Batman: Year One (2011)

Yeah, when I heard this was coming to DVD, I more or less pulled this face.
When I heard this was coming to DVD, I more or less pulled this face. Because I knew, sooner or later, I’d have to write this review.

I hate to sound like an ungrateful fanboy but I find myself with no other option. Why does this film even exist? It’s too late for Year One. What idiot would want to adapt it now, after all its major elements have been translated to the silver screen at least twice?

Non-comic book readers should know Year One first appeared as a four-part story arc in Batman #404-407 (February – May 1987). Like most of the Bat-stories published around that time, it quickly became a cornerstone of the character’s modern continuity. Creative teams have referenced it and referred to it ever since, and it’s inspired some of the finest stories of Bat’s modern age.

For example: Bruce Timm (who executive produced this film), Paul Dini and Alan Burnet used it as the inspiration for whole sequences of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (otherwise known as The Greatest Batman Movie Ever Made), including the flashbacks to Bruce’s early crime-fighting years and his extended  flight from the GCPD in the second act. Christopher Nolan turned wide swaths of Year One into my favorite parts of Batman Begins, including the slow build-up to our first sight of Bruce in the Bat-suit…and his extended flight from the GCPD in the second act. Both used Year One as inspiration: a ball they ran with into their separate In-Zones. How can any screen adaption of Year One hold up against that, or the quarter century of expectation Bat-fans have built up?

The short answer: it can’t. The long answer:

"And by the way, your books suck."
“And by the way, your books suck.”

Year One‘s greatest strength lies in its dual focus on both the twenty-something year-old Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) and the disgraced Chicago cop, Lt. Jim Gordon (Bryan Cranston). Thanks to Contrived Comic Book Law, both arrive in Gotham City on the same day. Both suffer early defeats as they come to know the lay of Gotham’s landscape and realize its corruption is endemic. Both find ways to around this by appealing to populist ideas of civic heroism – Gordon by making headlines as a “Hero Cop” who “Saves Children”; Batman by becoming The Goddamned Batman. By the end, both unite against the combined evil forces of Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb (Jon Polito, who’s much better suited for the role than Colin McFarlane, let me tell you) and mob boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (Alex Rocco, whom I don’t like in the role as much as Tom Wilkinson, but Wilkinson got more to do in his film).

And that’s pretty much the whole movie. It’s barely over an hour long and that’s counting the end-credits. So once again I get to trot one of my favorite criticisms, even if it sounds like I’m complaining about a universal constant. Water’s wet, the sky is blue, and DC Animated movies are too damn short for their own good. In the past, that’s been due to budgetary constraints or lack of imagination. Here, the filmmakers just ran out of material. So, in the name of being “faithful” to their source, they left things as is.

Fine. Be that way if you want, filmmakers. But after years of hearing we fans bitch, moan and whine about arbitrary changes made to our favorite stories in the process of adapting them…why start listening to us now?

'Are you still bitching about Frank Miller's horrible comics? C'mon, D; come back to bed. I've got the handcuffs all warmed up."
“Are you still bitching about Frank Miller’s horrible comic books? C’mon, D; come back to bed. I’ve got the handcuffs all warmed up.”

Best I can figure, it’s because Year One originally came from the pen of Frank Miller, future-writer/director of Sin City (which was okay, for what it was) and The Spirit (which was shit on a shit sandwich). I’ve no idea why Miller’s work has become sacrosanct now that its author’s gone (pun intended) bat-shit insane. Best I can figure, it’s because Miller’s bullshit misogyny, macho posturing, and Jerry Fallwell-ish levels of Islamophobia makes headlines. Meaning he’s one of the few comic book writers a mainstream audience might actually recognize from the TV. So the WB can use his name to market straight-to-DVD movies. God knows the misogynistic, macho, posturing Isalmophobes will buy it up just to spite all we bleeding-hearts who’re sick of dealing with Miller’s bullshit. He’s like the crazy uncle you used to love and now just can’t get rid off.

Well, both sides of socio-political coin are going to be disappointed. Miller wrote Year One over four years before his first foray into Sin City, at a time when he could still control his personal storytelling eccentricities. Rest assured, the casual misogyny and posturing are there, but there are no barbaric brown people to beat up and the ambient levels of bullshit are no higher than they’ve been in previous Batman movies…and quite a bit lower than some (*cough* Schumacher *cough*).

