Monday, 31 October 2011

Batman: Year One (A review)

Warner Brothers Animation has such a rich and prospering relationship with DC Comics. Throughout the years they’ve picked every nook and cranny of the DC universe, exploring every obscure character and cherished storyline. Since fans of comics nowadays get their does of superheroism from graphic novel trades, WB has responded to these easy to digest “one and done” stories with a series of direct to DVD films. Most of these are based on best selling graphic novels. That being said, Batman: Year One is a pretty safe bet. It’s a animated adaptation of one of the most critically acclaimed comics staring undoubtedly DC’s most marketable character. While Batman’s origins have already been done on film twice (animated in Batman: Mask of Phantasm and live action in Batman Begins) this is what many Bat-fans regard as Batman’s true origin, and indeed both those movies borrowed heavily from what was presented in Year One. 
So? How is it?
Well, if you’ve read the book before, let me save you a little time here: it’s word for word the same. The original book was written by Frank Miller, love him or hate him. (I still can’t forgive him for The Spirit.) Yes, I rolled my eyes once I knew we were in for the noir-esque narrations and hyper-masculine treatment Miller forces on all his works, but as I watched it, I remembered that this was back when Frank Miller was an actual competent writer. (IE, not every female character had to be a whore….I mean…there are whores in this, but not every girl is a…you know what, you get the point…) The story’s mostly about Jim Gordon, with Batman having much less screen time. It’s actually a great way to observe the whole Batman concept from an outsider’s view, while still being very connected to Bruce Wayne’s exploits as Batman. The gritty story of a corrupt police department and Gordon’s fight against crime, crooked cops and having this vigilante swooping in dressed as a bat is a joy with each triumphant set piece. 
And as usual for these WB/DC projects, the voice casting is pretty much spot on. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle fame) is a perfect fit for Jim Gordon, bringing the weight and pressure this character truly needs. Other notable voices include Alex Rocco as the mobster Carmine Falcone, and Jon Polito as the corrupt Commissioner Loeb. Really, the only voice I didn’t really dig was Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie,) but maybe it’s cause WB’s done so many Bat-projects with so many Bat-voices over the years, and it’s hard to ever get a Bat-voice better than the original animated series’ Kevin Conroy. I know this is supposed to be a younger Bruce Wayne, but his voice still didn’t strike that fear that it should. 
The animation is also great and really smooth. David Mazzucchelli did the art on the original graphic novel, whose rough and expressive art style would be near imposible to translate to animation. Nevertheless, they still did a stellar job with the art style to bring some of the original flare from the book to life. Little design choices like character’s beady eyes and Gordon’s shimmering glasses really go a long way. The storyboards are also great, but much like the film adaptation of Miller’s Sin City, Batman: Year One borrows pretty much shot for shot from the graphic novel. This really helps the film have some great dynamic moments, playing off a lot of light, shadow and negative space. It’s all cool, and I like it…so why can’t I shake the feeling I’ve seen this all before?  
Probably because I have. 
Listen, it’s so easy for an animation to take the script and panels of a comic and use that as a storyboard. That’s pretty much what a storyboard is already, right? So I’m not faulting the animation team on doing just that, especially when you have such great source material to work with. I’m not calling the animation team lazy, but I am calling it safe. It’s a safe bet, and that, in itself, is exactly what this movie is. It’s safe. Which isn’t bad, but it also isn’t very fresh. Hell, even if you haven’t read the book, Batman’s origin isn’t exactly unexplored territory at this point. Spoiler alert: his parents are dead.

I liked this movie. It was fun, dark, and had all the right emotional beats at the right time. It looked great, and sounded great. So despite my ramblings of deja view, I recommend both those who have and haven’t read the book to give this movie a go. Maybe I’m just an old, bitter nerd suffering from a little bat-fatigue, but when you get down to it, this was a solid flick. I just hope DC and WB’s next dvd endever could perhaps be something a little less known. Cause the people working on these movies are insanely talented! I’d love to see them tackle something a little more challenging and give the ol’ Batty a rest for a bit.
Maybe try… Animal Man?

Who am I kiddin’! That’d be to awesome to ever happen.

- Moo