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"Batman: Year One": The Year of Living Priggishly

Grim and portentous, Batman: Year One is an animated adaptation of the landmark graphic novel so in awe of the source material that it can’t have fun with its pulpy story. Most viewers, probably, will forgive and even embrace its numbly reverential tone, and the thing is certainly quite stylish. But those looking for fun rather than a superhero High Mass will likely find themselves picking at the furniture while wondering if it’s ever going to develop any momentum or direction. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)

Batman Year One DVD Box ArtThe story is an ambitious but highly schematic account of how Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, who arrive almost simultaneously in Gotham City, start their careers and come to intersect. For Wayne, of course, it’s a homecoming, but to a city that is strange to him, and he has to acquire both a feel for the place and a modus operandi for battling its thugs and crime lords. And so we get to see him suffering a couple of near-disastrous fights, and getting the inspiration for the “Batman” persona, before he starts finding his feet and taking the fight home to the gangsters and corrupt officials who dominate the city.

Gordon, meanwhile, is the one good cop in the department, who has to somehow do his job without getting himself either compromised or killed by his nefarious colleagues. His life is further complicated by the pregnancy of his wife and an ill-considered fling with a female detective. But he’s a tough nut who survives at least one brutal beating, and eventually discovers an unlikely ally in the costumed vigilante who has been put at the top of the list of officially sanctioned targets.

There’s a lot of good material here to work with, and there are basically two ways to approach it. The first would be to bang out a really juicy crime noir that–as with the best such crime stories–reduces and concentrates the melodrama into the story of a crisis of conscience. Wayne and Gordon are both good people trapped in an place where pure nobility doesn’t pay, and where clinging to scruples is the quickest way to getting your ass kicked. Here, then, is the sharp, implacable screw such a story should twist deeply into their quivering souls: How far can they safely go in violating mundane morals and everyday ethics in order to bring their city a rough justice and uneasy peace?

Gordon would be the obvious center of such a story, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how such a story should evolve: He would start as the despised, depressed, go-along-to-get-along police veteran, too broken by his own petty corruptions to challenge the larger ones. But half-glimpsed heroics of the new vigilante would give him a vision of an alternate career: not as a corruption-buster but as a morally challenged man who can use his own guilty knowledge and skill at shadiness to bank it and beat it back within acceptable limits. The climactic choice, of course, would be when he turns a blind eye to the Batman he has been tasked with apprehending–not out of a burgeoning friendship and loyalty, but from a clear-eyed appreciation that allies and adversaries alike must sometimes to used as means to other ends. In other words, he would emerge not as a glittering, impeccable beacon of rectitude in a dark world, but as just another compromised man who knows that sometimes you have to dirty yourself so that others may remain clean. Still, he would have changed from a victim of the system into someone who can bend it to better ends.

The story does in fact climax with Gordon facing an unmasked Bruce Wayne, and ostentatiously feigning blindness. But it’s not the climactic turn in a character arc; it’s merely the punctuation mark at the end of a flat line of events. Things happen and then other things happen, and sometimes–as with a subplot involving the emergence of Catwoman–the things that happen don’t have any real connection with any of the other things that are going on. It’s a consequence of the movie taking the alternate approach to its material, and contenting itself with a static portrait of two too-good-for-the-city crime fighters. It has to pursue this line once it decides to balance Gordon’s non-story with the non-story of Bruce Wayne, for Wayne is a character all of whose important choices are already made, so that he doesn’t really do anything more significant than decide midway through the picture to don the costume of a flying rodent. The plot is also more allusive than explicit at showing its protagonists groping toward their final form, so that few of its scenes have any real punch. The movie’s reticence–it always cuts away from a scene before anything can happen–soon comes to feel like skittishness, as though it is afraid of that we won’t believe it were anyone to say or do anything actually dramatic.

Still, there are pleasures to be had along the way. There are more than enough strong set pieces that one won’t be bored, and the big ones–such as Batman’s battle against a SWAT team in a bombed-out tenement–are executed with bone-crunching skill. The visuals always look good, and the movie is especially good at using Gordon’s reflective glasses to alternately mask and reveal his moods. Brian Cranston and Ben McKenzie as Gordon and Wayne (respectively) are too dry to be much fun to listen to, and the movie is so narration-heavy that it feels more like an adaptation of a literary novel rather than a graphic one. But the soundtrack lights up every time Jon Polito, as the gluttonously corrupt Commissioner Loeb, loosens his phlegmy baritone. He alone sounds like he’s tapped into the core of the material, which everyone else is too prudish and high-minded to touch.

It all comes down to the fact that Batman: Year One has been treated less as a story than as a biography, as a textbook recital of the facts behind Batman’s and James Gordon’s careers instead of a dramatization of some pretty harrowing life stories. As a result, for all its stylishness, it misplaces the air of black opera that those facts suggest and assumes instead the prim manner of a sacred oratorio: stately declamations rather than giddy arias. As I say, this will probably please most of the target audience, who seem to prefer their Batman as a secular plaster saint than as a tragic figure. For these, the picture will more than adequately give a satisfying go-to-church feel.

Much the same can be said about “Catwoman,” the ten-minute short subject that accompanies the main feature while feeling like an extended sequence cut from the picture to get its running time down. In style and demeanor, certainly, it is almost seamless with Batman: Year One, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a lot of rather gritty fan service. Viewers will have to decide whether the two pole dances or the motorcycle chase is the short’s highlight, though they are both more than serviceable.

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