Sorry. Bad cold. And there’s only one way to fight it: chicken soup. (Gratuitous reference to Batman: The Animated Series: check.) Excuse me a moment…

Hey, look! Blood! And it's all human and stuff. (Hey, gimmie a break; you never used to see this in American animation. I'm pulling out all the positives I can find.)
Hey, look! Blood! And it’s all human and stuff. (Hey, gimmie a break; you never used to see this in American animation. I’m pulling out all the positives I can find.)

I’ve always thought of Year One as the beta version of Sin City: Miller testing the waters with Batman’s cast before he plunged into them with both feet (and proceeded to drown). All the elements that would go on to make Sin City so laughably overwrought are present and accounted for. You got your urban cesspit, exclusively populated by mobsters, corrupt public officials, and prostitutes. All presided over by a heroic cop who’s fond of monologuing clipped, melodramatic phrases in true film noir fashion.

In this case, at least, that neo-noir hero cop is Lt. James Gordon. Unlike Miller’s original creations, Gordon’s allowed to be heroic and remain recognizably human. Reread Year One-the-book and you’ll see Gordon’s origin story held way more interest for Miller than Batman’s. Nothing wrong with that on its face. Rather, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that if Year One were just a little bit longer.

Gordon’s always been a walking metaphor for Batman’s audience. He’s not a native Gothamite so he can face the city with fresh eyes, letting newbies see why Gotham needed Batman in the first place. When they first meet at the train station, the ex-Green Barret and ex-jock douchebag Detective Flass (Fred Tatasciore) tells Gordon, “It’s not as bad as it looks. Especially if you’re a cop. Cops got it made in Gotham.” So long as you’re willing to take bribes, shakedown kids, and occasionally carry water for Carmine Falcone.

Yep, that's the Jim Gordon I know and love: a dude who brings guns to baseball bat fights.
Yep, that’s the Jim Gordon I know and love: a dude who brings guns to baseball bat fights.

Gordon’s none-too-keen on that, but we discover later that his conscience, and his habit of not ignoring corruption, have already run him out of one big city police force. Gotham is the worst place for a guy like Gordon. He even calls it “my time in Hell,” and seems a defeated, broken man at the beginning, one bad day away from a midlife crisis. His story is the story of regaining hope that you can make any Hell a Heaven if you work at it. That sometimes the system (corrupt as it is) can work…provided your willing to work outside it when the need arises. Or, better yet, make friends with the guy who’s already working on the outside. Sure, he might be a few bricks shy of a load (after all, he dresses up like a giant bat) but at least he won’t conspire with a crime boss to kidnap your wife and baby son.

Since that comes as the climax, most of the film follows Gordon’s investigation into Batman’s first year of activity. He interviews all the prime suspects, including Assistant DA Harvey Dent (Robin Atkin Downes) and playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne. He gets crap from Commissioner Loeb about not moving fast enough – especially after Batman crashes one of Carmine Falcone’s dinner parties, threatening most of Gotham’s prominent citizens…including Commissioner Loeb. And, in an attempt to humanize Gordon that will probably knock non-comic book readers for a loop, we see him start an extramarital affair with his subordinate, Detective Sarah Essen (Katee Sackhoff).

The attempt fails because we keep cutting away from Gordon’s story to focus on Batman, beginning. We see Bruce (in his civvies) prowl the East End – Gotham’s Tenderloin district – and recognize the Power of Fear after almost getting himself killed (in a fight with the soon-to-be-Catwoman). We see him get the idea for his motif when a bat flies through his window. We see him make mistakes, be sloppy, and eventually escape a SWAT team with some high tech, ultra-sonic, bat-signaling device. It’s nice and all…but we’ve seen it before, and seeing it as a film only reminds us this story was designed for four issues of a monthly book.

"Not bad, but the whiskers and tail will just get in the way. And the color could use some improvement...maybe something in purple?"
“Not bad, but the whiskers and tail will just get in the way. And the color could use some improvement…maybe something in purple?”

Worse yet, Year One is a comic book with a massive case of prequelitis. That’s why we keep cutting away from Batman’s story to the story of an East End prostitute named Selina Kyle (Eliza Dushku). We see her get into a fight with Bruce early on, only to take inspiration from Batman’s exploits. We see her punch out her pimp, Stan (Steve Blum), buy a cat-suit, and take to burglarizing Gotham’s rich and powerful. This is the “escalation” Gordon mentioned in the last five minutes of Batman Begins, shown to us rather than told. Again, it’s nice for what it is, but “what it is” doesn’t amount to much by the end. (Unless, of course, you switch over to the 15 minute Catwoman short Warners tacked onto Year One‘s disc.)

