Superhero Sundays: Batman: Year One (2011)
Matthew Turner | On 29, Mar 2020
Director: Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Ben McKenzie, Eliza Dushku, Jon Polito, Alex Rocco, Katee Sackhoff, Bruce Timm
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through animated superhero cartoons. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Co-directed by DC animation veterans Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, 2011’s Batman: Year One is based on the acclaimed graphic novel (previously a four issue comics arc) by writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli. It was the 12th animated feature to be released under the DC Universe Animated Original Movies banner.
Written by Tab Murphy, the plot is extremely faithful to the source material. Lieutenant Gordon (Bryan Cranston), whose wife Barbara (Grey DeLisle) is pregnant with their first child, arrives in Gotham City having transferred from Chicago. Appalled by the corruption and violence within the Gotham City Police Department, Gordon makes his opposition known, but is beaten up by masked officers on the orders of Commissioner Gillian Loeb (the late lamented Jon Polito, going full Johnny Caspar).
Meanwhile, twenty-something billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben McKenzie) returns to Gotham City, having spent 12 years abroad. He begins training for a one-man war against crime, having witnessed a mugger shoot both his parents as a child. After a disastrous first outing as a disguised vigilante, a badly injured Bruce finds inspiration when a bat crashes through his window and (kind of hilariously) sits on top of a bust of his father, squeaking a lot. Soon, a masked vigilante quickly nick-named Batman is dishing out justice on the streets of Gotham and Gordon is ordered to bring him in.
Technically, the film is also Catwoman: Year One, because it features a brief origin story for Selina Kyle as well. Here, she’s a cat-loving prostitute-slash-dominatrix who witnesses – and joins in with – Bruce’s first fight and is subsequently inspired by Batman’s appearance to don a cat costume and get up to criminal mischief. Batman and Catwoman aren’t together on screen for very long, but the seeds of their future relationship – jealousy, attraction, annoyance – are definitely there, at least on Selina’s part.
The animation is excellent throughout, its copious shadows reflecting the noir-ish aspects of the graphic novel, something that’s further underscored by Jim Gordon’s hard-boiled(ish) voiceover narration. The closing credits feature panels from the graphic novel, illustrating just how closely the film sticks to Mazzucchelli’s original designs and scenes.
On top of that, there are several nice touches, including a wealth of comics-nerd-friendly background detail. Notably, there are several objects that foreshadow future Bat-villains, such as a poster of a clown (Joker), a police sketch artist’s rendition of Batman that looks like Man-Bat and – at a stretch – a doll that may or may not be intended as a reference to The Ventriloquist and Scarface. There are other nice details too, such as a diner called Hopper’s that’s styled after artist Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting.
Outside of Catwoman and some named gangsters, there are no traditional Bat-villains – it is Year One, after all – but we do get to meet a pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent (Robin Atkin Downes) and a certain costumed clown is mentioned at the end. Accordingly, the fight scenes have an impressively realistic feel to them (the odd Batarang aside), especially the ones involving Gordon.
As for the voicework… well, it’s very much a case of swings and roundabouts. Cranston makes a terrific Gordon, bringing just the right level of world-weariness to it (while still convincing as a younger man) while Eliza Dushku is such perfect casting as Catwoman that you instantly regret that she never got to play the role in any live-action outing. However, with the best will in the world, Ben McKenzie is, well, he’s just not a good Batman. Or a good Bruce Wayne. It’s clear that the intention was to give Bruce / Batman a younger voice, but it just doesn’t work and ends up being distracting because it doesn’t sound right. (Ironically, McKenzie would himself be cast as young Jim Gordon in the live-action series Gotham, three years later.)
Perhaps it’s telling that Batman: Year One is one of the few DC animated movies that hands voice casting duties to someone other than the legendary Andrea Romano, who nonetheless graciously cameos here as “Obstetrician”. (Producer Bruce Timm also has a cameo, playing “Thug #1”.)
Other than that, there are two things to note. The first is the confirmation that Huckleberry Hound (and by extension, Hanna-Barbera) cartoons officially exist in the Batman universe, as Catwoman steals a Huck soft toy at one point. And the second is rather unfortunate in the era of #MeToo, as it’s strongly implied that Bruce Wayne deliberately exposes himself to Detective Sarah Essen (Katie Sackhoff) while he’s trying to throw her and Gordon off the scene with his sleazy playboy antics. Okay, so he’s playing a part, but still. Bad, Batman. Bad.