BATMAN: YEAR ONE (2011) (***)
Despite having the superhero in the title, this animated feature seems less like the Dark Knight’s story and more like that of James Gordon, who at this time is new to the Gotham police department. Based on what is hailed as a seminal comic series from writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli, the transition from the page to the screen is faithful, but also highlights the differences between mediums.
Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie, TV’s SOUTHLAND) was returned to Gotham from training abroad. He has begun the preparation for becoming the vigilante, but hasn’t found his identity yet. Jim Gordon (Bryan Cranston, TV’s BREAKING BAD) is the new lieutenant in town, having been exiled to the most corrupt city after smoking out police corruption in his last post. His wife Barbara (Grey DeLisle, TV’s THE FAIRLY ODDPARENTS) is pregnant and he is guilty to bring a new child into this dirty, grim world.
The stories of Wayne and Gordon cross over the course, but they don’t seem to have the same weight. Both are interesting, but Gordon’s seems the most original and nuanced. Cranston provides a wonderful voice performance, giving the tormented police officer a personality in turmoil. The corruption of the city starts to creep into his soul and that’s not good when your partner looks like the beautiful Sarah Essen (Katee Sackhoff, TV’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA). He has the nearly impossible task of being true to himself, while navigating the twisted politics of the police department that is not beneath fire bombing innocent people. Now he is tasked with hunting down a giant bat.
McKenzie doesn’t have the weight of voice for the Batman role that others have, notably Bruce Greenwood from last year’s wonderful BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD. As the fledgling hero, he makes mistakes that get him hurt and trapped. You get a glimpse at him learning on the job. What I felt was missing was a more in depth look at his foreign training. It’s a problem that comes with being slavishly faithful to the source. Also it seems less fresh because we’ve seen Batman’s origin before and the struggling new hero has been handled in various versions before. The comic was first, but BATMAN BEGINS and the imitators have made it to film first.
The third most important character is Gotham. The story does a great job of setting the tone of hellish city. We really feel the great slope that Gordon and Batman have to climb. There isn’t one villain, but a city full of them. The corrupt police force is led by Commissioner Loeb (Jon Polito, MILLER’S CROSSING). He is just another dinner guest of gangster Carmine Falcone (Alex Rocco, THE GODFATHER). Prostitutes and pimps fill the streets. But the Batman inspires one to put on a cat suit and trade tricks for burglary. Selina Kyle aka Catwoman (Eliza Dushku, TV’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) seems crammed into the story a bit, but is interestingly recast as a black dominatrix.
For the most part, the comic was used as a storyboard start for the film. The pacing of a four-issue comic is so different than a film. At just little over an hour, more time could have been taken to create more tension. But one has to respect the devotion to the source and the quiet moments that are not common for animation made in the U.S. The origin of Gordon really makes him a true partner for Batman. They have the same goals and need each other. Gotham is not a place for angels… but these flawed men will do.