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‘Batman: Year One’ Animated Film Does Justice to the Greatest Batman Legend [Review]

In order to talk about Warner Bros. Animation’s newest film, Batman: Year One, you have to talk about DC Comics’ Batman: Year One first. The story of Batman’s first year as a crimefighter, Year One was written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzuchelli and published in the pages of Batman back in 1987. Now sold as a graphic novel, it is one of those rare superhero comics that’s universally recommended and revered. It’s become a crucial part of Batman’s mythology and is at the heart of almost every version of the Batman introduced in the last two decades, inspiring not just other comic books but also video games, animated television series and movies. It’s only fitting that as part of its ongoing DC Universe franchise of animated features, Warner Bros. has finally adapted this most beloved work, and the filmmakers have done so excellently.

The tale of Bruce Wayne’s first foray into vigilantism and James Gordon’s rise in the ranks of the Gotham Police Department, Year One is sacrosanct in the eyes of most Batman fans, but the prospect of a filmed version never inspired the kind of fear that usually comes with news of such adaptations to non-comics mediums. In fact, the brevity and clarity of Miller and Mazzuchelli’s work almost welcomed adaptation, and the final product makes a strong argument along those lines.

Unsurpringly, the animated Year One is ripped right out of the comics, from the wrinkled face of Commissioner Loeb to the reflection of a bat in the shards of glass that change Bruce Wayne’s life forever. Watching the movie with the graphic novel in hand could be its own lesson in how to adapt from storyboards, a way to see what the animators added and how they dealt with translating from one format to another.

The few moments where the movie deviates from the comics are the ones prove the most distracting, like the computer animated vehicles that don’t blend with the rest of the environment and look like video game assets dropped into an otherwise vividly realized Gotham City. Still, that’s where any complaints about the art direction begin and end.

Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Ben McKenzie (The O.C.) star as the voices of Lieutenant James Gordon and Bruce Wayne, respectively. Cranston excels as Gordon, shifting between weary and determined as circumstances demand. McKenzie’s Bruce Wayne sounds stiff and monotone — something that could very well be a creative choice — but he’s best as Batman, growling and gruffly intimidating his prey.

The Year One home video package also comes with a Catwoman short film written by Batman: The Animated Series alum Paul Dini, where Selina Kyle faces off against a diamond smuggler named Roughcut. The animation and style of the Catwoman short feels slick and modern compared to Year One‘s ’80s look, but doesn’t quite hit the heights of the primary feature; this Catwoman mixes the character history of Miller’s short-haired prostitute from Year One with the aesthetics of Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke’s goggled cat-burglar of the more recent comics.

Eliza Dushku reprises her role as Catwoman from the main feature but doesn’t get as much to work with in a story that includes a jarring and somewhat gratuitous strip club scene and a lengthy, unexciting chase interspersed with some genuinely entertaining, if brief, character moments. However, other ComicsAlliance writers really loved it.

Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One works best as a companion to almost any other Batman tale in almost any medium, be it The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, the television show Batman: The Animated Series, or the film Batman Begins. Its story was and is remarkable for how it humanizes Batman and James Gordon, two characters rarely portrayed as fallible or vulnerable. Gordon’s personal struggles and Wayne’s almost inept first attempt at fighting crime as Batman are rewarding glimpses into the early years of two men who usually seem above such foibles, and those characterizations inhabit them wherever they appear.

This animated adaptation succeeds not only in being faithful to its source material, but as a work unto itself. And just like the comic book, the Batman: Year One animated feature is something that should stay on the perennial best-of lists for years to come.

Batman: Year One is on sale now from Warner Home Video. The graphic novel by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli is on sale now from DC Comics.

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