By the mid-eighties, Frank Miller had already carved out quite a name for himself after single-handedly resuscitating Marvel's Daredevil from his deathbed, but it wasn't until 1986 that he really shook up the comic book industry when he went over to DC Comics to give another vigilante a gritty makeover with his trademark noir-ish style. The result was the highly-acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns -- a brave, bold tale set in a dystopian future that sees a fifty-something Batman coming out of retirement to lead one last ultra-violent crusade against crime.
A year later, Miller would join forces with artist David Mazzucchelli to tackle Batman's beginnings, stripping it down to its core elements and creating what many hail to be his greatest masterpiece of all-time. Originally appearing in Batman issues #404 to 407 and reprinted in numerous trade paperbacks and hardcovers (including The Complete Frank Miller Batman), Batman: Year One is the driving force behind Bruce Timm's award-winning 'Batman: The Animated Series,' Tim Burton's and Christopher Nolan's live-action films, and Warner's 12th DC Universe Original Animated Movie released directly on home video.
The tale opens with Bruce Wayne (voiced by Ben McKenzie of TV's 'Southland') returning home from abroad after spending the last twelve years of his life secretly preparing to avenge his parents' murder. Meanwhile, Chicago cop Jim Gordon (Bryan Cranston, 'Breaking Bad') faces his own set of challenges when he transfers to Gotham only to find a city plagued by crime and corruption. As Gordon struggles with the darkness looming all around him, a mysterious figure will rise from the shadows and launch his reign of terror on the streets. When the lives of both men converge, a mutual respect for each other will eventually lead to a rather unique partnership -- one that will be instrumental in bringing order to a city lost in chaos.
'Batman: Year One' is dark, dreary, and arguably the best DCU animated movie yet. This time, producer Bruce Timm and his team wisely stick firmly to the source material, so much so that the only real consequence is a shorter runtime at just over an hour. The narrative is broken down into a series of key events, and the fragmented structure works in favor of addressing the pacing issues many of these movies seem to have. The action sequences flow with the story rather than overwhelm it, and none of them seem out of place or thrown in as filler. Most importantly, although Miller's story doesn't change much in terms of Batman's origin, it's the focus on Gordon's parallel arc (this is in fact his story just as much as it is Wayne's after all) that really gives 'Batman: Year One' depth and substance.
The animation design also does a great job retaining the grit and gloom of Mazzucchelli's original artwork, while a mostly solid voice cast helps bring the major players in the story to life. McKenzie is rather stiff in his animation debut as Bruce Wayne, especially during his voiceover narration in the opening scenes, but on a positive note he does seem to ease into the role a bit better as the movie progresses. Picking up the majority of the slack, though, is Cranston, who apparently turned down the role initially and changed his mind after being exposed to the quality level of Miller's storytelling. Although Cranston's part isn't very demanding, his contribution is so natural and spot on that he's hands-down the star of the show. The rest of the cast includes character actor Alex Rocco bringing a heap of mafioso flair to mob boss Carmine Falcone, Katee Sackoff ('Battlestar Galactica') as Detective Sarah Essen, and Eliza Dushku ('Dollhouse') lending a sultry voice to Selina Kyle -- better known as Catwoman. Dushku has a lot of fun here, and if you thought the vixen villainess was heavy into S&M before, just wait until get a load of her profession (hint: "world's oldest") in Miller's universe.
With the questionable performance of McKenzie aside, 'Batman: Year One' is a smart and faithful production that gets a lot more right than most of its animated direct-to-video brethren, making it a worthy addition to any Batman fan's collection. Let's hope that Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns' -- which supposedly is in the works for a late 2012 release by the way, is just as enjoyable and engaging.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Batman: Year One' arrives on a region free BD-50 Blu-ray alongside a second disc with a DVD/Digital Copy housed inside a standard blue keepcase. My screener also included a slick foil-embossed slipcover. There are pre-menu advertisements for 'Smallville: The Complete Series' on DVD as well as 'Green Lantern: The Animated Series' and a teen action show 'Aim High.' There is also an exclusive edition at Best Buy that includes a Catwoman figurine. A bit of an odd choice, but I guess Warner figured she'd sell better than Jim Gordon.
'Batman: Year One' features a crisp 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 high-definition image (framed in 1.78:1 aspect ratio) that has a few minor nitpicks, but is otherwise a terrific looking presentation.
The original graphic novel consisted mainly of dark blues, drab browns, and endless blacks, and the animated adaptation replicates the muted tone rather well. The brightest and most colorful setting takes place in Gotham's East End, as the glowing neon signs from the tight-knit cluster of bars and strip clubs casts a murky purple haze over the slums. Computer animation is used sparingly and adds bit of a depth, while backgrounds have a considerable amount of texture and fine detail to them. The somber, snow-covered landscape of the Wayne family graveside in particular is very pleasing to the eye.
Banding and aliasing do show up in the movie, but both aren't as intrusive as on some of the other DTV animated features. The line art is generally sharp and smooth as well, having only a few brief moments of noticeable stepping. Blocking and artifacting are also kept to a minimum and noise is practically a non-issue. Ultimately, even though the picture certainly has room for improvement, this is still a quality transfer that should satisfy most viewers.
The default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack included on 'Batman: Year One' is even better and easily ranks among Warner Animation's finer efforts.
Dialogue is presented cleanly and concisely through the front channels of the mix. Surrounds provide subtle ambience in the quieter scenes and deliver the goods in the action sequences. Panning effects such as barreling subways and speeding police cars seamlessly transition from one speaker to the next, while the screeches and flapping wings of thousands of bats fill every nook and cranny of the soundstage. A strong LFE presence enhances the power of gunshots and also boosts the intensity of the handful of explosions. The tension and excitement is ramped up further thanks to the pulse-pounding beats of Christopher Drake's impressive score.
The Blu-ray also includes additional Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in French, German, and Spanish, as well as optional English SDH, French, German SDH, and Spanish SDH subtitles.
The Blu-ray release of 'Batman: Year One' includes all of the supplements found on the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD. Most of the content here is presented in high-definition.
'Batman: Year One' is a taut, gritty, and extremely faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's groundbreaking masterpiece. Even twenty-five years later, this origin tale is still considered by many to be the greatest Batman story ever told. Warner's Blu-ray has solid video, an impressive lossless soundtrack, and a nice spread of supplemental features including a few high-def exclusives, making this release an easy recommendation for both Batman and animation fans alike.