DVD Review: Batman: Year One

The latest DC animated feature film takes on Frank Miller's seminal work on the Caped Crusader's rookie year.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

Batman: Year One

In the years before Frank Miller lost his marbles and started writing lines like “I’m the goddamn Batman,” he was actually responsible for reshaping how the world saw the Dark Knight. His four-issue arc within the Batman series (no, it was not a graphic novel), entitled Batman Year One, is amongst the greatest stories ever told about the DC icon. This month DC Animated brings the pages of Miller’s story to life with the Batman Year One straight-to-DVD movie. For my money, this is the best thing DC Animated has done since JLA: New Frontier. There will be controversy with this review because I stand on the opposite side of the fence than most with one major casting choice. I’ll explain in a moment.

First I have to applaud DC Animated for actually understanding Frank Miller’s vision. Batman Year One isn’t the story of Batman; it’s the story of James Gordon (one day to become Commissioner Gordon) who, in turn, mirrors what’s happening with Batman. Both are first year crime fighters in Gotham City, both are unsure of themselves, both hold themselves to a higher standard of moral value, both hate what Gotham is and both vow to fight for the city’s soul. Batman does it for vengeance, Gordon does it for family, but both men are dedicated to their fight.

Batman: Year One

It would have been easier on DC to make Batman the star of this film. It would have also ripped the heart out of Frank Miller’s story and made Batman Year One just another superhero DVD. Instead, DC went all out to focus on Gordon by hiring Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston as his voice. Cranston is perfect. He is now the definitive voice of James Gordon the way Kevin Conroy will always be the voice of Batman. Cranston crawls inside James Gordon’s skin and become the character completely. That’s a tall order for just a voice, but I find his performance to be absolutely flawless.

Where the controversy will come in for me is the casting of Ben McKenzie (The OC, Southland) as Bruce Wayne/Batman. For many, McKenzie’s monotone style just doesn’t work for the character and that he’s woefully outshined by Cranston. To me, that’s the point and I think McKenzie does a great job of making Batman seem nervous, unsure and even scared. If we heard Kevin Conroy’s voice or that of some major star, we would have been putting modern expectations on this Batman. This isn’t the seasoned crime fighter; this is the guy who is learning from his mistakes. The monotone is mostly during Batman’s inner monologue and to me that works. Bruce Wayne feels dead inside at this point, he has no real personality or drive other than his mission. McKenzie’s voice conveys that idea really well.  Another plus to this is that it keeps the spotlight on Cranston, where it belongs. I wouldn’t want him to voice Batman in more modern stories, but for Batman Year One he’s a solid choice.

Eliza Dushku is passable as Catwoman, though her part is cut down from the original story so there’s little room to screw it up. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff performs the voice of Sarah Essen, the female cop Gordon has an affair with. Like Dushku, Sackhoff does a fine job with a tiny part. Nothing outside of Gordon’s story and the Batman parallel is focused on, which makes this a much more economical film than DC Animated usually pumps out. The animation takes Frank Miller’s art and uses modern animation techniques to bring his work to life. Fans of the story will catch some of the more famous panels and get a little buzz seeing them animated.

I’m hoping DC Animated learns something from all of this. Most of what they do is badly executed. The Red Hood story, the two Green Lantern movies, Crisis On Two Earths, outside of All Star Superman and JLA: New Frontier, nothing they do is much more than acceptable entertainment. Batman Year One raises the bar by adding adult themes, tension, violence and reality. If the rumor is true and the next Frank Miller story to see animated release is The Dark Knight Returns, let’s hope it keeps the same level of excellence that Batman Year One has.