I decided to take another look at Batman: Year One with a more objective eye to see how it holds up against other Batman works, including the other animated DC features. Sadly, it does not hold up as well as I would like it to. In fact, compared to a lot of other stories that feature Batman, this one is surprisingly dull.
Batman: Year One is the adaptation of the comic story of the same name, written by Frank Miller back in 1987. Yeah, THAT Frank Miller. This is one of is earlier Batman stories, and since he considers everything Batman he’s ever written to be in the same continuity, this is the first entry in the “Dark Knight” universe, and the only story in that continuity to remain canonical to the greater mainstream DC Universe. Don’t worry too much though; this was back when his Batman work was fairly good more often than it was bad. However, even his good Batman work has what I consider to be narrative problems.
This story, as you could guess from the title, tells of Bruce Wayne’s first year after returning from his worldwide training quest to become Gotham’s greatest crimefighter, and when he soon adopts the mantle of the Batman. Along with Bruce, we see Jim Gordon, the future Commissioner of Gotham City PD, in his first year on the force. This film does a good job of showing how bad the crime, and even worse, the corruption of Gotham City really is. We see the kind of filth that would create Batman, before Batman himself lent to the creation of supervillains. If anything, this is much more like what the TV show Gotham should be. It does tell its story rather competently. The problem is that the story itself is rather dull. Without the villains for Batman to fight, he’s just stuck with thugs and corrupt cops, which he handles easily. There isn’t even much resolution; it just sort of stops. The criminals are barely dealt with, showing the weakness of the system, and there really isn’t even much of a climax.
Also, there are some narrative choices that I don’t think mesh with the characters as we will come to know them later. Gordon cheats on his pregnant wife with someone who is fully aware of the situation. Gordon would not be that callous, or do something that despicable. He’s supposed to be the one good man on the force, who cleans up the GCPD and inspires the other cops to be better and more upstanding people. A person who makes that kind of deliberate and terrible mistake can’t be on the moral high ground like that. And Selina Kyle, Catwoman, starts in a less-than-legal-or-respectable profession in Gotham's red light district. Ignoring how Miller usually writes women as "women of the night", this sullies her later relationships and reluctant moral center. Yes, these plot points are taken from the comic, but that does not automatically make them good. Also, the noir-style inner monologuing does get grating after a little while.
Adding to the dullness of the film is the voice acting. Bryan Cranston does okay as Jim Gordon. He would do just as well in live action. Shame he probably won’t get the opportunity. Ben McKenzie, on the other hand, does a very disinterested and unemotional Bruce Wayne/Batman. I guess he does a better Jim Gordon, but not by much. Eliza Dushku does a similarly boring Selina Kyle/Catwoman. The problem is that nobody is really given any kind of emotional range, except maybe when Selina gets a little whiney about not getting credit as Catwoman. Other than that, neither Batman nor anybody for that matter can get animated enough to put real effort into their voice roles.
Overall, I would say that this Batman story does competently, but does not excite by any means. I am more excited to see how Batman evolves rather than how he came to be.