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Batman: Year One is the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal story of the same name, the four-issue 1987 arc that has since come to more or less completely define our current understanding of Batman, Gotham City, and their various stories. This is the work – a grim, nihilistic noir detective thriller – that spawned countless classic Batman tales, and planted the seeds which eventually grew into Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy.
Year One chronicles the first year of Batman’s crime-fighting career, which just so happens to coincide with Jim Gordon’s first year at the GCPD; here, a nakedly corrupt institution nestled firmly within the pockets of local mobster Carmine Falcone. As inextricably tied to the character as Year One is, this is far from a typical Batman outing. There are no colorful super-villains or fancy, high-tech gadgetry, just two idealistic men wading through the cesspool of a city whose citizens need a reason to hope again.
As insane as it feels for me to be typing these words, I didn’t care for it at all. And it’s funny, because Year One was one of the painfully-few comic book stories I’d read before beginning this project, and I enjoyed it a great deal. But something about that story’s essential essence seems to have been lost in translation here; what’s retained – and, make no mistake, this is a rigidly faithful adaptation – plays, at best, like a staid reiteration of what the book did better. And, what’s more, most of what worked for the book is what doesn’t work for the movie.
Most notable is the brooding, first-person narration, as Bruce Wayne and Gordon alternately deliver their internal monologues. This is not a new or unique literary technique, and it had a purpose in Miller’s original work; to vocalize the ideological differences between the heroes, to illustrate where they each drew their respective moral lines, and how close to them the other man stood. Here, Miller’s trademark noir punchiness and hyper-masculine posturing are too familiar. We’ve seen so many superhero stories – several of Miller’s own – appropriate the same style that, by now, it’s tiresome, particularly when applied to Batman, who epitomizes the author’s nihilism more so than any other character. Structurally, too, it falters. What starts as an internal monologue becomes voice-over narration; the laziest of exposition-dumping narrative tools. Most of Year One – a story that short-changed action and symbolism in favor of on-the-nose literacy – is simply Batman and Gordon talking to themselves.
This is faithful, but while the expository voice was vital to the page, it simply isn’t to the motion picture. So much could have been shown, rather than told, and so very little actually is. For what it’s worth, the handful of action sequences are beautifully animated, and often delivered in long, fluid takes. But the visual style – minimalist, but also crisp, clean, and modern – feels like a betrayal of the washed-out palette that characterized David Mazzucchelli’s original artwork.
You’d think Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu, who both direct, would have known better. We’ve had issues before in this series with movies that have been adapted directly from the iconic source material, particularly in terms of how they lose depth and nuance in being condensed to 70-or-so minutes (Year One runs for 64.) But I think this is the first instance of a movie being too faithful to the original book; too ignorant of how it translates, formally, and too convinced of the source’s profundity to meaningfully alter it. Year One is also too short, too rushed, and too jumbled, thanks to its brevity, but more so than that it feels like a ghost of Miller’s story, or a time capsule to preserve its themes and ideas, rather than a complete work.
Ben McKenzie, who voices Batman, sounds like a limp imitation of Kevin Conroy, and can’t dredge up the gravel-chewing grittiness you need to make these heavy-handed lines work. But Jim Gordon, on the other hand, is voiced by Brian Cranston, which strikes me as a casting decision of borderline genius. Cranston’s able to lend the dialogue gravitas and subtlety, which it needs when spoken aloud. Elsewhere, Eliza Dushku is well-cast as Catwoman, and Katee Sackhoff imbues Gordon’s mistress, Detective Sarah Essen, with a believably seductive appeal.
So, Year One is disappointing. Partly because it’s the first of these movies to be adapted from material I was familiar with, and I’d have enjoyed a more robust, thoughtful treatment of it. But also because it is simply a weak link in a chain of movies that have been remarkably consistent until now. Many of the entries in this cycle have focused on Batman, to varying degrees of success, and it feels like a stinging irony that such an iconic Batman story – perhaps the most quintessentially-Batman story ever told – is the one that thoroughly lets the side down.
For those who are familiar with Frank Miller’s original, what Year One might provide is nostalgia. But for those who are arriving for the first time at the tale of who Batman is and how he came to be, his first year on the job is a read-only affair.