Batman: The Dark Knight Returns made a bigger splash, but of the two famous Frank Miller revisionist Batman stories of the ’80s, Batman: Year One might have the larger influence. Not on the comic industry as a whole: there’s no questioning the DC One-Two punch of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen changed the kinds of stories superhero stories could tell, for good or ill. What Year One did was add a dimension that wasn’t then common in Batman stories: gritty realism.
This is of a piece with the work that Miller had done with Daredevil in his justly celebrated run from 1979 to February 1983. He turned Daredevil into one of Marvel’s most popular characters by adding a darker dimension. Daredevil began battling street level drug dealers and the real problems of a crime-ridden city, not just Paste-Pot Pete and Stiltman. He brought this kind of “ripped from the headlines” crime-fighting back to Batman, whose adventures have been all over the place through his long publishing career.
Batman: Year One Commemorative Edition is the 10-year anniversary release of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal work. The story is, of course, about Bruce Wayne’s first year fighting crime in Gotham city. Cleverly, Frank Miller makes this timeframe coincide with James Gordon’s first year as a Lieutenant in Gotham PD. Their stories parallel. Bruce Wayne returns to a city that he knows has been rotted out by crime, and he aims to fight it. Gordon is a good cop brought into a corrupt police department where he knows he has to bide his time to get into a position to try and clean it up. Both men have the same goals, and because of their different positions, they become adversaries.
Bruce, back in Gotham after 12 years abroad honing his skills, doesn’t yet have a vehicle for fighting against the crime that took away his parents as it drains away the soul of his city. He’s got a mission but he doesn’t have a mission plan, or the temperament he needs. A recon mission turns into a rescue mission, which goes badly when the rescuee, a child prostitute, stabs him in the leg then the cops shoot him in the shoulder. He gets out of it, because he’s (almost) Batman, but he did not do well. He has a lot to learn.
Gordon, in contrast, knows too much. He stands by while his fellow police officers beat up kids and take bribes. He’s been burned before by turning in dirty cops. He knows he has to be patient… But they take his patience as a sign he’s not in on the game. Incognito, his cops beat him half to death with baseball bats, hoping he gets the message. Both defeated warriors come back and make strides, becoming public heroes while defying the evil that has power in Gotham city.
This film is Frank Miller’s story, and it’s mostly a good one. There are no costumed villains for either Gordon or Batman to face. There’s a corrupt police commissioner, and the gangsters that he works with. There’s low-level street thugs who exploit anyone weaker than themselves and kowtow to anyone stronger. Our heroes’ villain is the rotten city they live in. Frank Miller keeps things gritty and close to the street. That child prostitute is under the wing of an older prostitute, Selina Kyle, who takes Batman as a model, dons a cat suit, and begins a burgling career. Calling it an adult story might be overstating things (problems in this world are still solved mostly by punching) but it has more adult situations and reactions than most comic stories of its era.
Does that make it a good movie? Well, it could be a good basis of a film. A lot of it was cribbed for the better parts of Nolan’s Batman Begins. However, the animated Batman: Year One is so close an adaptation of the comic that it never actually feels like a movie. Batman: Year One was four issues of the Batman monthly series. It had climaxes and cliffhangers at the end of every issue. That’s the pace of a comic book, but that’s not how a film is structured. These four issues tell one complete story, but they are not structured like a single story.
And storytelling in comic books is much different than a movie. A single panel that one can take in with a glance becomes several seconds of screen time, and so Year One, despite its short length at 64 minutes, can seem oddly too slow and too quickly paced at the same time. For Year One to be a successful film, it would need to be restructured so that significant scenes that can successfully be told in a couple of panels in a comic would take some time on the screen. Screen time is a factor in story impact. If something happens too fast, even if it changes the entire story, it can seem insignificant because the way the story is told doesn’t give it that significance.
The voice acting of the film, which was directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, is filled with then-stars and is mostly indifferent. It’s fun to note Ben McKenzie (rather limply) plays Batman here, and is later cross-graded to playing Jim Gordon in the TV series Gotham. The best performance is Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon, who injects a weary weight into his line readings. Much of the rest of the cast, seem to be reading their lines for the first time. It is fun to have Alex Rocco playing Falcone, and Jon Polito as Commissioner Loeb. On the other hand, Jeff Bennet plays Alfred as if he isn’t British, he just has a sinus infection.
This sort of animated production is walking a tight rope, since it has to be faithful enough to the original that it doesn’t upset fans. But I don’t think any fans would be upset with something more filmic. There are fine scenes here, particularly the action sequence where a SWAT team invades a tenement that a wounded Batman is holed up in. The sequence has some things that are much more plausible in a comic than seen in animated form, it’s still thrilling and well-staged.
But overall, Batman: Year One is a rather indifferent watch. The story holds up, but holds up better in the comic form, where the art by David Mazzucchelli doesn’t have the generic anime-but-not-anime look of a lot of DC Animated films. The 4K visuals are an upgrade from the Blu-ray – less compressed, smoother, with better color representation. That improves the viewing experience, but not the film, which is too direct an adaptation of the source material without taking on the strengths of its new medium. It’s a fine story. It’s not that well told in this film.
Batman: Year One Commemorative Edition has been released on 4K UHD by Warner Brothers. The release contains both a 4K and a standard Blu-ray disc. The extras are only included on the Blu-ray disc. This includes a commentary track by several involved with the production: voice director Andrea Romano, animation director Mike Carlin, co-producer Alan Barnett, and director Sam Liu. Video extras include “Reinventing Gordon” (22 min), “Conversations with DC Comics” (40 min), “Heart of Vengeance” (24 min), and a Catwoman short (15 min).