Friday, October 28, 2011


Most people would point to The Dark Knight Returns as Frank Miller's greatest Batman work.

Not me. No, while I think Dark Knight Returns is a pretty special work, I was much more blown away by Miller's take on Batman's alpha, rather than omega, Batman: Year One. Miller was tasked to create a "re-boot" of Batman's origins as a 4-issue run in the Batman title, and Year One was the result. Miller has said that all of his Batman stories are "his" Batman, and can be connected. So, yes, Miller's intention was to create a starting point for the embittered, driven old man we see in Dark Knight Returns, but, in a testament to his skill as a writer, the story functioned extremely well as a basis for over twenty years of continuity and storylines.

Miller didn't draw Year One, but brought in his collaborator on several Daredevil stories, David Mazzucchelli. Mazzucchelli was able to embody the gritty, corrupt world of Gotham City just as well as Miller, himself, but also brought a certain elegance to the line and form. There was a grace, and reality, to the figures, whereas Miller, as is his wont, tended to portray Batman as a huge, epic figure.

Again, I think Miller's Batman is amazing, but the almost-Hopper-esque reality of Mazzucchelli's pencils helped with the idea of a re-boot. Gotham felt like a place where there were lives, and stories, around every corner. Miller's Batman in Dark Knight Returns was an epic figure, and the city, and it's population, seemed to be a reflection of him, whereas Mazzucchelli's felt like a reflection of the city.

The other great leap forward, in terms of  characterization, was with James Gordon, here not yet Commissioner, but a police Lieutenant recently transferred from Chicago. A transfer with a hint of some scandal driving him to Gotham. The main character of Year One isn't Batman, or Bruce Wayne, but Jim Gordon. The action revolves around both men finding their place within the corrupt world of Gotham, not to mention finding hope and partnership within each other.

Year One, as a comic book,  is nothing less than a masterpiece, repositioning and re-energizing both characters in one fell swoop. It's essential reading for anyone with an interest in these characters.

So, when Warner Brothers Animation and Producer Bruce Timm announced that Batman: Year One would be one of their direct-to-video DC Comics animated films, I had some mixed reactions. I love the story, and it's nice to think that more people will be exposed to it, but the DC animated program has had it's fair share of stinkers. Though, the projects actually based on certain arcs, or graphic novels, have generally come off better.

Well, my copy came from Amazon, and I watched it on Wednesday night. I have to say that I was more impressed than not. This particular offering being on the upper end of these animated projects.

The script is, for me, the most important thing. A good story can overcome anything. In general, this adaptation is very solid, if a bit staid. There is very little deviation from Miller's work from scene structure down to actual dialogue. There are a few "massaged" elements, one of which bothered me. Gordon's reason for leaving Chicago is fleshed out a bit, where Miller left it very nebulous. In doing so, they've swung Gordon more to the angels, inferring that he was run out of Chi-town for turning in other cops. Well, then why would the Gotham Police, rife with corruption and graft, welcome him, even promising that he'll "fit right in?" The book tends to make you feel that Gordon had no place else to go, that Gotham was the only place corrupt enough to let him continue to be a cop, because he was corrupt, in some way, in Chicago. It's a change that takes a lot of the desperation off Gordon's mission to stay clean.

Some other scenes and events are ejected, and I can't say I missed them. It's a slick, streamlined adaptation, it moved VERY fast. It does, at times, bring home how slim the story is. The film only runs about an hour.

The animation is solid, mid-range stuff. More stylish than your average G.I. Joe cartoon, but hardly a work of art, like the best of the Disney crop. Every one of these projects that's based on an actual book gets the "we're going to replicate the style of the original artist" speech, and it never works. Yes, Batman: Year One features much of the same framing and angles, as well as the color palate of Mazzucchelli's work, but it doesn't, at all, capture the feel of his pencils.

To be fair; it can't, and it shouldn't. Animation is a vastly different medium from a comic book, and animated figures faithfully rendered in Mazzucchelli's style would look odd in motion. It would take a level of personal quality control that just isn't possible with this kind of corporate production, where the animation is being shipped off to an assembly line animation house in Asia. That's the nature of the beast, so, while I note the discrepancy, I don't damn the project for it.

The voice acting is solid, with one GLARING exception. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) provides the voice of Jim Gordon, and while he does the job, it also is hardly an inspired performance. Fanboy faves Eliza Duskhu and Katee Sackoff are Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Gordon's partner Sarah Essen, respectively. They're both fine in limited roles (Dushku gets a bit more to do, and makes more of an impact, in the Catwoman short included on the Blu-Ray). The weak link is, unfortunately, Ben McKenzie as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Perhaps I'm spoiled after years of Kevin Conroy's amazing work as Batman in multiple animated and video game projects, but McKenzie's voice is just plain dull, and not distinctive as Bruce or Batman. He may be a fine actor, but I don't think he has what it takes to do voice work.

That may seem like a lot of gripes, but I did enjoy the film. It's not the book, it never could be the book, and the book is very special to me. However, it's close. I think, however, adaptation is always a stronger course. Batman Begins mines much of the same material, and is far stronger, story-wise than this film.

Really, all of these DC Animated films, that directly adapt comic stories, function only as "bonus features" to the books themselves. Good bonus features, but still just sauce for the original goose. I do look forward to the rumored adaptations of Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, but my expectations are well tempered. 

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