In 1986, DC published Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns", which arguably re-established Batman as a grim and gritty character and influenced the way Batman stories were told forever after. One year later, DC hired Miller to retell Batman's origin in a story entitled "Batman: Year One". Unlike "The Dark Knight Returns", this story was part of official DC Universe continuity, and even further established the dark tone that this well-known character is defined by. "Year One" served as source material for a number of great comic book stories, and was drawn from heavily in Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" movie.
Now, the DC animated studios have turned their attention to "Batman: Year One" and set out to create an animated version of this iconic story. I'm pleased to report they succeeded wonderfully.
The character driven story is what really sells this movie so well. Surprisingly, for those who haven't read the original comic, this story is more about James Gordon than it is about Bruce Wayne. Gordon has just transferred to Gotham with the rank of police lieutenant, and is having to survive as an honest cop amidst a corrupt police force. His stance for honesty and justice put both himself and his family in danger, and his only ally may just be the vigilante he is trying to capture!
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is discovering his calling and what it really takes to fight crime in Gotham City. This is Batman well before he becomes the seasoned veteran with a plan for every situation. He makes mistakes and suffers the consequences, resulting in injuries he's forced to suffer through and "back to the wall" situations he has to think his way out of on the fly.
With Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" being the only exception, I think DC's animated version of "Batman: Year One" is the single most faithful adaptation of specific comic book pages to the screen. Fans of the comic will recognize numerous panels that have been brought to life, though with a cleaner look and a few more colors added to thepalette.
The cast performances were solid, though not perfectly suited to the project. Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli captured the grim despair of noir. And though this film aims to retain that feel, the 1st person voice-overs, representing the thoughts of James Gordon and Bruce Wayne, have a little too much inflection from time to time. I also thought that the voice of Batman, while appropriately young sounding given the age of the character in this story, was having to try a little too hard to achieve that natural,guttural sound that makes the best Batman voices work.
The animation and lines are beautiful on Blu Ray, and the the character of Gotham City deserved its own credit. The original artwork was clearly the basis for the visual design, and with just a few enhancements, the original visuals translate wonderfully.
The run-time is once again pretty short at only 64 minutes. But it's more than enough time to tell this story well. And the numerous great features on the Blu Ray(creator commentary, round table with current Batman creative staff, documentary on the original comic, Catwoman short feature and more!) easily make up for any perceived brevity in the main feature.
Although it may not lead to conversation after watching the movie, a major theme in James Gordon's story is doing the right thing, even when it hurts. Gordon is a flawed man, but strives for most of the movie to make the right decisions, despite the pain it brings him. When contrasted with the modern pop-philosophy of "do what feels right" or "follow your heart", Gordon's pursuit of honesty and justice is refreshing and inspiring, whether it impacts the entire city, or just his relationship with his wife.
For those interested in an introduction to the Batman comics mythos who aren't quite ready to flip through an actual comic book, this is as good as it gets. A solid, serious representation of Batman with a grounded, human story that even many non-genre fans will appreciate.
Rated PG-13 for violence and some sexual material.