The genius of Frank Miller's graphic novel Batman: Year One wasn't just how it reimagined Batman's origin — it was the new and grittier version of James Gordon, Batman's main ally on the police force.
And the animated DVD adaptation, which comes out a week from tomorrow, makes a brilliant move by casting Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as James Gordon. That choice, more than anything else, makes this version of Year One a huge success. Spoilers ahead...
All in all, the new Year One direct-to-DVD animation sticks pretty close to the story by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli. There are even little touches designed to drive home that this is set in the 1980s, like a shop renting VHS and Betamax recorders. The main difference that you tend to notice is that the animators (Korea's MOI Animation) have given the whole thing a very anime feeling, and the action is balletic and smooth, probably a lot more fluid than what Frank Miller would have envisioned if he'd been adapting his own work. Also, Miller's already laconic script becomes even more laconic here, with a few lines here and there conveying volumes of information. Everything's been pared back to the absolute minimum, letting the action speak for itself.
And it's clearer than ever that this is James Gordon's story — Cranston even gets top billing in the credits. We follow Lt. James Gordon arriving in Gotham City after an unfortunate career-derailing incident in Chicago where he turned in a corrupt cop. Gordon is already defeated and cynical, and he sees his stint in Gotham as being condemned to hell on Earth. But he's still determined to be a good cop, and not to join in the corruption around him. Meanwhile, a young Bruce Wayne comes back to Gotham after years away and is determined to do something about the criminal elites that killed his parents.
We follow both characters over the course of a year — Bruce Wayne trying to fight crime in a simpler disguise, before hitting on the Batman identity, and then getting hunted by the cops. And Gordon, becoming a father, while getting more and more at odds with the corrupt cops, including the Police Commissioner. Wayne has a mission, that he pursues single-mindedly, but life for Gordon is much more complex — he wants to do the right thing by his wife and kid, and he already knows what happens to cops who turn against their own.
Cranston brings a sardonic humor to the voice of Jim Gordon, and manages to wring the most out of every line — including the scene (pictured up top) where Gordon tracks down the corrupt Detective Flass, who's just beaten him senseless along with four other cops, wielding baseball bats. Gordon takes on Flass for a rematch, one on one — but he gives Flass a bat so that Flass, a former Green Beret, will have a handicap.
The great thing about making Gordon into an ass-kicking hero who can hold his own against impossible odds is, it doesn't diminish Batman. It makes Batman cooler, because his main ally is so much larger than life.
Instead of fighting the Joker or the Riddler, Batman and Gordon are both fighting against police corruption, even as Gordon is under orders to hunt down Batman. For most of the movie, Gordon seems to be in a no-win situation, because the corruption goes all the way to the top and he's just one outgunned family man. Meanwhile, he strikes up an affair with his main police ally, Detective Sarah Essen (Katee Sackhoff.)
One subplot in the story feels a bit more extraneous here than it did in the graphic novel, for whatever reason — we meet Selina Kyle (Eliza Dushku) and follow her fascination with Batman, and her decision to dress up as a cat and start stealing from Gotham's scumbags as Catwoman. Given that she never has much to do with the main plot, Catwoman's story feels unfinished — so the DVD throws in a pretty forgettable short film in which she pretends to be a stripper in order to get an evil diamond smuggler.
The actual voice of Batman in the story, Southland star Ben McKenzie, is pretty adequate — he's no Kevin Conroy, but he never throws me out of the story with an over-the-top Grover voice either. He does a good job of selling how determined Bruce Wayne is to become something that instills fear in criminals, and as Batman's learning curve slopes upward, he starts to sound (and act, thanks to some nice character animation) more steely and sure of himself.
All in all, Batman: Year One does a fantastic job of paying tribute to one of the greatest Batman comics of all time. And most of all, it's a fantastic homage to Batman's friend and fellow crime-fighting badass, Jim Gordon. Well worth checking out.