Now that DC Animated Universe month on Saturday Morning Cartoons is over, I’ve made a few realizations. Much to my disappointment, the movies that I watched last month significantly lowered my opinion of the DC animated canon as a whole. I reviewed Batman: Under the Red Hood, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: First Flight, and All-Star Superman, and attempted to review Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (which was so bland that I found myself with nothing to say and unable to write a decent review.) The only movie I really enjoyed out of the five was Batman: Under the Red Hood, but I expect no less from DC when it comes to Batman adaptations.
That leads me to my second disheartening realization: it appears the only character that DC can consistently adapt well for film is Batman (though there are some exceptions.) Considering the fact that DC gained its reputation for producing quality animation with Batman: The Animated Series, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest cartoons of all time, I suppose that’s no surprise. I used to think this was only true for DC’s live action films, but it turns out that the same applies for their animated films, too.
That said, even for a Batman film,
Commissioner Gordon: Year One Batman: Year One is outstanding. While I can’t say that it completely restored my faith in DC’s animated films because as I said, DC just knows how to get Batman right, I think it serves as a good counterpoint to the complaints I’ve voiced about other DC animated movies.
First and foremost, Batman: Year One is a masterful adaptation of a classic comic book story. It is based on Frank Miller’s 1987 reboot of Batman continuity for DC’s Year One initiative, originally published over three issues following DC’s universe-shattering event Crisis on Infinite Earths (which is far too complicated for me to explain here; I encourage you to read the Wikipedia page if you’d like to learn about it.) Batman: Year One tells the origin story of both Batman (Benjamin McKenzie) and the man who would eventually become Gotham’s police commissioner and Batman’s most loyal ally within Gotham’s police force, James Gordon (Bryan Cranston).
Batman: Year One is an extremely rare instance of a superhero story that actually works better as a film than as a comic. This is actually true for most of Frank Miller’s work, mostly due to the fact that his writing style involves heavy use of film noir-style narration. This is a somewhat common trope in film that comes off as unbelievably cheesy in written form. As a result, the fact that Batman: Year One is almost a panel-for-panel copy of the comic (a tactic that is usually disastrous) works surprisingly well here. And what little the film left out actually works to the plot’s benefit, as the film chooses to focus on the strongest and most original part of the story: James Gordon’s struggle against the corrupt Gotham police department. This is a far cry from All Star Superman, which left out the most affecting scenes from the comic on which it was based for no discernible reason.
Batman: Year One‘s real strength, however, is that it takes risks by veering away from the traditional DC Animated Universe format. One of my biggest complaints about the DC animated movies that I watched up until this point was that they all looked and sounded the same. Each film utilized the blocky, highly-saturated art style common to most of DC’s animated films, and the voice actors all spoke in the same subdued, unenthusiastic tones.
The art in Batman: Year One is unique, for a few reasons. Not only does it look different from DC’s other animated movies, but it also distinguishes itself from Batman: The Animated Series‘s “black noir” art style, which has become the norm for most animated tales of The Dark Knight. Some of Batman: Year One‘s scenes even take place during the day (gasp!) While the black noir art works well for Gotham and was used to great effect in Batman: Under the Red Hood, I’ve found it a bit tiresome that most of the animated Batman films and series have simply copied the same style time and time again.
In addition to the art, the voice acting for Batman: Year One was some of the best I’ve ever heard in a DC animated film. I think it absolutely lives up to the excellent work by the actors of Batman: The Animated Series (yes, even that of your precious Mark Hamill.) The real star here is Bryan Cranston, who many of you may know as Walter White on AMC’s popular drama series Breaking Bad, for which he has won several Emmys. As a longtime Breaking Bad fan, I have the greatest respect for Bryan Cranston as an actor, and he does an outstanding job as James Gordon. He puts as much passion and nuance into his voice work as he does into his live action work, which honestly isn’t something I can say for the actors in many of the other DC animated movies I’ve watched. The rest of the voice cast also does well. The casting of The OC star Benjamin McKenzie as a young Batman is particularly interesting, since this version of Batman is really no more than an inexperienced rich kid. To cast a Kevin Conroy clone for Batman as DC usually does wouldn’t have worked here.
I think Bryan Cranston will forever be typecast as a badass family man with glasses and a mustache. And I’m okay with that.
There’s not much more I can say about Batman: Year One. It’s unique, masterfully done, well-crafted, outstanding, enjoyable, resonant, and every other superlative that I could possibly heap on it. If you enjoy the Batman universe, you’ll love this. If you enjoy animation in general, you won’t be disappointed. I recommend this, along with Batman: The Animated Series, to anyone who likes cartoons, comics, or a good Batman story.