We’d been anticipating this one, since buzz from friends was good. We were hearing that it was faithful to the classic Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli story while still being entertaining in its own way. Our friends were right.
Batman: Year One is a little over an hour, but it’s solid and unflagging. It moves from key moment to key moment without wasted space. I’d rather see something this good at this length than something longer where my attention wandered. It will be available for purchase or download on Tuesday, October 18.
Lieutenant Gordon (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) has just come to Gotham City, as 25-year-old playboy Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie, Southland) returns after 12 years away. We see Wayne become Batman for the first time on his home turf, but the movie is about Gordon more than Wayne. It covers the choices he makes when faced with official corruption in the police department at the same time his wife is pregnant with their first child.
The art has more detail than I remember seeing in other recent DC animated movies. I liked it. It had an authentic, grimy, urban feel, and the background design takes a naturalistic approach. Thinner lines allow for more integration between characters and backgrounds. The many shadows, including facial shading, establish the right mood and make this feel more substantial. Here’s a sample clip.
It’s also faithful when it needs to be. I recognized the street — the one where Wayne makes his first stand and we meet Selina Kyle (Eliza Dushku, balancing tough and sexy) before she becomes Catwoman — from the graphic novel before the scene even started. If you’ve read the comics, you’ll recall other key covers and images as you watch. The storytelling here is more subtle than it’s been in the last few films. For instance, during a key beating scene, they cut away from the violence, saying more with implication and results instead of dwelling on pushing the PG-13 envelope visually.
Cranston’s an Emmy winner for good reason, and his voice acting here is well-suited to the needs of his character. It’s solid, reliable, but with some warmth. McKenzie sometimes sounds slight, but he’s supposed to be young and uncertain. (Honestly, I’m not sure that anyone could make some of Miller’s more exaggerated lines, like “Scum, maybe, but even scum have families,” sound right.) His Batman sounds like an imitation of some of the more famous voices, not what it needs to be in its own right. It sounds like a line reading, not a performance.
Supporting voices Jon Polito as the crooked Commissioner Loeb and Alex Rocco as mobster Carmine Falcone are exactly what they need to be, playing off their familiar personas. I also liked Alfred’s line, voiced by Jeff Bennett, “Shall I fetch your tights, sir?” Watch for the bat swarm for some really disturbing and effective visuals.
I’m impressed. This was put together by the usual suspects — co-directors Lauren Montgomery (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, many other DCU cartoons) and Sam Liu (All-Star Superman), writer Tab Murphy (Superman/Batman: Apocalypse), executive producer Bruce Timm — but they’ve moved beyond their previous works to put out the best DC animated movie yet. At one point, KC said, “This is really good. I’m getting sucked into the story instead of watching for details to mention in a review.”
Catwoman in Batman: Year One
The Blu-ray Combo Pack contains:
* The return of the DC Showcase line of original shorts with “Catwoman” (15 minutes). The animation quality on this wasn’t nearly as good as the main feature, and it felt padded. Maybe I just didn’t appreciate the lengthy animated strip club scene. This doesn’t feel like the same character as in the previous movie, from the more modern zipper jumpsuit costume to the lack of motivation or depth. It’s mainly action sequences for their own sake, which I find boring. When they announced that the DC Showcase shorts were ending, I was sad, but if this is what the quality has become, I won’t miss them.
* A 10-minute sneak peek at the next DC animated movie, Justice League: Doom. At this point, it’s producers talking about the premise, comic panels, character information, and very preliminary sketches. I found it interesting that they mention the lead character designer’s anime influences and talk about how the film was storyboarded by a Japanese firm. Loved seeing the classic voice cast commenting, too!
* Similar sneaks for All-Star Superman and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights
* “Heart of Vengeance: Returning Batman to His Roots” (23 1/2 minutes) — Greg Rucka, Len Wein, Michael Uslan, Denny O’Neil, Alan Burnett, and Mike Carlin talk about how Batman had become silly and kid-friendly, then how he was taken back to his roots, starting with the work of O’Neil and Neal Adams. The main point is to discuss Frank Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.
It would have been a stronger piece with Miller’s participation; he doesn’t appear (save for the use of one 1982 photo). I also didn’t have my major questions answered: whose decision was it for Miller to write, not draw, the book, and how did he feel about working with Mazzucchelli (who also worked on Daredevil after Miller’s seminal run)? What was Mazzucchelli’s opinion of all this? Although many nice things are said about both creators, the focus here (as one would expect from a company production) is on the character, not the creative work. However, it did provide my favorite observation of the entire package, when Denny points out that Batman only works if the Gotham cops are corrupt.
* “Conversations With DC Comics: Featuring the 2011 Batman Creative Team” (39 1/2 minutes) — Denny, Uslan, Dan DiDio, and Scott Snyder talk about Batman. (The title is misleading.) I didn’t watch this, because I’m allergic to DiDio. KC did, and he said he was impressed, particularly by Snyder, who seemed thoughtful, intelligent, and serious about telling good stories. It wasn’t about him, but about the character, a pleasant change from some comic book creators we see in these kinds of featurettes. Denny also had good insights on Batman, as always, and it’s a pleasure to see his passion for the character.
* Commentary with Alan Burnett, Sam Liu, Mike Carlin, and Andrea Romano. Mike Carlin is now the Creative Director of Animation for DC Entertainment out on the west coast, but here he tells stories of back when he and Denny shared an office, when Denny was editing the source material. It was neat to hear from him again.
The commentary answered a small but nagging question for me — Grey DeLisle, who plays Sarah Gordon, is also the uncredited voice of Vicki Vale in the movie. DeLisle is a favorite of mine; she also voices Daphne in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, as well as the singing voice of Black Canary in Batman: The Brave and the Bold and many other roles.
* A digital comic of the first chapter of Batman: Year One in English, French, German, or Portugese.
* Two TV episodes (featuring Catwoman, of course): “Catwalk” from Batman: The Animated Series and “Cult of the Cat” from The New Batman Adventures.
* A second disc that has a DVD version of the movie, plus the Catwoman short and the three sneak peeks. It’s also how you access the Digital Copy, although I wish that they’d used the simpler UltraViolet process.
The movie is also available as a single-disc DVD (which I’m assuming has the same content as the DVD that comes with the Blu-ray) or for download on various services. There is a DVD two-disc special edition, but I don’t know how many of the items above are included or whether any of them are Blu-ray exclusive. (The studio provided a review copy.)