Saturday, September 19, 2020

Batman: Year One

Of the many writers who have penned Batman stories over the decades, Frank Miller is one of the more interesting ones, if only for singlehandedly writing some of the most famous (The Dark Knight Returns) and most infamous (All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder) takes on the character. One of the highlights of his career, however, is Batman: Year One, published in 1987 with artwork by David Mazzucchelli, a story that was considered the official origin story of Batman until 2013’s Zero Year. I actually read this story myself for a comics class in college, though it was a version where they inexplicably recolored the original artwork. Though this story would get an animated film adaptation in 2011, I didn’t view it until a 2020 Toonami broadcast, after which I wondered why I didn’t watch it sooner.

Batman: Year One follows a year in the lives of Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) and Lieutenant James Gordon (Bryan Cranston) as they deal with the crime and corruption of Gotham City. However, their journeys begin at around the same time. Bruce Wayne has returned to the city after 12 years abroad in training for his future as a vigilante. Lieutenant Gordon, meanwhile, has just moved to Gotham with his pregnant wife, Barbera (Grey DeLisle), after transferring from Chicago.

Lieutenant Gordon's (Bryan Cranston) resolve is tested by the
corrupt Gotham PD.

Much like the comic, it’s based on, the story is well-written, showing the development of both protagonists over time. It felt like the story mostly focused on Gordon’s struggle to stay true to himself in spite of the backlash he receives from corrupt figures like Commissioner Loeb (Jon Polito) and Detective Flass (Fred Tatasciore), which does offer an interesting perspective on Gotham’s seedy underbelly. However, we do still see Bruce Wayne’s own struggles, both physically and emotionally, as he gradually adopts his role as Batman, complete with a darker and more fleshed-out take on his origin story and why he chose to model himself after a bat. There’s not too much else to say other than it’s nearly as well-written as the original comic book counterpart, down to dialogue lifted directly from the source. I’m aware that there are some changes made to the story, but it’s nothing too major, so it does still feel like its own experience.

If there’s one thing I’ve never been in love with, however, even from the original work, it’s Selena Kyle’s (Eliza Dushku) origin as a sex worker before she adopts the Catwoman persona. To clarify, I do like the idea behind her arc, that she’s inspired by Batman’s actions to pursue villainy, but the sex worker angle never felt like a good fit for the character, though I’m sure later writers have tackled this subject with more care and nuance.

David Mazzucchelli’s artwork from the original book is translated pretty well to the screen, though all of the models are, understandably, more animation friendly. Many key moments are recreated very faithfully and show how well they can translate to animation, like when Batman infiltrates a dinner party and puts a lid over a flaming platter to visually demonstrate his plan to eliminate the corruption at the heart of Gotham. The muted color palette also captured the noir tone of the original story very well and, from what I could tell, the coloring also seemed based on the color choices of the original release. I thought this was a good call on the part of the animators, as I wasn’t a huge fan of the changes made for later releases of the story. As a nice touch, you also get to see some of the original panels in the credits.

A pivotal Batman moment translates very well to animation.

As for the voice acting, it was generally pretty good. However, the choice I have the most praise for is Bryan Cranston as Lieutenant Gordon, as his take fully captured the spirit of the character. Of the other voice actors, I felt that Ben McKenzie’s take on Batman, while appropriate for the tone, did feel a little flat at times. Not all versions of Batman have to be Kevin Conroy, but a little more nuance in the performance would’ve helped.

Although Batman: Year One is barely over an hour-long, it’s a great way to experience one of the more famous and influential stories of the franchise. Despite some minor changes here and there, it’s very faithful to the original, which I can only see as a good thing for people who do want to experience it, but don’t have the time to sit down and read the original story. Either way, this version is worth watching for fans both old and new. And while you’re at it, the original comic is also still worth a read.

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