Screen Time: BATMAN: YEAR ONE
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Ben McKenzie, Eliza Dushku, Katee Sackhoff, Jon Polito & Alex Rocco
Directors: Sam Liu & Lauren Montgomery
Release Date: 18 October 2011 (Exclusive to HMV in the UK at time of writing)
Stewart R: I’m usually on top of my game when it comes to knowing about DC and WB’s animated releases but this one very nearly snuck under my nose and made a break for Christmas without me knowing about it! DC and Warner’s are a mile ahead of the game when it comes to animated adaptations of their comic book properties and have quite an array of directorial talent - Lauren Montgomery the definitive standout - under their wing. To see us through the winter months it has been left to Montgomery, in partnership with Sam Liu (Batman/Superman: Public Enemies), to deliver a noir-infused tale of two men tackling Gotham from different angles.
Based faithfully upon Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s much heralded Year One arc from 1987 - which, I must state for the record, I have not yet read (though I did have a sneaky flick through the trade paperback when stood in Waterstones the other day!) - Batman: Year One focuses on a younger Jim Gordon’s arrival in a crime infested Gotham, which coincides with the return of one its famous multimillionaires, a former victim of Gotham’s cruelty who is set on vengeance after years abroad. The Batman origin story has pretty much been done to death in various media formats over the past 20-30 years but here it’s thankfully tempered with Gordon’s story, as the former Internal Affairs man, whose only choice has been to end up working in the ranks of Gotham’s seedy police force, brings his young pregnant wife along for the ride and a new start.
While the plot flits back and forth between Bruce and Jim as their lives progress over the space of a single year, their crime-fighting careers moving in different directions yet following similar motives, it feels like this is more Gordon’s story. In a lot of ways he’s the hero that Bruce isn’t; a family man, a clock puncher, down-to-earth and looking to enforce justice as close to the letter of the law as he can. He has a good heart as well as the weaknesses that can afflict any person. From the opening sequence we’re instantly shown that these two men come from backgrounds that are poles apart, Bruce gazing down upon Gotham from the sky, while Jim rides with the disgruntled masses on the train. While Bruce is forced to use the shadows and theatrics to tackle the criminal element, gaining enemies amongst the higher echelons of the corrupt elite through reputation, Jim stands in plain sight and tackles the same entrenched, unsavouries by playing the politics game.
The two voice actors cast in the lead roles help to further emphasise the contrast with very adept performances. Ben McKenzie (The O.C., Southland) produces a cold, unemotional turn as Bruce Wayne - riffing a little off of Kevin Conroy’s delivery on occasion it seems - which allows the character’s actions to speak more than any personality does. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Malcolm In The Middle) deserves most of the plaudits however, as he absolutely nails his performance as weary Jim Gordon perfectly. It’s his finely-paced delivery that lends itself so well to the noir-like narration that the lawman’s inner monologue provides throughout, as he struggles to do what’s right for his family and for the city. The rest of the cast do fine job of rounding things out but to be honest it’s only really Jon Polito and Alex Rocco as Commissioner Loeb and Carmine Falcone respectively that get parts to stick their teeth into, so focused is the limelight on the two main protagonists.
The only real failing of the main story is the inclusion of Catwoman. She’s completely superfluous here, and, considering that the film makers are sticking so closely to the source material, I would imagine the same might be said of her appearance in print. Eliza Dushku provides her street-savvy Selina Kyle with a reasonable tough-girl tone but it’s a little surprising that the directors didn’t take one small stroke of creative liberty and remove the five-or-so minutes of screen time she has entirely as her contribution to the plot is close to minimal...
...which is why there’s an additional 15 minute Catwoman short, written by Paul Dini and directed with style by Montgomery, accompanying the main feature! It uses Selina’s character, along with the vague sub-plot involving vice from Year One, and follows the feline anti-heroine clawing after a towering gangland boss called Rough Cut, who may be trading in dodgier goods than unrefined diamonds. It’s a glorious action set-piece that echoes the adult nature of it’s parent feature. It even offers up a pole-dance sequence that isn’t over the top or out of place - there’s no actual nudity as such - but follows an erotic line that Warner Bros Animation haven’t really played with before. As a bonus it’s certainly welcome and it helps to validate the inclusion of Selina in Year One a little.
Being a DC/Warner animation, the visual side of Batman: Year One, from beginning to end, is top notch as expected. The use of 3D techniques is left almost exclusively to vehicular shots - as far as I could tell, and I tend to have a keen eye for these things - and blends seamlessly with the traditional 2D styling. While still having that quintessential Warner Bros feel, there are odd moments where it felt as if I were watching a polished Production IG anime - Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex comes to mind - as colouration, shading and lighting are some of the best that I’ve seen from the studio. The action set-pieces don’t hold back on the punches and are well choreographed - something I usually associate with Lauren Montgomery’s presence on a project but I’ll have to look into that further for 100% confirmation one of these days!
DC seem hellbent on throwing an animated feature involving the Caped Crusader at the viewing public at least once a year, and while that sort of saturation and overuse of a single character would normally get long in the tooth, it’s hard to even question the company’s decision when they continue to produce animated features of this quality. A brilliant insight into Jim Gordan, a brilliant performance by Bryan Cranston and by golly a brilliant hour-long animation. The Catwoman short sweetens the already delicious deal and it’s another animated effort that’s not to be missed. 9/10