After years abroad a twenty-five year old Bruce Wayne (voiced by Ben McKenzie) returns to crime ridden Gotham City with a secret plan to set things right. At the same time honest cop Jim Gordon (Bryan Cranston) arrives in town with his pregnant wife (Grey Griffin). He soon faces an uphill battle against a police department full of dirty cops, a police commissioner (Jon Polito) under the thumb of all-powerful mob boss Carmine 'The Roman' Falcone (Alex Rocco) and a city overrun with violent criminals. Despite a few missteps on his first outing as a masked crime-fighter, Bruce grows in skill and confidence eventually adopting a new guise as Batman to strike terror into the hearts of evildoers everywhere. Similarly Gordon fights to retain his integrity and reshape the force in pursuit of this strange costumed vigilante.
Frank Miller's 1987 graphic novel remains the definitive retelling of Batman's origin despite DC comics bombarding readers with reboots and alternate takes ever since. This animated version of Batman: Year One was the twelfth film released under the DC Universe Animated Original Movies banner that gave us Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) and Wonder Woman (2009), the latter also directed by Lauren Montgomery. Kick-starting a wave of classy animated versions of classic Batman stories it was swiftly followed by an adaptation of Miller's seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2013) and more recently Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) with co-director Sam Liu returning.
The filmmakers scored a certified casting coup with Bryan Cranston then well into his run on the acclaimed series Breaking Bad. No stranger to animation, having contributed to English dubbed versions of the superb anime Macross Plus (1995) and the interesting Indian-Japanese co-production Ramayana (1992), Cranston's growling gravitas is a perfect fit for the badass Detective Jim Gordon. However, numerous comic book fans felt co-star Ben McKenzie was 'horribly' miscast. Ironically McKenzie went on to do a fine job portraying a young and earnest Jim Gordon on the television series Gotham. For fans used to Kevin Conroy's authoritative turn on the iconic Batman: The Animated Series back in the Nineties, McKenzie's voice might seem an awkward fit. Yet his performance is pitched to grow in confidence as the film progresses and in that sense mirrors the exact arc of Bruce Wayne, from eager but inexperienced vigilante to dauntless caped crusader.
Faithful to Miller's story the film recreates all the iconic moments. Scripter Tab Murphy retains the original hard-boiled narration and even the infamous scene when Bruce gets stabbed in the leg by an underage hooker. Beat by beat this is an animated version of the comic but struggles to capture its essence. Scenes that made a huge dramatic impact on the page become slightly less evocative as the film speeds through events paying less attention to atmosphere. Opening with an aerial view of Gotham as the plane carrying Bruce Wayne descends to the city Batman: Year One is animated with an impressive sense of scale. However the sparse layouts and overly bright colour palette fall short of capturing the gritty, film noir cinematic qualities of Dave Mazzucchelli's original art. Compared with the dynamism of the source material the action sequences seem muted. Batman's appearance at the dinner party in front of Commissioner Loeb and Boss Falcone carries some of that original awe but is dealt with far too quickly. On the other hand his subsequent escape from the police SWAT team amidst a swarm of bats proves genuinely spectacular, the high-point of the movie.
Miller's hard-boiled crime thriller take on the Batman mythos remains powerful even with the diluted visuals. The genius of relegating the rise of Batman to the shadows while focusing on Jim Gordon's struggles with a corrupt police force, his anxieties over his pregnant wife and dangerous attraction to resourceful Detective Sarah Essen (Katee Sackhoff) pays off beautifully. The relationships are well drawn in particular the doomed yet intuitive partnership between Essen (who suspects Bruce Wayne is Batman all along) and Gordon. As much a Jim Gordon story as a Batman origin, if not more so, this remains one of the best plotted, most nuanced and compelling Batman stories of all time.