Frank Miller’s grim, futuristic 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns drew national media coverage and helped change the tone of superhero comics, but for many Batman-philes, Miller’s greatest contribution to the character will always be the four-issue 1987 arc “Year One” in the regular monthly Batman title. Shying away from the usual Gotham rogues, Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli told the story of a young Bruce Wayne coming home from his years of training abroad to begin his war on crime, while a young Jim Gordon worked his way up in a corrupt GPD. Drawing on the same “street-level superhero” approach that Miller brought to his classic run on Daredevil, and adding the noir punchiness he’d later bring to Sin City—as well as the hyper-macho posturing Miller brings to, well, everything—“Year One” worked as a fine piece of urban crime fiction, examining the difficulty a couple of idealists have in breaking the mob’s stranglehold. It was just a bonus that the arc also brought new depth to iconic characters that’d been around for nearly 50 years.
One major stumbling block for the DC Animation feature Batman: Year One is that the story and attitude of the Miller/Mazzucchelli arc have been freely appropriated by the other Batman comics, cartoons, and movies that came in its wake, which makes the original seem less fresh than it once did. Also, the voice cast for Batman: Year One is maybe a shade too familiar, with Bryan Cranston as Gordon, Eliza Dushku as Catwoman, Katee Sackhoff as Gordon’s sexy associate Sarah Essen, Alex Rocco as mob boss Carmine Falcone, and Jon Polito and Stephen Root as dirty cops. These are all great actors, and decent voice-actors, but it’s initially a little distracting to hear such recognizable voices coming out of these particular faces.
Otherwise, though, Batman: Year One is a stellar adaptation, copying Miller’s words and Mazzucchelli’s images almost verbatim at times. Starting with an opening in which Bruce Wayne descends by plane into Gotham—complaining that “from here, you can’t see the enemy”—while Gordon emerges from a cramped subway train, directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery and writer Tab Murphy keep the focus on what this city and this opportunity means to each of these men. Batman: Year One explores the relationship that develops between two people with the same goals and different methods, and it also considers how the legend of the Batman came to be. To the latter end, the movie excels at recreating some of the book’s most memorable scenes, from a non-costumed Bruce Wayne venturing into the demimonde for the first time and getting his ass kicked to Batman signaling a colony of bats to cover his escape from a trap. Liu and Montgomery give Batman: Year One an action-movie feel, even moving the camera to approximate a handheld look during fight scenes. But it’s a testament to Miller and Mazzucchelli that so much of this movie consists of terse voiceover and evocative pictures, taken from the source. It all recalls what it felt like to read Batman: Year One for the first time, and sense that this was a story that had always existed.
Key features: A stylish (and darn near R-rated) Catwoman short, bonus episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, a 20-minute featurette on the origins of Year One as a comic and a movie (with no participation by Miller or Mazzucchelli, sadly), and a commentary track by the creative team.