'Year One' Replicates the Book ... Maybe Too Much

Directed by: Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery, Runtime: 64 minutes
Grade: B-

We've seen the origin of Batman's psychosis and motivation in several forms over the years, from Tim Burton's creative '89 reimagining to Christopher Nolan's recent reboot in Batman Begins. By relation, we've also seen earlier stretches of the Dark Knight's career that follow after his emergence, where he stumbles while finding his footing as his persona, arsenal, and tactics for fighting injustice build within the dangers of Gotham City. The previous incarnations, strangely enough, all occurred with a particular series of comics available to the filmmakers' and directors' disposal (and, in the case of Batman Begins, used as a semi-direct source): the Frank Miller-written, David Mazzucchelli-drawn Batman: Year One, which took the character's rookie year down a fierce, rough-and-tumble path. So when word arrived that the four-comic chronicle would arrive on the big (at-home) screen in the style of their recent animated pictures -- like the largely successful Under the Red Hood, with hints hearkening to Mask of the Phantasm -- it generated palpable excitement.

But what we've got in Batman: Year One is a halfway-toothless replication of the book(s) that's missing a key ingredient: a well-executed deeper purpose behind why the story needs to be told like this, now. Sure, we're shown a young Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) grieving beside his murdered parents' graves and experiencing flashbacks to their murder, all after he's traveled abroad and honed his fighting skills for twelve years, while a brawny Jim Gordon (Bryan Cranston) transfers into the crooked Gotham City police force after a stint in dealing with Internal Affairs (as an accuser, not under investigation) elsewhere. The story carries natural gravity, reflected in the film's tone; the struggles Gordon undergoes as he witnesses Gotham's police corruption takes center-stage as he juggles his domestic life, while a grim Bruce Wayne endures a dark breaking-in process once he's discovered the frightening vigilante identity that'll come to personify him -- and how he can use his wealth and position to purge evil from the city.

On paper, Year One gravitates towards a brooding, stark attitude -- merging pulp-novel punch and film-noir sensibility -- an area that the motion comic portrays accurately in visual form. The creative team's diligence towards staying faithful to Miller and Mazzucchelli's content deserves hefty praise; the look and tone of the universally-flawed characters and the bleak but vivid setting feel reverent, from the neon lights of Gotham's "red light district" to the stale air of Gordon's office and the gloom permeating the mausoleum-like halls of Wayne Manor. As it tickers through the days through Batman and Gordon's lives, it feels like thumbing through the pages of the book at almost the same rate as reading it, only with a slightly more vibrant visual tone. Scenes that linger in the shadows become brighter, handled in a more pragmatic art style than the likes of Under the Red Hood: stern facial mannerisms, rigid body movement, and controlled but brutal violence. Artistically, it's all there.

But Year One might, in fact, be too on-the-nose in its replication, because while the flow checks off the days of Gordon and Batman's first volatile year in Gotham, it doesn't back it up with the right caliber of aggressiveness, grit, or even distinctive flair to marry with the story's tempo. This isn't an action- or suspense-driven narrative, instead centering on mood as it gradually escalates towards Gotham City proper. It's about Bruce Wayne's final reflections on his parents and his metamorphosis into a creature of the night, as well as the strain that falls on Jim Gordon while he's wrestling with a corrupt police department and a pregnant wife, all told in brusque snippets just like the comic itself. But the picaresque movement feels too tightly-packed into the timeframe, and without the right veil of darkness draped atop, the flow doesn't transition to a feature-length picture well. The lengthier stuff works, like a hand-to-hand brawl Gordon instigates and one of Batman's fiery intimidation techniques; shorter bits, like the memory of Bruce Wayne's parents' murder and Batman lunging in front of a speeding car, don't.

Some of the tonal issues derive from the voice acting, a big surprise given that it's one of the bigger selling points on the surface. Ben McKenzie aptly sounds the part of a young Bruce Wayne and Batman -- well, Nolan-universe Batman -- though the hole left by Kevin Conroy's absence can assuredly be felt. During dialogue scenes, McKenzie's suitably gruff and intimidating; his narration, on the other hand, drones on with a dispassionate pulse. Similar things can be said about Bryan Cranston's Jim Gordon, though the Breaking Bad actor fares better; his attitude revolves around a calm, worn-out stir where he discusses his physical capabilities and domestic qualms in his narration, to which Cranston effortlessly channels a weathered Walter White into Gordon. The rest of the cast handles their roles suitably enough: a fiery Eliza Dushku as the unique prostitute spin on Selina Kyle, as well as Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff as Gordon's assistant, Essen. They're all passable renderings, but their forgettable temperament weighs down the film's vigor -- and with the talent available here, they really shouldn't.

Ultimately, the dark and gritty elements of Batman: Year One should be experienced, but it's up in the air as to whether this animated page-for-page clone of a quick-read graphic novel is necessary. Sure, the art-style shows eye-catching flair (the scenery around Wayne Manor is particularly appealing), and several exciting moments scattered within give it some visceral, well-sketched excitement -- and, as will be discussed, it's an appealing experience in high-definition. However, when considering the brevity of reading through the book itself and the way that Nolan incorporated elements of Frank Miller's story into his live-action take, this 60-minute trek repurposes the material without offering anything additional to spice up the content. I'm not saying that Year One should've been altered or fleshed out in any way, in the slightest, but there's very little that distinguishes this iteration from merely sitting down and relishing David Mazzucchelli's pulp-noir artwork. It's just missing a necessary spark,whether that's because of an inability to transition the storytelling or the lingering familiarity of the origin story itself.

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