For all the acclaim given to Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it’s only his second best Batman story. The best thing that Miller has ever written about Batman is the Batman: Year One story that was first serialized in the regular Batman comics, was later available as a trade paperback collection and is now available in a hardcover deluxe edition.
I should amend that to say maybe Dark Knight Returns is Miller’s best Batman story because it’s not Bruce Wayne or Batman who owns Year One.
It’s Jim Gordon.
Year One is the first story I remember that brought layers to what was sometimes the cliched character of Police Commissioner James Gordon (though of course he wasn’t Commissioner yet in the story).
A friend once asked me why Jim Gordon is so important in the Batman mythos and I said “that’s easy: he’s Batman’s conscience.” He’s the one honest man in a city of corrupt officials, the man working inside the system to change things. Gordon stands for all the good that there can be in the law, while Batman stands outside the law to serve the justice that the law can’t always provide, particularly in Gotham.
Year One is my favorite Gotham story because it is so noir-influenced and because the artwork by David Mazzucchelli is so perfect that it influenced the recent movies. For example, Batman Begins perfectly recreated the scene from Year One in which Bruce’s parents are murdered.
The DVD of Year One is so faithful to the source material that it’s almost a panel by panel re-creation. Unfortunately, it suffers in comparison because the animation features nice, clean, clear lines, not the gritty and down-to-earth art of Mazzucchelli. Without that atmosphere, it’s not quite the same.
It’s still a compelling story of the parallel journeys of young Bruce Wayne and Lt. Jim Gordon as they begin their quest to bring Gotham out of the dark ages. The action sequences are translated the best, especially one long battle between Batman and the corrupt police SWAT team inside an abandoned building. This is Batman at his finest, even stopping to save a cat from being caught in the crossfire. The cat is important because Batman’s efforts do not go unnoticed by one Selina Kyle. Selina — who is either a prostitute or a sex-flavored dominatrix originally — is inspired to put her whip to better use robbing the rich, corrupt leaders of Gotham. If Gordon and Batman are flip sides of the same coin, Selina is the wild card.
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) is perfectly cast as Gordon, and Eliza Dushku makes a good Catwoman, but I have to admit that the Batman voice actor, Ben McKenzie, didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I’m too used to Kevin Conroy from watching Batman: The Animated Series currently running on the Hub Network.
The Blu-ray combo pack comes with several extras, including a short fifteen-minute movie starring Catwoman written by Paul Dini. Those looking for the Julie Newmar version of Catwoman will be surprised with this one as I’d rate the short as a strong PG-13. There’s also a commentary track featuring creators who’ve written Batman, including Greg Rucka and Denny O’Neil. It’s nice to see O’Neil and Neal Adams receive credit for bringing Batman back to his noir roots a decade before Frank Miller penned The Dark Knight Returns but I missed hearing from Miller and from Mazzuchelli.
If you’re never read the graphic novel, the DVD is good. But once you’re done watching the movie, order the deluxe hardcover and enjoy the full effect of the tale.