While the web has been drenched with rumors and buzz about the upcoming third entry in Christopher Nolan's live action "Batman" movies, the dark knight made a comparatively quieter arrival in a new movie this week: On Tuesday, Warner Home Video released the direct-to-DVD "Batman: Year One," an hourlong adaptation of Frank Miller's seminal '80s comic. Directed by Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu, the animated feature captures the original elegance of the source material, while at the same time proving that a transcendent experience in one medium doesn't always seamlessly translate into another one.
Released in 1987, "Year One" was part of a wave of superhero comics during that decade (along with Miller's superior "The Dark Knight Returns" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen") to rejuvenate ancient men-in-tights narratives with grittier adult themes and previously unexplored depth. The brilliance of "Year One" is that it doesn't only revolves around Batman's origin. While Bruce Wayne gradual becomes the mysterious force battling Gotham City corruption, his path runs parallel to that of Jim Gordon, the good-natured police transfer who eventually fills the role of commissioner. The young Gordon's unwillingness to play by the bad cop rules dominating Gotham puts him and his pregnant wife in harm's way, while the pressures of the job lead him down a road to infidelity that's as much a part of the plot as anything else. (Rated PG-13, "Year One" actually has a greater amount of sexual innuendo than Nolan's first two "Batman" films combined.)
I'm not crazy about Ben McKenzie's voice acting as Batman, but "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston does a killer job at nailing the mixture of sincerity and calculation in Jim Gordon's voice. Gordon the real star of the show, which is the main reason why the "Year One" adaptation works as well as it does.
And yet it's overall very much a slight experience. The original volume, illustrated by David Mazzuccchelli, is a slim work of art that benefits from multiple reads. More than a short story with pictures, it's a sharp update to Batman mythology with several levels of psychological intrigue on every page. The movie, however, doesn't sit still; as a result, it's over and done with so quickly that the overall impression is somewhat slight. Still, it should be seen by superhero aficionados for nailing what the recent slew of deconstructive superhero movies ("Kick Ass," "Super," "Defendor," "Griff the Invisible" and so on) have sorely missed: Fully believable characters and legitimate reasons to believe in their convictions. Each fist is flung with purpose.
On the most basic level, "Year One" looks great, following on the heels of the equally solid "Batman: Under the Red Hood" released earlier this year. Both movies return to the noir-inflected atmosphere of the '90's-era "Batman: The Animated Series," the brainchild of Bruce Timm, who serves an executive producer here. I've enjoyed aspects of Nolan's "Batman" movies and appreciate the intense gravitas he brings to the material, but these more stylized takes tap into the mixture of fantasy and naturalism at the root of Batman's appeal: He's just a masked vigilante willing to take a stand, with no less fury against the establishment than the protestors at Occupy Wall Street (where it's rumored that "The Dark Knight Rises" may shoot soon). "Year One" isn't fully formed, but it realizes that potential by placing Batman into a classy storyline in which he shares the stage with another man just as relevant to the mission of making a difference. It turns out you don't need a mask to clean up the town, nor do you need Christian Bale.