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Batman: Year One(2011)
Batman's first year as the dark knight crime-fighter.
For more about Batman: Year One and the Batman: Year One Blu-ray release, see Batman: Year One Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on October 12, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Ben McKenzie, Eliza Dushku, Jon Polito, Alex Rocco, Katee Sackhoff
Directors: Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery
» See full cast & crew
Batman: Year One Blu-ray Review
A solid DCU animated original movie, flaws and all...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, October 12, 2011
There are countless Batman tales and many more to be told, but only a select few have stepped out of the shadows, struck a nerve and left a lasting impact on culture. (Comicbook or otherwise.) Typically, a comic writer is lucky to have even one such success with the Bat, but every now and then, lightning strikes twice. The man responsible for two of Batman's most seminal stories? Frank Miller, whose "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" remains one of, if not the, greatest, most gripping Batman story ever told (even if it technically falls under the non-canon Elseworlds umbrella), and whose "Batman: Year One," a canonized exploration of the Dark Knight's first year beneath the cowl, is a simmering, disarmingly realistic portrait of the humanity and integrity of Gotham's heroes and the seemingly insurmountable odds they face in cleaning up the city. When it was announced that the latter would be adapted as the 12th DC Universe animated original movie, I was ecstatic. Miller's "Year One" has long been a personal favorite and the prospect of an animated adaptation was an exciting one. But that excitement was soon tempered by doubt. Not every Batman tale is created equal, and not every DCU Animation production is either. How would "Year One" fare as Year One? How faithful would co-directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery and screenwriter Tab Murphy be to Miller and illustrator David Mazzucchelli's original vision of Gotham and its denizens? How much would be lost? Would anything be gained? Fortunately, Liu, Montgomery and Murphy are exceedingly faithful to Miller's words and Mazzucchelli's pens and pencils. Unfortunately, there's still a little bit lost in translation.
Frank Miller's introduction to Batman? "For me, Batman was never funny. I was eight years old when I picked up an 80-page annual from the shelf of a local supermarket. Gotham City was cold shafts of concrete lit by cold moonlight, windswept and bottomless, fading to a cloud bank of city lights, a wet, white mist, miles below me. The street sounds were a soft, sad roar, unbroken and unchanging. Then somewhere, somewhere in the stone rat's maze down there, tiny but unmuffled, a pane-glass window shattered. The sound was almost pretty, like chimes. The chimes became a single ringing bell, a burglar alarm, the old kind. A Thompson machine gun spat at the bell. A madman laughed wildly, maliciously. The laughter echoed forever. A shadow fell across me, from above. Wings flapped, close by and almost silent. Glistening wet, black against the blackened sky, a monster, a giant, winged gargoyle, hunched forward, pausing at a building's ledge, and cocked its head, following the laugh's last seconds. Moonlight glanced across its back, across its massive shoulders, down its craned, cabled neck, across its skull, striking a triangle at one pointed bat's ear. It rose into space, its wings spread wide, then fell, its wings now a fluttering cape wrapped tight about the body of a man. It fell past me, its shadow sliding across walls, growing to swallow whole buildings, lit by the clouds below. The shadow faded into the clouds. It was gone. The 80-page giant comic cost 25 cents, but I bought it anyway."
To that end, Miller and -- almost twenty-five years after the four-issue story's initial publication -- the Batman: Year One creative team tap the imagery, the fear, the grandeur, the city, the tone and the noir-tinted grit-n-grime realism of the Dark Knight's first year on the streets. (Realism being a relative term. In the comic, Wayne snaps handcuffs in two, a rather superhuman thing to do. In the movie, he doesn't snap handcuffs, but he does chase a fleeing vehicle on foot near the end of the film and manages to keep pace. More on that in a bit, though.) Year One is, first and foremost, a dual character study that focuses on two men of action and principle: Bruce Wayne (voiced by Benjamin McKenzie, Southland), returning to Gotham after extensive training overseas and putting his newly acquired skills to the test, and Lieutenant James Gordon (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad), struggling to get a handle on his career and personal life while battling crime on the streets, working to bring a certain nocturnal vigilante to justice, and rooting out corruption within his department. And each extraordinarily ordinary hero is forced to overcome a series of hurdles. Wayne has to keep his extracurricular activities secret, learn through trial and rather deadly error, and gain a foothold in Gotham's underworld, specifically in the corner of the city mafioso Carmine Falcone (Alex Rocco, The Godfather) has claimed as his own. Gordon, meanwhile, has to contend with mixed feelings about his wife's pregnancy, the city's crooked police commissioner (Jon Polito, Miller's Crossing), an unhealthy attraction to one of his female detectives (Katee Sackhoff, Battlestar Galactica), and the emergence of a second masked menace, Selina Kyle aka Catwoman (Eliza Dushku, Dollhouse).
