BATMAN: YEAR ONE is Solid, but That's About It

It’s considered one of the most influential graphic novels of the 1980s. It was one of a handful of comic book stories that put Frank Miller on the map. And it’s the latest offering from Warner Bros. Animation.

Batman: Year One is a pretty straight-forward adaptation of the original Miller book, with artwork in keeping with David Mazzucchelli’s pencils. It’s as faithful as you’re going to get with one of these animated features, and it’s pretty close to the mark. I have to admit, I was very hopeful when I heard this was coming. Excited? A little. Feeling a little Christmas-time anticipation? Maybe.

But after watching it, I have mixed feelings. On the surface, it’s a solid film. Bruce Timm and his gang continue to deliver the goods when it comes to telling stories, and they usually do it better than their live-action counterparts (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern team…). This time out, they really couldn’t screw it up, unless they tried. And they didn’t try to screw it up. Some of the more iconic images from the book translate well into the moving image, and Bryan Cranston is a spot-on Jim Gordon.

There are two places where I got bothered, though. When the bat smashes through the window, in the book, Bruce says (in the narration) “I shall become a bat.” He doesn’t say that in the movie, which disappointed me greatly. That’s a great line. Also, when Gordon’s narration includes, “Thanks, Flass. You’ve taught me what it means to be a cop in Gotham City”… yeah, that’s not there either.

And Alfred’s mention of “that fellow in Metropolis” is gone, too.

In the scene where Sgt. Essen (Katee Sackhoff) is pretending to be a damsel in distress, the book makes it clear that Batman recognizes all of the undercover cops in the area. Not so in the movie. Trifles? Maybe. But those little bits are what make that book great, and I was a little annoyed that they didn’t make it into the final script from Tab Murphy.

Eliza Dushku is Selina Kyle, as she is for the DC Showcase short on the disc (read my review here). The Catwoman story line is less than a C-plot in the movie. It felt like it was left in because it was in the book. I may have to re-read it, but it seemed like Selina’s story had a little more meat there. She gets to be only a little more than a bit player in this version of the story.

Now, Jon Polito as Commissioner Loeb and Alex Rocco as The Roman – spot on. Absolutely great casting there. Especially when he says “He dies!” I can’t think of anyone better to play those two characters. We’ve seen Polito play the Loeb type before, and he’s got a voice that you recognize but can’t place right away, which makes it fun to play “Where do I know that voice?” Polito and Rocco both have distinctive voices that cut through the rest of the cast. Because they’re unique.

Bryan Cranston should play Gordon again. He’s got a solid voice. Authoritative when it needs to be, and softer when the situation calls for it. Cranston continues to prove himself worthy of all the accolades he’s accumulating. He’s got just enough solid weight in his voice that you can believe Jim Gordon is ex-military. And after his re-match with crooked cop Flass, you’ll believe Chuck Norris wears Jim Gordon pajamas.

Katee Sackhoff is a poor choice for Sarah Essen. I don’t know why, but she just doesn’t fit what I heard in my head, which is Angie Harmon. I know. Preconceived notions, and all that. But I’ve always heard Angie Harmon’s voice when I read Detective Sarah Essen. Katee Sackhoff just doesn’t cut it for me. Mind you, I think she did a good job with her performance, but it just didn’t feel like the best casting choice.

Likewise for Ben McKenzie. He’s no Kevin Conroy, who’s still the gold standard for Bat-voices, even though it wouldn’t be a good fit here because of where the hero is in his career. Bruce Wayne is a young buck just starting out, and Conroy (or, for that matter, Bruce Greenwood) just has too much weight in the voice, too much confidence, to sell being a newbie hero. Many have expressed relief that McKenzie didn’t do the Growler Voice, and I’m in agreement with that. It certainly wouldn’t have worked here. McKenzie’s voice is just too young-sounding. But his performance – especially the voice-over elements – fell flatter than a pancake.

Flat. That’s the word I’d use for most of this. And that’s the weird part of this. You’d think that as faithful an adaptation as this is, it would have more life to it. But it doesn’t, and I’m not sure why. Everyone’s performance is good (except McKenzie’s). The animation is very well executed. The action sequences are very nicely done, with an obvious anime influence. But when it was over, I felt like something was missing. And I’m not sure what it is.

Are we at the point where the animated adaptations are nearing the end of their shelf life? There are starting to be some misses among the hits. All-Star Superman and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights weren’t all that. And while I’m looking forward to Justice League: Doom, I’m also wondering if the animated features need to do something they haven’t done before.

Tell a brand new story. Something that’s not an adaptation. Something original to the animated features.

Batman: Year One is a solid feature. Rent it. Buy it. Watch it. You’ll enjoy it, for the most part. And when you’re done watching it, read the book. You’ll be glad you did.

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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