will eventually have differing perspectives on how to handle Gotham. While I have elaborated quite a bit on the relationship between these two men I really must say that as much as the movie is about both of them; it’s really more about Gordon than Batman. Gordon has far more screen time than Batman and his emotional journey in Gotham during his first year makes up the bulk of the film as he seems far more dynamic than Bruce Wayne. If anything I would say that the only reason Bruce Wayne/Batman even gets much time is because to understand Gordon and how he comes to know Gotham you must understand Batman as well. It’s true that Bruce does get many of his own scenes, but I believe that they are more or less to show how much Batman is changing Gotham which Gordon will have to later clean up. Aside from the character arcs themselves I really must say that Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon was a perfect casting choice for this film. While Ben Mackenzie handles Bruce Wayne/Batman alright(he still nothing compared to Kevin Conroy or even Red Hood’s Bruce Greenwood), Bryan Cranston excels at delivering a spot on performance of Jim Gordon. While the internal monologues(which are very effective here) may sound pretty dry, Cranston still makes the thoughts of Gordon sound very convincing and layered with meaning. He captures the very contemplative and pessimistic Gordon well and completely sells the role. My personal opinion is that he may be the best performance for Gordon that I’ve seen(giving Gary Oldman a run for his money.)
Aside from the story, characters, and performances I believe that there are two other major things to hit on in this film. The first is the animation which while fairly basic I also found was very sharp and fitting for the story this movie was telling. The art may be straightforward, but it also really conveys both the art of the comic and the darker themes that this film is dissecting. There are some beautiful backdrops that are especially brought out on the blu-ray version of the film(after watching the film in both standard and high def versions I’d recommend the blu-ray) which really does add a greater sense of depth to the look that the movie is presenting. The other thing that I believe should be somewhat criticized is the writing. The writing for this film would be terrific if it wasn’t at times copied and pasted from the actual comics. After watching the film the second time I pulled my comic of the shelf and began to notice how similar the dialog and internal monologues were to the source material. There are times that these conversations are repeated in verbatim from the comic book. For many people this will not be a problem, but for me personally I find it a bit lazy and almost too much a recreation of the comics. If anything I believe that this replication shows just how well the writing of Frank Miller’s original Year One holds up. This isn’t a glaring issue, and the dialog does work most of the time, but I really wish the creative team behind this film could have left a little more of a flavor on this adaption as opposed to a bland but filling replication of the comic.
Overall I believe that this movie will satisfy fans of the DC animated shorts and will wet the appetite of eager Bat fans getting excited for this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. Many casual viewers may wonder why this film or the original comic even matters when Batman Begins tells a much more well rounded and fulfilling origin story, but the hardcore will appreciate the loyalty to the original source material even if the movie does fail to leave any type of unique flavor on the Year One story. If I were to summarize what I thought of Year One in one sentence it would be “Batman Year One is a high quality if a bit safe and uninspired adaption of the comic that gives us a terrific performance of Jim Gordon from Bryan Cranston and a deeper look at the corruption of Gotham and what Batman means to it.”
The story gives us a look at the decay and corruption of Gotham City and what Jim Gordon and Batman mean for it. Because the movie takes place over the course of a year the story feels fairly episodic and at times disjointed. Despite this the story works well enough on the screen to get the characters where they need to be. The complex themes and origins of the iconic characters of Batman/Gordon are really what hold the story afloat. Unfortunately the movie is a few years too late as Batman Begins has taken the best elements of this story and made it a more rounded, whole, and less episodic tale that feels more coherent.
The core of the film is Jim Gordon and his relationship with Batman and Gotham City. The movie does a terrific job at developing his character and showing his initial struggle to accept Gotham as it is. Bryan Cranston delivers what I believe is the best performance of Jim Gordon yet by giving this character an edgier and more layered psyche than has been seen before. Ben McKenzie gives a decent if insignificant performance as Batman.
While I understand the desire of DC animation to want to keep to the source material I felt like they really could have done more to distinguish the film from both the Year One comic and Batman Begins, but instead decided to play it safe and stick to the comic book in an almost frame by frame adaption. I wish I could credit the writers for doing such a good job with the dialog and monologues for this film, but that would be stealing credit from Frank Miller who wrote 95% of it back in 1987. Putting this aside I still think the film works rather well even if it is playing it just a little too safe. On the flip side I do think that the art direction is beautiful and mixes the very sharp and crisp look of modern animation with the classic art direction of the comic.
Overall Effectiveness of the Film: 7.0
Despite its flaws Batman Year One is still a really good adaption of a classic comic book and a really great origin story of Jim Gordon. This movie certainly doesn’t fail to entertain even if it may not be quite as good as many of the past DC animated shorts. In certain areas this movie soars, but I really wish that the creative team could have gotten a little more outside the box to create something both true to the source material and creative enough to make it great in its own right.
Overall Score: 7.5