Now, let me admit something right off the bat (huhr). I am an unabashed WB Animation fanboy, of Batman especially. Batman: The Animated Series is my favorite cartoon ever, followed closely by Justice League and Batman Begins. I own all of the direct-to-disk movies, and I’ve even fanboyed at many of the cast and crew of the various series’ and movies at Comic-Con and other events. So yeah, I might be a bit biased. Now, with that said, what did I think of Year One?
First, let’s look at the presentation. Visually, I thought this movie had a great look to it. Gotham City is a dark, drab place, and so any story that takes place there should be equally so. I thought the dark tones and flat features worked well to capture this version of Gotham City, in so much that it was trying to match the look of the comic to a certain extent. If you’re wondering whether to get the movie on DVD or Blu-ray, it doesn’t matter too much, as there isn’t any big clarity improvement or anything over the DVD versions of WB Animation films. One reason to get the Blu-ray is that they include special features at time that aren’t on the DVD, but that’s neither here nor there.
Audibly, this movie does pretty well. Let’s first talk about the voice talent, which is insanely important in these features. Sadly, Batman/Bruce Wayne is NOT played by the legendary Kevin Conroy, a comparison that always pops up when these movies come about, so I thought I should address it. He is, however, played by Ben McKenzie, of Southland and The OC fame. Honestly, I’d never heard of him before this movie, so I didn’t know what to expect. While, at first, his voice totally bugged me, it actually grew on me, and by the end, I was totally fine with it. It’s not Kevin Conroy or Bruce Greenwood, I think McKenzie did a fine job in the end.
The real star of the show, however, is Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon. Since it feels like Gordon has the bulk of the dialogue, his voice also needs to carry much of the film, and Cranston does so perfectly here. Not since Bob Hastings have I been this pleased with an animated portrayal of Jim Gordon. Cranston brings Jim Gordon’s struggles, his pain, his weariness and his authority all to life, vividly and brilliantly. Since the version of Gotham here is a bit more dark and violent than The Animated Series, and that this story talks more about how Gordon came to Gotham, a voice actor that could capture all of those aspects was needed, and Cranston did the job beautifully. I think it’ll be hard to find anyone better to fill the role in the future…unless they get Bob Hastings again. 😉
The rest of the voice cast is also superb, in all honesty. Whedon-alum Eliza Dushku is on hand as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and does quite a serviceable job as Batman’s love interest and foil. I was surprised that I didn’t recognize her voice at first, which honestly is a good thing. I want to hear Catwoman, not someone I know playing Catwoman. The rest of the voice cast is a ton of fun, with legendary character actors like Alex Rocco as Carmine Falcone and Jon Polito as Commissioner Loeb. We also have Battlestar Galactica-alum Katee Sackhoff as Detective Sarah Essen, and even legendary voice actor Steve Blum makes a small appearance. Overall, this is a great lineup of vocal talent, and they do a fantastic job with their characters. The rest of the audio is pretty good too. The soundtrack was perfectly fitting, and the sound effects were perfectly subtle and booming when they needed to be.
Story-wise, the animated version of Year One does a great job in capturing the desperate feel of the comic-book. What I mean by that is, to me, Year One is a story littered with desperation. Gordon is desperate to get away from his past as well remaining a clean cop. Bruce Wayne is desperate to enact his plan of vengeance and clean up Gotham City. Gotham City itself is desperate for a change, a hero to help raise it out of the muck it’s sunken into. This is a story about birth and rebirth, and the movie captures this quite well. The story is dark, tense, bleak and yet hopeful at the same time. While you can tell Gotham and those in it have turned a corner with Batman’s arrival, you can still feel the weight of how far Gotham needs to go in order to get clean. This captures the feeling I felt when reading the comic for the first time as well many years ago, so you can tell they’ve treated the source material with a lot of respect (as is always the case).
Finally, Year One has some great special features as well. My favorite being the fantastic Conversations with DC Comics, a nearly forty minute round table with Michael Uslan, Denny O’Neil, Dan Didio and Scott Snyder wherein they talk about the history of Batman and how much the character has changed over the years, along with how versatile he is. There’s also a Catwoman short which is pretty fun, a commentary with Alan Burnett, Sam Liu, Andrea Romano and Mike Carlin, the producer, director, voice/casting director and a DC expert respectfully, which is informative and great to listen to. We also get a preview of the upcoming Justice League: Doom and, of course, some Bruce Timm-chosen episodes of previous shows.
Overall, if you’re into Batman in any way, shape or form, Year One is totally worth owning if not for the exceptional way his backstory is told as well as the featurettes detailing his history. It’s not the best direct-to-video Batman story (in my opinion that’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, but it could be a tossup with Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker), but it’s an excellent feature that is totally deserving of any Batman fan’s time.