***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Tab Murphy, from the comics story by Frank Miller
directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery
by Jefferson Robbins Before he was a grouchy and politically-nearsighted old man with enough clout to cast Scarlett Johansson in a $60M fetish video, Frank Miller truly did change the face of mainstream superhero comics. Doing so brought him fame as a visionary, a label that implies prophetic or pioneering concepts but--at least in comics art--is most commonly applied to artists fusing pre-existing styles into a successful hybrid, or distilling an old story to its barest elements. Miller did both. In fact, between 1986's "The Dark Knight Returns" and the 1987 "Batman: Year One" arc, his reengineering of the Batman mythos wasn't so much a thrusting of the character forward into the 1980s as a slingshotting back to the 1970s. The core fact of Batman, viewed in the light of Taxi Driver, is that he's Travis Bickle with a cape and lots of money. What is Travis's mohawk if not a costume to strike fear into the hearts of criminals? What is his trick pistol sling, fashioned from a typewriter carriage, but a blue-collar utility belt? And what is the hardboiled dialogue Miller puts in Bruce Wayne's mouth--better read than spoken--but Bicklean self-justification? No coincidence that Batman's first, badly-botched outing as a crimefighter in "Year One" involves the violent rescue of an underaged prostitute.
The direct-to-video DC Universe animated franchise, which has resolutely failed to grapple with major graphic works by Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman) and Darwyn Cooke (Justice League: The New Frontier), surprisingly gets it pretty right in adapting Miller for Batman: Year One. Then again, by this point, Miller's reductive flair has mostly been leeched off for DC and Marvel properties (cf. Daredevil and, shudder, Elektra) in other media. Without Miller, we probably wouldn't have Tim Burton's Batman, nor the whole comics-to-film glut that marks the 2000s. The greatest action beat of "Year One" inspired a memorable set-piece in Batman Begins, for instance, while the notion found in The Dark Knight that Batman creates his own adversaries simply by existing can be traced back to Miller and other post-modern Bat-writers. So the template is now well-established, bigger than Miller alone and easier for imitators to follow. Scarred forever by the iconic snapping of a string of pearls, his Batman is our Batman: psychologically screwy but still noble, and resolutely Not for Kids outside of the criminally-cancelled cartoon series "The Brave and the Bold".
Under co-directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, Batman: Year One proves that Miller has, along with his collaborator on that project, artist David Mazzuckelli, infected cinema precisely because he can be so damn cinematic. The creators gloss Miller's Bat-noir with evocative flourishes of the best anime, from painterly frames to quiet, drifting camerawork.* Bruce Wayne's musings on the plane into Gotham owe much to Shinji's idylls on the magrail line in Neon Genesis: Evangelion. The resulting film is more contemplative than its recent DC peers (certainly moreso than Green Lantern: Emerald Knights), and if the characters' faces are distractingly lined, at least they're legitimately freighted with concern. Cleverly, the comics story and this adaptation parallel the stories of young Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) and future police commissioner James Gordon (Bryan Cranston), elevating Batman's long-standing enabler into a disaffected hero in his own right. The young Wayne returns to his Gotham manor in style after more than a decade honing his skills abroad as the older Gordon slouches in by train to middle-manage the city's hopelessly corrupt police force. It's a smart character observation: Just as the Joker couldn't don greasepaint without Batman as his opposite number, Batman couldn't prowl the rooftops without Gordon as his protector. From there, it's a series of becomings, with both men crafting blunt new approaches to crimefighting and risking body and soul in the process.
It's a men's story, no mistake. The same way villains are corollaries to heroes, women exist in Batman: Year One (and in Miller's work generally) as corollaries to men. Gordon has his pregnant wife and his guilty side squeeze, statuesque policewoman Sarah Essen (Katee Sackhoff), while Batman inspires dominatrix-hooker Selina Kyle (Eliza Dushku, of course) to build a costume around her totem animal and become Catwoman--less a self-motivated nemesis than a camp follower. (Another bit of parallelism, perhaps unintentional (but still, paging Dr. Wertham) is that Batman and Catwoman each leave a man tied naked to a bed.) The overall villains here aren't the outsized clowns and caperers we associate with Batman, but the general malaise of Gotham and the organized crime that feeds off it in the person of Mafioso Carmine Falcone (voiced like an ethnic quarry drill by Alex Rocco). This too is a very '70s concern--the mafia was on the ropes and American homicide rates had declined well below their 1980 peak by the time Miller began "Year One," but his Gotham City is a Serpico kind of town. The thugs of Gotham City hate and fear Batman, but he hates and fears them ("the enemy") no less. Gordon emerges as the more empathetic and heroic of the two, empowered to use violence where Batman is not but eschewing it when he can (and certainly too sane to wear a costume). In Miller's nicest touch, when cop and vigilante meet at last, there are no costumes involved--just two men, not man and superman, bonding over their mutual will to avert tragedy.