The problem? Again, we only have sixty minutes to tell a story. We have three, just counting the Big Name characters (Batman, Gordon, Selina). Their supporting casts could all use some major fleshing out while we’re at it, but that would only force the movie to tell more stories. Sarah Essen, to pick the obvious example, needs more than five lines of dialogue before I’ll believe Jim Gordon would jeopardize his marriage for her…during his wife’s pregnancy. I get that the stress of being the only good cop in town finally drives him back into the sheltering arms of his own hormones, but couldn’t we humanize Gordon without throwing another subplot into the mix?

Oh, wait, I forgot: this is based on a Frank Miller story, and it wouldn’t be a Frank Miller story without his by-now famous Madonna-Whore Complex. We can’t get to know Det. Essen! She’s the Infernal Temptress, so tangential to the overall story that her eventual disappearance only improves things. And it really shouldn’t. Both movie and book abandoned her by the side of the road, meaning they should’ve abandoned this entire subplot in the first place. It takes two to tango, and since Essen’s such a flat character (so flat she spends most of her screen time as a sounding board), Jim’s dalliance with her looks like a cheap pantomime of real adultery.

Just smooching in the rain, these two.
Just smooching in the rain, these two. Move along, people. Nothing to see here. Just the heart and soul of this story, which we’re casually passing by.

Make Gordon an adulterer, I don’t mind. Most of the comics I read as a child were set years after Gordon’s divorce and eventual remarriage…to Sarah Essen, who became a beloved reoccurring character in her own right. Even Batgirl accepted her into the family, making the rest of us looked like petty dicks for holding a grudge. Too bad her introduction was so threadbare and rushed. Too bad the film adaptation didn’t bother to fix this problem. Or any of  the others.

Because there’s a great crew of talented people behind all this. It took me forty-five minutes to get used to Ben McKenzie’s bat-voice, which is not nearly authoritative enough for my taste…but he is the weakest link. The rest of the cast is top notch, expertly directed by my favorite voice director, Andrea Romano. Eliza Dushku is perfect in her…what…five scenes?…as Catwoman….and as I’ve mentioned, Jon Polito is a refreshingly-slimy Commissioner Loeb. Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery have, between them, directed some of the best Western animation of the last ten years and gone completely unrecognized for it because they don’t work for Disney. But I love them, and I’ll continue watching their films secure in the knowledge that at least the action scenes will kick ass.

Beyond that, we have the big one: Bryan Cranston’s Jim Gordon. Every nerd on the internet’s praised him, and now I will, too. Is he the Best Jim Gordon Since Gary Oldman? Not really…but as far as I’m concerned, all the Gordons stand in the shadow of Bob Hastings, who’ll always voice Gordon in my head. Sorry, Bryan. It’s not your fault. You did the best you could with what you were given.

"From this moment on, none of your straight-to-DVD movies are safe."
“From this moment on, none of your straight-to-DVD movies are safe.”

And you were all given a redundant, thank-less task. Batman: Year One is barely a film because it’s paced like a two-part episode of some animated series we never got to see. Which is a shame, because any series from this crew would be awesome. Except they already did that for ten years – most of them – and quit back in the mid-2000s to focus on making films. Sure wish that would start working out for the better, like we were promised. But first, Warner Animation has to green-light better bat-scripts. Public Enemies and First Flight are looking more and more like happy accidents with each passing year and mediocre release. Watch those. Or, better yet, turn off your TV and read a book. Then you can control this story’s pacing all by yourself. It’s incredible. Try it sometime. I promise you’ll have fun.

GGHalf-G

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7 thoughts on “Batman: Year One (2011)”

  1. Damn, with Cranston in as Gordon I was hoping for a good film. Ah well, I can just rewatch Phantasm and be happy that it’s a friggen awesome flick.

    1. Yeah, sorry, Riz. The fact that Cranston’s good almost made things worse because I kept imagining what he could’ve done with an actual movie. Maybe they’ll do Long Halloween next, get Kevin Conroy back behind the mic, and it’ll turn out to be awesome. Or, better yet: they could do The Man Who Laughs, since it opens right where Year On ends and proceeds to tell the “chronologically first” Batman vs. The Joker story. God knows that would fly right off shelves.

