Reader, I’ll be blunt with you: I love Batman. The goofy Adam West version of Batman, the serious Kevin Conroy version of Batman, and everything in between; all renditions are near and dear to my heart. My bookshelf is simply dripping with graphic novels about the caped crusader: Batman: Hush, Batman Eternal, two volumes of Batmanga, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, The Batman/Judge Dredd Collection, Batman: The Black Mirror, and plenty more.
But my favorite component of the collection is Batman: Year One. Eons ago, in 1986, DC Comics wanted to give their characters a modern coat of paint, starting with the most popular: Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman. It wasn’t too hard to freshen up Wonder Woman and Superman’s origin stories, but Batman’s tale was fantastic already. So DC Comics opted to flesh it out instead. With Frank Miller’s writing and David Mazzucchelli’s art, Batman: Year One told a powerful and human tale. The honest and honorable Lieutenant James Gordon has come to work with the corrupt Gotham Police Department, while his wife is pregnant. At the same time, Bruce Wayne adopts the guise of a bat and begins his one-man war on crime, eventually finding himself in conflict with the cops, Gordon included. While the setup won’t win awards for creativity, the characters of both Bruce Wayne and Lieutenant Gordon are organically deep and believable, and it’s this near-flawless characterization, combined with Mazzucchelli’s gorgeous art, that makes Batman Year One so phenomenal.
Spin the clock forward to the year 2011. A full 25 years after the comic’s release, DC fans were treated to an animated adaptation of Batman: Year One, and despite a few wrinkles, the Batman: Year One movie is truly spectacular. Excellent voice acting, writing, and animation come together to make Batman: Year One one of the best Batman films ever produced.
The First of Batman: Year One’s many strengths is that Bryan Cranston voices Lieutenant Gordon. As fans of Breaking Bad are no doubt aware, Cranston’s the acting equivalent of a cruise missile with a 50-ton payload of emotiveness, and the same is true in Batman: Year One. Gordon serves as both a character and a narrator, and combined with the mighty writing, Cranston crushes his role. For instance, there’s a scene in which Lieutenant Gordon narrates his thoughts as he walks to his car, thinking, “I requested off this damn night shift four times now. Barbara needs me. Barbara and little James. So I hope it’s a boy. So what?” Cranston speaks conversationally, as though he were casually chatting with the viewer. It gives Gordon a veneer of realism that makes his story all the more enjoyable.
It’s a shame, however, that Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) often feels flat by comparison. Whereas Lieutenant Gordon’s wife and child act as external motivation for Gordon to clean up Gotham, Wayne’s motivations are completely internal: he was orphaned when a criminal killed his parents, and he wants to ensure that it never happens again. It’s a simple and powerful origin story, but Bruce Wayne’s character doesn’t go much deeper than that. And it doesn’t help that Ben McKenzie’s take on Batman sounds like a diluted version of Kevin Conroy, further robbing Batman: Year One’s Bruce Wayne of his own identity. This isn’t a death sentence for the movie, as Gordon’s tale is the meat of Batman: Year One while Wayne’s story is the barbecue sauce, the strengths of Lieutenant Gordon can’t completely redeem the weaknesses of Bruce Wayne. Don’t expect this take on Batman to completely blow your mind. You’ll only be disappointed.
Like the voice acting, the animation of Batman: Year One is mostly fantastic. Every character is detailed and well-drawn, with tons of detail in the background elements of every scene. One of the most incredible visual segments of Batman: Year One comes right at the beginning. Lieutenant Gordon’s riding into Gotham by train, while the sunlight spilling through the windows reflects and illuminates different passengers on the train and the outside buildings reflect off of the train’s windows. But while the level of polish and detail in the art is impressive, the general style isn’t quite so striking. Mazzucchelli’s art in the original Batman: Year One had a very unique and dynamic feeling, with panels often drawn mid-action and focus on a single color (which would change throughout the book). While the backgrounds in the film typically look excellent, the characters look far more like generic, Western animation characters. It gives Batman: Year One a grittily realistic look, but that comes at the cost of a lack of unique and striking style.
Batman: Year One is a gently flawed adaptation of a nearly-flawless comic. Bryan Cranston beautifully realizes the character of Lieutenant Gordon, but were he not the focus of the film, Batman: Year One would have a far weaker showing in the voice acting arena. And the animation, while deliciously high-budget, opts for realism over style. If you haven’t read Batman: Year One, I’d easily recommend the book over the film. But if you’ve read the book, or don’t have time to read and just want an hour-long dosage of Vitamin Batman, watch Batman: Year One. It isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the strongest DC Comics films, and one of the caped crusader’s mightiest movies.
*images from comicvine.com, dccomics.com, giantbomb.com, comicsalliance.com, and animationmagazine.net