Batman: Year One Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Combo Pack

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Miller and Mazzuchelli get animated in DC’s latest cartoon adaptation…

There are a lot of people out there – fans and critics alike – who regard Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s seminal Batman: Year One as one of their most resonant comic book touchstones. It was the first trade paperback I ever purchased. I bought it through the mail via one of those old paperback book clubs because I lived in the country and was starved for comics, the nearest shop a solid two-hour drive north. Year One was an important book.

When I first heard DC was planning an animated adaptation of one of my favourite comics of all time, my heart sank just a little – the same feeling I experienced when I learned they were making Watchmen into a movie. It’s not that I’m a purist or anything of that sort. I understand the realities of modern entertainment cross-pollination. I was just afraid they wouldn’t – maybe even couldn’t – get it right.

And as with Watchmen, I was only partially justified in my fears over Year One’s translation into an animated format. Don’t get me wrong, this is an amazing piece of animation. The bonus Catwoman short alone will get your adrenalin pumping with its non-stop action, sultry noir visuals, and spot-on voice acting. On the flipside, the main feature falls just a little short of the source material.

When it was originally published, Batman: Year One accomplished more than DC editorial could have hoped for when they decided to expand and deepen Bruce Wayne’s origin. Not only did Miller and Mazzuchelli ground the character in a dirty, corrupt, and ultimately more believable Gotham City, they solidified and strengthened the bonds between Batman and his ally James Gordon.

The importance of this foundational relationship to the Batman mythos cannot be ignored. As Greg Rucka so insightfully observes in one of the disc's wonderful featurettes, without a corrupt police force in Gotham, there can be no Batman and without James Gordon as the one cop he can trust, his quest to clean up the city is drastically handicapped. Without the hope Gordon represents, Batman risks degenerating into just another vigilante with a chip on his cowl.

The cartoon does an amazing job depicting the burgeoning “friendship” between Gotham’s two lone protectors, in many ways casting Gordon as the star of the piece. In the comic, the same was also true. Of a necessity, Bruce Wayne occupied the background of the original story, his maturation into the fledgling Dark Knight taking place in intense vignettes interspersed throughout the main driving action of the plot, James Gordon’s battle to establish himself on a crooked police force. While Miller could rely on narration and his brilliant artistic collaborator Mazzuchelli, much of the emotion and intensity of Wayne’s transformation into the Batman depends on the talents of the voice actor in the cartoon. This is where the animated version falls short.

True, if I’d had my druthers, the artistic style would evoke Mazzuchelli’s original art even closer than it does but my real problem with this cartoon is Batman/Bruce Wayne’s voice. Normally, I’m pretty relaxed when it comes to casting. Unless you’re hiring Weird Al Yankovic to play Wolverine, I’m willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. In the case of Ben McKenzie’s portrayal of the titular character though, I do have to take issue. Perhaps best known for his work in TV’s The O.C., McKenzie falls spectacularly flat as the voice of Batman. Monotone doesn’t even begin to describe the lack of intensity in McKenzie’s depiction. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as James Gordon, on the other hand, knocks it out of the park with an understated, emotional reading that evokes the conflicts of the character in the source material.

Although lacking some of the gritty intensity of the original comic book thanks in large part to a cardboard reading of the titular character, Batman: Year One is still well worth the price of admission. Cranston’s portrayal of a young, besieged Jim Gordon is one of the finest voice-acting jobs I’ve heard yet and the rest of the Combo Pack comes jammed with all sorts of cool special features, including interviews with the likes of Greg Rucka, Scott Snyder, Denny O’Neil, Dan Didio, and Mike Carlin. A must-have for comic book cartoon aficionados, even if it lacks some of the urban opera of the original.

Released October 18, 2011, Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray Edition of Batman: Year One is available now for $33.74.

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