  2. This one bored me to tears. Bruce Wayne becoming Batman? Corrupt cops? *Sigh* Been there, done that. The guy who plays Batman is awful. At times, it sounded like he was reading off the script directly.

    The only reason I checked this movie out was because of Bryan Cranston. I always thought he should have played Gordon (and would’ve been much better than Gary Oldman,) and he’s fine here.

    1. I’d really like to track down the person responsible for hiring Ben McKenzie. That person has some serious ‘splaining to do. Who looks at a guy with 92 episodes of The OC on his resume and says, “Yes, he was obviously born to play Batman”?

      Ditto on the Cranston, though. With Bob Hastings pushing 90, he seems perfectly placed to carry Gordon’s badge and gun into the future. His performance is the only part of this movie that’s drawn universal praise, so here’s hoping Warner Animation is somewhere out there, listening.

  3. “And, in an attempt to humanize Gordon that will probably knock non-comic book readers for a loop, we see him start an affair with Detective Sarah Essen (Katee Sackhoff).”

    So very true. I didn’t know the history of Gordon’s marriages, so I couldn’t offer that as an explanation to the Baroness, who just assumed Gordon was a mega asshole in this version. I found this as unnecessary as you did, plus I expected more from the DC Animated guys in the way of smoothing out the Millerisms.

    1. Freakish as it might seem, I’m pretty sure the guys in Warner’s marketing department would equate “smoothing out the Millerisms” with “damaging The Brand.” And it’s become startlingly obvious the marketing department picks which DCA projects get made these days. As was true with the TV shows, but it’s easier to slip an award-worthy character study into a TV season than a big studio’s annual DVD release schedule.

  4. I disagreed with you before seeing the movie, David. I was like, “surely it can’t be that bad!”

    It was.

    As a general rule, I believe that adaptation is a matter of being sufficiently skilled with the medium and having a good story. I believe good stories transcend the form of delivery and what makes a good movie might make a good video game. You just need to put the proper amount of effort into it.

    Batman: Year One proves me wrong. The comic version is justifiably heralded as one of the best Batman stories of all time. It helped create the modern gritty Batman and is still entertaining to read. Unfortunately, Batman: Year One the animated movie is one of the most joyless Batman experiences of my life. Batman: Origins was more fun and I thought it was boring.

    This isn’t a failure of the animators, scripting, or voice actors. You would be hard pressed to find a more faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s work outside of Sin City. There’s a few minor tweaks here and there but very few I’d disagree with. If my only complaint in changes is that I think Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend in a single scene shouldn’t be a paid escort, then you’ve done a reasonably good job of adapting something.

    It’s just this is such an amazingly joyless story. When read on the page, Gotham City is a gritty metropolis (small M) on the verge of collapse. James Gordon’s arrival is akin to a good man getting misjudged at the Pearly Gates and dumped in Hell. Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City is a comedy of trial and error with the Batman not yet understanding how to strike fear in the hearts of criminals.

    The animated version shows all of the same scenes from the comic but, somehow, my mind generates a far more evocative mood than the filmmakers. Part of this is the passage of time is nebulous in comics while more distinct in movies. James Gordon and Batman struggle for months to achieve their potential but it feels like only a couple of weeks in the film.

    If there’s a voice acting mistake, I’d say it was the fact everyone sounds so *subdued*. You can put whatever sort of emotional inflection into James Gordon and Batman’s voices in the comic but here, they seem absurdly calm no matter what the situation. Even the iconic dinner scene where Batman confronts the Falcone family and their cronies seems like Batman is half-assing it.

    As you mentioned, the length of the movie is also a problem. Even adapting every single element of the comic, this still only brings the story to roughly an hour. The addition of a fifteen minute Catwoman short only brings the movie to about an hour and fifteen minutes so I can’t say I’m particularly impressed.

    There’s good parts to the movie. I loved the depiction of Sarah Essen and felt the movie managed to capture the art style of the comic, already very stylized, well enough. The famous action sequence with the SWAT team worked well enough, though I felt the bat attack could have been done better. It’s damning with faint praise as the only thing I can say is the movie’s high points were “okay.”

    Such a disappointment.

    In short, Batman: Year One is just not worth the money. If you want to enjoy the story I’m going to tell people to purchase the original graphic novel. The movie is just an inferior retelling of a story which rightfully remains one of the best comics ever.

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