The ideas and concepts first found in Frank Miller's Batman: Year One have been so pilfered through and copied over the last 25 years that it feels a little strange to see this work adapted for film without any narrative alterations. It feels like less of a stand-alone movie and more of a time-capsule of sorts, a touchstone to one of the more important comic books of its generation. What works in the book still works in the movie, although this rigidly faithful adaptation exposes the problems of adapting a relatively literate comic book into an action picture. The film is so visually and narratively faithful that it often resembles a high-end motion comic. For those who have never read the original story, the film works as a rock-solid Batman origin story which remains one of the better Jim Gordon stories. And for those who have always wanted to see this tale translated to film (animated or live-action), you'll get what you paid for. Batman: Year One is a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's four-part series, but its slavish devotion threatens to render it not particularly necessary.
For the four of you who don't know, Batman: Year One concerns the first year of Batman's crime-fighting existence, who coincides with the first year that Jim Gordon spent as a cop in Gotham. The emphasis is on political corruption and the rot that graft and crime has turned Gotham into. There are no super villains just yet, as Batman's attention is focused on common street criminals and the corrupt politicians and police department that allows them to fester. Much of the story consists of the running internal monologues of both Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) and Jim Gordon (Bryan Cranston). James Gordon is the true star of the story, as his dilemma towards being tasked to capture a vigilante who is more honest and helpful than the cops themselves takes center stage. I've long argued against the lie that Frank Miller single-handedly saved Batman from decades of camp, but few can deny that he more-or-less invented the modern Jim Gordon as we've known him for 25-years since. While the vocal work is fine, too much of the ongoing thought bubbles are kept in the onscreen translation, even when it ends up providing exposition for actions we see onscreen or character development we can clearly see for ourselves.
Looking at the picture objectively, much of the film is basically Jim Gordon or Batman thinking to themselves. Despite their starring roles, I'd doubt that Batman or Gordon have more than twenty lines of actual spoken dialogue combined. That is something that doesn't stand out as much on a page, as the internal and external dialogue tend to blend together into a fine stew. But similar to the live-action adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City (which, to be fair, this is far superior to), this version loses points for relying too much on the internal expository voice over that was vital to the page, but less so for the actual motion picture. Still, the action scenes are beautifully animated and are generally delivered in long, fluid 'takes'. The animation overall is pretty appealing, with a sparse level of detail that will remind some of Batman: the Animated Series.
Regardless of its flaws as a stand-alone movie, this remains a painstakingly faithful adaptation of one of the most popular Batman stories every written. As such it retains the compelling narrative and potent characterization that made it a classic. If that is what you crave, then you will most likely walk away quite satisfied. But in the end, it is less a movie to exist of its own accord than a proverbial time capsule for its source material.
Available for download on October 11th, available to purchase on October 18th from WHV
For a look at the extra features, including a fun but troubling Catwoman short film, go here.