But something is amiss. A few things actually. Comic readers are savvy to reading between the panels. And while the pacing of Miller's "Year One" works wonderfully, the pacing of Liu and Montgomery's Year One lags and lurches ever so slightly, even though it's almost a panel for panel, page for page recreation. Likewise, Mazzucchelli's artwork boasts a flow and hard-boiled fluidity, despite its static nature; the DCU Animation approximates his illustrations nicely, but also exhibit a uncharacteristic emptiness and woodenness from time to time, especially when it comes to the film's climactic car chase. (Year One's fist fights and armed battles are far more impressive.) Then there's the use of dates and narration; a technique that lends what could have been a scattershot comic run context and direction but, in the film, sometimes knocks the narrative off-balance, strengthening less involved sequences and weakening others with redundancy. It's a small nitpick, I'll admit, but what works in comics doesn't always work on the screen. It doesn't help that McKenzie is miscast as Batman, at least when it comes to Wayne's narration. His flatlined, deathbed delivery is reminiscent of Mat Lucas' voicework as Anakin Skywalker in Genndy Tartakovsky's 2003 Clone Wars shorts, and no, that isn't a compliment. The result? Miller's comic reads as two equally important, ever-converging stories: one featuring Bruce Wayne and the other featuring Jim Gordon. But McKenzie's performance is so indifferent and innocuous at its lowest points that it, every so often, makes Batman: Year One a more lopsided adaptation: as if it should be titled The Life and Times of Lieutenant James Gordon instead. Where's fan-favorite Kevin Conroy? Or Bruce Greenwood (Batman: Under the Red Hood)? In McKenzie's defense, though, his ineffectiveness only extends to the film's narration; when Bats hits the streets or when Wayne invites Gordon to his home, McKenzie handily bests William Baldwin (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths) and Jeremy Sisto (Justice League: The New Frontier).
All that being said, Year One still gets a lot of things right. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as Gordon, tapping into the meat and muck of the lieutenant's inner thoughts without hamming up a single line or overreaching a single time. Gordon's character animation helps, and there are even moments that are elevated above their comicbook counterparts thanks to small touches like a downcast glance, a furrowed brow, a faint smile, a pause, a brief twitch of fear, a haunted stillness, an explosive attack, reason mixed with emotion, or a face of firm determination. Combined with Cranston's voice performance, Gordon comes to animated life, wades through his troubles, suffers for his mistakes, and punishes himself for his failings. It's just that convincing. In fact, if it weren't for the mishandling of Batman, Year One might be one of DCU Animation's finest. The rest of the voice cast does their part too (minus Dushku, who solid work but doesn't contribute much in the way of a memorable performance), as do many of the less flashy stretches of animation. There's a real cinematic quality to the production (credit there goes primarily to Miller and Mazzucchelli, of course, as their four issues were practically storyboards in the hands of the creative team) and many a scene resonates. Yes, Miller's climactic bridge showdown is better on the page than on the screen, but it still packs a wallop. Yes, there are several brief beats from the comic that have been removed entirely ("September 7" is gone, and Gordon and Sarah Essen's affair ends earlier and differently). And yes, you can expect the sort of tweaking and shuffling that comes with adapting any graphic novel or miniseries. But Batman: Year One is far more faithful than most. I suspect some will embrace it more than I have and others will feel it isn't as evocative of the original as it should be. Either way, Batman: Year One is worth a blind buy in my humble opinion, if for no other reason than to turn you on to Miller and Mazzucchelli's four-issue classic.
Batman: Year One Blu-ray, Video Quality
First things first: banding rears its head on more than one occasion (especially in the skies and around bright light sources framed by darkness), but it isn't as distracting or debilitating as it has been in other, more problematic DCU Animation presentations. Warner's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is quite good, truth be told, reveling in rich blues and purples, somber yellows and browns, grimy grays and greens, and seemingly bottomless blacks. Contrast and clarity are strong, and detail is spot on as well, with crisp lines, sharply rendered hand-drawn characters and backgrounds, and well-resolved computer-animated elements. Problems arise, though. Artifacting, macroblocking and digital noise, minor as they are, make a few appearances, and slight aliasing and faint pixelation are rather common. While I didn't run into any scenes that were crippled by encoding or source inadequacies, the closer I looked, the more I noticed. Be that as it may, it's becoming more and more clear that the issues that plague the DCU Animation transfers trace back to shortcomings in the productions. Ultimately, Year One's presentation isn't as striking as I had hoped, but it isn't nearly as bad as I feared.
Batman: Year One Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Warner's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track hits harder and pushes Year One to new heights. It isn't quite as immersive as the crime-ridden city herself, but the original sound design isn't always as cinematic as the visuals it accompanies ("quite," "always" and "as" being the key words). Even so, the rear speakers are certainly up to the task, grabbing hold of every rickety monorail car, inner-city terminal, distant police siren, throaty car engine, downpour, street noise, shattering window, and swarming bat that graces the soundscape. Ambience is persistent and effective, interior acoustics are impressive (especially for a direct-to-video animation production), and bursts of absorbing directionality deliver some great movement. Low-end output struck me as tad hollow in some (limited) regards as the movie gained momentum -- Gunshots, car wrecks and explosions sound fantastic. The bass in the movie's music score? Not so much -- but, by and large, the LFE channel doesn't disappoint and keeps things pounding along. To top it all off, dialogue and narration are clean, clear and distinct throughout, with nary a muffled or mangled line to complain about. As it stands, Batman's lossless mix is the highlight of the disc.
Batman: Year One Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Batman: Year One Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Batman: Year One doesn't always soar, but when it does, it makes for a memorable sight. More faithful than most DCU animated adaptations, and more cinematic to boot, it preserves much of what Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli accomplished and only loses its way here and there (mainly due to McKenzie's weak, lockjaw narration). Warner's Blu-ray release is even better. Its video transfer looks great (despite stumbling on occasion), its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is excellent and its supplemental package is quite generous. And at such a reasonable price point, what's there to lose?
Batman: Year One: Other Editions
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Batman: Year One Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Batman: Year One Blu-ray - July 14, 2011
Warner Home Video has announced the Blu-ray release Batman Year One, the animated retelling of Frank Miller's classic take on the superhero. The all new film will arrive on October 18th as a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack. A SRP of $19.99 has been set.
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