DC Universe releases have a problem with voice casting these days, gravitating towards name-recognition rather than skill. With world-weariness already embedded in his throat, Cranston is an inspired choice for Gordon, though he has trouble catching a cadence in Miller's dialogue--ported over almost wholesale by screenwriter Tab Murphy. He's nonetheless smart enough to lean into the monologues and trudge forward, where McKenzie as Wayne/Batman steps too lightly and enunciates too primly, like a man disguising a stammer. Dushku and Sackhoff don't offend, but they're fan-service selections, never really building, or getting a chance to build, their characters. Hot lady cartoons demand hot lady voice actors, or so the current wisdom goes. All of the above are put to shame by not only Rocco, but also Jon Polito as Gordon's top boss at the Gotham PD. We don't really have time to fret about such things, however: At 64 minutes, Batman: Year One doesn't hang around long enough to misstep too badly or mar the source material. It's a crisp little superhero noir--DC's best-looking in recent memory--that polishes up the gems Miller buried in comics so long ago, and gives the people what they want.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner's 1.78:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation of Batman: Year One makes Batman part of the shadows without sacrificing contrast and line. Colour is mood in Liu and Montgomery's approach, such that Gordon's midnight bouts of conscience are indigo while Bruce Wayne's dark ruminations take place under an ash-grey winter sky. Still, although the animation is clean whether it's static or in furious motion, across DCU's recent line of films, something breaks down when a character performs an action as basic as walking across the floor. The thing to look for in almost every DCU release is composer Christopher Drake's name on the boxcover--he's doing some of the best work in animation scoring, and the disc's DTS HD-MA 5.1 track provides his Morricone-cum-Carpenter accompaniment a wide playing field. The sound design is excellent, putting characters inside a vibrant cityscape of elevated rails, auto traffic, cop cars, and breaking glass. The rear channels are almost never completely silent, picking up those tiny stirrings of the city that the ear takes for granted. It's probably the finest sound product yet from this line of releases.
Liu joins legendary voice director Andrea Romano, longtime DC editor Mike Carlin, and animation producer Alan Burnett for a full-length commentary, which notes, among other things, that a stupendously faithful adaptation of Miller's work yielded the shortest runtime of any DCU feature product thus far. The team's brief from head producer Bruce Timm was to put Miller on video, and they succeeded, without any spare fooferall. Carlin (or is it Burnett?) re-emphasizes the idea that Batman, as Miller conceived him, appears to be the starting point for Gotham's descent into costumed-villain lunacy; in trying to save the city, he condemns it to an unending, absurdist crime wave. It's a worthwhile commentary, but better for comics aficionados is the featurette "Hearts of Vengeance: Returning Batman to His Roots" (23 mins., HD), in which it's brought to light that when Miller made Batman "gritty," he was only sharpening an idea put forth by writer-editor Denny O'Neil in the late-'60s and early-'70s, largely in tandem with artist Neal Adams. The talking heads herein are among the most knowledgeable in comics, from writer Greg Rucka to writer-editor Len Wein to O'Neil himself. In this and another featurette, "Conversations With DC Comics" (39 mins., HD), Miller appears solely in the form of a fan photo taken at some 1980s comicon. Apparently he had nothing to say about this production, right down to denying the use of a fresh mugshot. The "Conversations" bit is a roundtable with O'Neil, DC chief Dan DiDio, Batman writer Scott Snyder, and The Dark Knight Rises producer Michael Uslan acting as moderator. If it goes on too long, with too much zippy light jazz over the dialogue, it illuminates the way that Batman shaped these men and the culture at large. It also clarifies how long Batman's been around--O'Neil remembers first hearing Batman when the character guested on the 1940-1951 "Adventures of Superman" radio show, and he speaks fondly of trading comic books with other neighbourhood kids every Sunday, hauling them around in a little red wagon. Those were the days.
Remember when Julie Newmar made your downstairs parts feel all tingly? The short "DC Showcase: Catwoman" (15 mins., HD) wants to coax that sensation towards full-fledged bonerdom. Reinforcing recent criticism that Catwoman has gone from alluring antiheroine to sexually-obsessive fap-fuel in the comics, this entry sees the feline fatale (Dushku again) doing a pole dance to entrap a murderous smuggler--voiced by John Di Maggio, an outrageous talent who's mostly used at DCU to spackle the cracks left by weak star-casting. Directed by Montgomery and written by Timm collaborator Paul Dini, it dovetails well with Year One's presentation of Catwoman, right down to sharing a key character (not Batman), but, but, but...fanwank need not always be gratified, and some things are best left between the lines. The "Showcase" entry, for what it's worth, looks and sounds at least as good as the movie proper.
As with past DCU releases, this one makes use of the capacious BD-50 format to load the platter with 10 minutes of previews--for the already-released All-Star Superman and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, as well as the forthcoming Justice League: Doom, adapted from Mark Waid's excellent "Tower of Babel" storyline (all HD). I like seeing the animation house take on such contemporary comics entries--adapting benchmark classics like "Year One" will always be a chancier proposition. Producer Timm offers his "Bruce Timm Picks" of past animation successes: two Catwoman-centric episodes of his '90s Batman cartoon series, presented in standard definition at 22 minutes apiece. Previews launch on spinup for "Smallville: The Complete Series", the new CG "Green Lantern: The Animated Series", and the action webseries "Aim High", which looks like a silly bit of fun. For comparison's sake, find the first chapter of Miller and Mazzuckelli's original "Year One" on board as a digital comic. (I hope I never get the hang of reading a magazine on my TV.) This package comes with a DVD version that's shorn of most of the special features but includes a Digital Copy.
*I give major credit to South Korean studio MOI Animation for Batman: Year One's lush fluidity. Also responsible for Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and the TV series "Young Justice" and "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (and, less successfully, All-Star Superman), the firm is next tasked with an adaptation of Miller's other seminal Bat-work, "The Dark Knight Returns". This means that in terms of comics-to-dtv adaptations, the snake has finally eaten its own head. return