17 February 2013

A Brunch Movie Review: Batman: Year One Plus a bonus review



Batman: Year One
A film by DC Animated Studios

Starring
Bryan Cranston....Jim Gordon
Ben McKenzie.....Bruce Wayne/Batman
Eliza Dushku.....Selina Kyle/Catwoman
Complete Cast list here

A synopsis:
Batman: Year One tells the story of two men who collide with Gotham, and each other. One of them stands outside the law, one of them is an officer of that law. In the city, and its people they both find purpose, and through them the people of the city find their courage to stand up. There is also a cat-burglar. I see you nodding out there, but trust me, you don't really know the story, you only think you do....

It would not be hyperbole to say that DC Animated Studios film, Batman: Year One is a perfect adaptation of a perfect Batman story written by the once great Frank Miller. Miller penned perhaps the two greatest Batman stories every told (debate rages to this day).  The story of Miller and Batman would take us too far a field, but after penning the omega of the Batman character arc in the ground breaking, industry changing The Dark Knight Returns, Miller was offered a chance to write a Batman origin story, an update on themes and events that hadn't really been tackled since Bob Kane imagined them three quarters of a century ago.  Miller along with the gifted David Muzzacchelli, and inker Richmond Lewis, redefined the core figures that lie at the heart of the Batman mythos (with the exception of the Joker). That it did this this in four issues of economic, taut, noir story telling is a testament to the efforts of that team of artists and the writing an undeniable example of how great Miller really was. For good or for ill, every Batman writer, including Christopher Nolan, lives in the shadow the Miller of 1986 (TDKR) and 1987 (BYO).

In adapting this work, DC Animated set for themselves a tall order.  Bringing, perhaps, the most beloved Batman story every told, and arguably the best, to the screen in a way satisfying to both fans of the original work, and people with no experience of the original must have seemed daunting for an animated feature.  Its a complex story and animation is hard work, and cutting corners, simplifying character designs, and effects are all ways in which animators cut cost, reduce labor and turn out products on time. Luckily the folks at DC are serious about their feature length animated projects and opted not to use any of the tricks of the weekly animated trade.

While all animation must, in some ways, simplify the design of any character, or place (the nature of having to have numerous illustrators draw the same characters, with some speed) the look and feel of Batman: Year One very closely matches quite closely the art and designs, lighting and color of Muzzacchelli and Lewis. Gotham is the color of Tammany Hall, and its architecture the texture of old crime shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gotham is not a clean city, the social contract is completely broken.  It is city of survivors, and victims, of the powerful and the powerless. It is a place of almost, but not quite, brazen corrumption.  DC Animated really captures the scope of Gotham as imagined by Miller. Without this context its hard to imagine that twin stories that unfold could be believable. This is Batman as believable as it gets, Batman by way of realism.

More than Marvel Animation Studios (also a great house by the way) DC Animated tries to get A or B list vocal talent for their features.  Batman: Year One may be their most successful marriage of vocal talent to date.  Bryan Cranston's vision of the young disillusioned Lt Jim Gordon is nothing short of brilliant. What is Gordon to do in a department where corruption is the norm than the anomaly?  He is a good cop, but also a cop who works too much and never sees his pregnant wife. Being a cop with integrity is dangerous in a city like Gotham. It is especially dangerous for the loved ones of such a person. Cranston manages to bring every bit of that confusion, of those temptations to his performance of James Gordon. The greatness of Batman: Year One lies, in no small part, to this exploration of Gordon and his humanity.  He isn't just a guy who picks up a red phone and calls the Batman.  He is a flesh and blood human being who hates the thought of shooting someone.

What of Bruce Wayne? He is a man in search of a method. He has all the tools, the education and the resources. He has no idea how to apply them.  Batman: Year One explores how Bruce did it and explains how he came to use his fears to scare his enemies. It is the story of how he came to know the city of Gotham.  He might have been from Gotham, but it didn't raise him. During this year, he meets the key figures that will come to define his future, his failures (Harvey Dent) his love (Selina Kyle) and of course, his partner in reformation, Jim Gordon. As the tag line from the first issue said of Wayne's journey toward becoming the greatest detective, "It won't be easy."

Having a great voice cast is more or less useless if you haven't got the script to utilize that talent well.  The writers have managed to pull so much from the source material that the film seems vastly deeper than the typical DC animated film.  They managed to import so much of the inner monologues of Gordon and Wayne (described by Miller's text boxes-these are not thought balloons, or dialogue balloons, but rectangles in a portion of a comic book panel where narration of some kind occurs).  These elements of character narration are crucial to both of Miller's great Batman stories. Including as much of them as possible in this film was integral to preserving the depth of Miller's characters. Without them, the film would have fallen incredibly flat. Like the muscular prose of Dashiell Hammett, part of the punch and the pace of noir/hard-boiled literature is the dialogue, but it is also the first person narration.

In all the crucial ways, and even some of the none crucial ways, the team at DC Animated have captured the look, feel and depth of the source material. If you like Batman see it. If you liked Miller's book, give it a shot.  If you like hard boiled fiction give it a shot.  Give it a shot even if you aren't that into animated films (and definitely read the original work).

The Brunch Verdict: 10/10  (that is high praise by the way)

Bonus review: Catwoman an animated short film

This was a bonus feature on the Batman: Year One disc.
1. It is glorious to look at. Excellent animation.  Fluid. Just freakin' gorgeous.
2. Catwoman is very hot.  Too hot, I mean on a stripper pole hot.  DC animated, breasts cannot stay in an outfit like that when you add all that activity.  Maybe that is her unknown super power, magical no nip-slip. Before you pull that DC animated, put a parental warning on it.  It was a bit odd to watch with my daughter.
3. Come on DC animated, Catwoman has no powers. She can't do much of what you had her do. Dopes. Do you know what happens when she falls off of a car moving 50 or 60 miles per hour? The same thing that happens to me, best characterized by the phrase, "HOLY FUCKING SHIT, I'M ALL DEAD."
The Brunch Verdict:
10/10 Animation
22/10 Crazy cleavage
-1/10 Boob physics
3/10 Catwoman story, understanding of character, general physics



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