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Batman: Year One

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // October 18, 2011
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 19, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

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.

DC Showcase -- Catwoman:

Huh. There's the good possibility that I enjoyed this fifteen-minute stretch with Catwoman almost as much as the feature itself. Eliza Dushku is given more of an opportunity to shine with lavish dialogue in this brand-new short, which finds Catwoman duking it out with Rough Cut in and around a strip club. While the story itself understandably lacks much in the way of intrigue or depth, given its length, it's more of a testing ground to see how the character can mold to the PG-13 rating. And, wouldn't you know it, she does. Incredibly so. The short mixes a saucy introduction in a nudie bar that certainly earns the age-appropriate rating (definitely not for the eyes of minors, though not for any direct nudity), then transitions into some of the most intriguing in-motion footage of Catwoman brawling out there, live-action or animated. While the story's a simple lark of a thing, it's a sexy and captivating stretch that proves that a standalone flick with Batman's feline nemesis could hold its own (as long as Halle Berry's not in the lead).

The Blu-ray:

Batman: Year One descends into the Blu-ray arena from Warner Bros. in a two-disc package: one Blu-ray, and one DVD/Digital Copy hybrid disc. The standard-definition offering unfortunately doesn't come equipped with any of the Year One-centric special features, only the trailers and sneak peeks for other DC properties. A handsome glossy slipcase replicates the front and back artwork, with embossed text and shiny gold metallic elements.

Video and Audio:

Warner Bros. drops Batman: Year One onto Blu-ray in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC treatment that's about on-par with the likes of Under the Red Hood: crisp, colorful, detailed artwork with a few issues that pop up intermittently from the transfer. Most of the time, you'll be treated to solid blocks of color within the stylized hand-drawn animation, where a full spectrum of color -- from lavish neons and washed-out greens and grays to a range of deep purples, blistering yellows, and muted reds -- pour from the image. Motion glides fluidly in 24fps without any distortion, while black levels tend to dig really, really deep into the depths of the discs capacity. You will spy some inconsistencies, however: some light macroblocking and posterized banding crop up, while the image occasionally loses its sharpness to a slight degree and the hand-drawn black lines sport some rough aliasing. Mostly, however, the artwork remains intact and quite pleasing to the eyes.

The DTS-HD Master Audio track picks up the slack, though, delivering an aggressive and spatially-nimble track with oomph to spare. Punch is the name of the game here, where explosions, fisticuffs, and gunshots telegraph fierce, evenly-balanced bursts across the entirety of the sound-stage, and the audio track preserves both the lower-frequency rumble and the mid-range claps. The dialogue balances against the sound design, whether at full volume or turned down low, exhibiting clear and natural vocal delivery that uses the core of the mid-range track with zero distortion and full-on audibility. The occasionally rhythmic pulsing from the score also tests the low-end side of things, while sound effects like the clasping of a bat in a hand and the screeching of tires holding their own as natural elements in the fray. In short, you'll certainly get a vigorous experience out of Year One's aural design. English, French, German, and Spanish optional subs adorn the disc, alongside French, German, and Spanish audio options.

Special Features:

Creative Team Commentary:
This is a great listen, even if it hits a few stretches of quiet while the participants are watching. Producer Alan Burnett, director Sam Liu, casting/voice director Andrea Romano and DC guru Mike Carlin deliver an attentive and insightful track that drops plenty of compelling addendums, small details, motivations, conceptualizations, and other elements behind the production of Batman: Year One. They discuss meatier elements like grittiness and the texture of Gotham City and how it's taken shape since its inception, then reflect on elements that they simple admire about the picture: the introduction of the bat, Flass wearing a letter jacket, and Metropolis being on 75 miles away. You'll be treated to a great mix of depth and scoop-from-the-top points with the creative force, and it's really great to hear their enthusiasm -- and their frank discussion about structuring these direct-to-video projects.

Heart of Vengeance: Returning to His Roots (23:25, HD AVC):
Here, the creative guys behind Batman and DC Comics talk about how the character somewhat lost his path at one point and veered towards inane, silly, science-fiction-heavy shenanigans that simply don't fit his persona -- and how they were going to bring him back into the shadows. Greg Rucka, Alan Burnett, Denny O'Neill, Michael Uslan, Len Wein, and Mike Carlin chat up how they did so, from the writers brought in to redirect him to the darkness to the fabric of his original persona from the '30s. They discuss the character's humanity, how Frank Miller started gaining recognition with Daredevil, and how Miller took the character -- and the fabric of comics -- in a darker, sophisticated, adult direction. It's not terribly in-depth due to its shorter runtime, but the story it tells makes it worth watching for those who don't know the story -- and, of course, for the collection of varied Batman images edited into the rhythm.

Conversations with DC Comics (39:27, HD AVC):
Michael Uslan and Denny O'Neil pick up publisher Dan Didio and writer Scott Snyder for a four-way chat about Batman, Miller's work, and "geekdom" as a whole in a casual but highly enjoyable session. They talk about how they got interested in the character's origin, how Miller "plopped" into the universe, how Batman has influenced media, and the "Year One" template that has come about for books nowadays. Their rapport and insight makes for an enjoyable glimpse into their world.

Alongside those features, we've also a series of Sneak Peeks for Justice League: Doom, All-Star Superman, and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, as well as Bruce Timm's Top Picks -- where you're treated to two Catwoman-centered animated episodes, "Catwalk" and "Cult of the Cat" -- and a series of Trailers for other non-Year One products from WB/DC.

Final Thoughts:

Batman: Year One comes Recommended, but it's not simply for the main attraction. The feature itself works out to be a carbon-copy the content straight from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's book, accurately and with a gritty realism that ventures close to the tone that it slaves away at achieving. But it, like Bruce Wayne at the story's beginning, is missing something: it's lacking in lifeforce, at least enough to make absorbing the familiar story little more than a panel-for-panel reproduction with talented voice actors and a slightly brightened-up visual tempo. Granted, the story's episodic burst-by-burst meter remains intact and inherently compelling, , but it could have -- and should have -- had more gristle, magnetism, and inventiveness to distinguish the experience in watching it from flipping through the four-book arc itself (or from watching Nolan's Batman Begins, which uses many of the same elements in the origin story). Warner Bros.' Blu-ray makes the entry price wholly worth it, though: between the audio commentary, the two Batman-centered featurettes, and the fifteen-minute Catwoman short, you're getting a lot of quality content for the price.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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