Saturday, 28 May 2016

Film Review - 'Batman: Year One'

Gotham City, it seems, has always been a terrible place to live. Even in the years well before its streets were plagued by a cavalcade of colourful villains, it is still a city firmly in the grip of corruption and organised crime. The people of Gotham City may not have to worry about a villain like the Joker, just yet - but the infamous crime boss, Carmine Falcone, is still than enough for the Gotham City Police Department to contend with. With most of the city's police forces on his pay-roll, it seems as though there simply isn't anyone in Gotham willing, and able, to confront him.

Things aren't entirely hopeless, though, Two men have recently arrived in Gotham City, each hoping to make a difference in their own way. The first is James Gordon, recently transferred to the Gotham City Police Department after his assistant in an internal affairs investigation led to the downfall of a fellow officer. He may have been in the right, technically - but, the complicated loyalties of police officers has created a situation in which no one in his old department is willing to work with him. Gordon is eager to take a stand against organised crime in his new home, though - but, first, he needs to do something about the rampant corruption within the ranks of the GCPD.

Then, there is Bruce Wayne, a young man returning to Gotham City after twelve years of travel, study, and intense training. He has returned to the city with a firm belief that, if the city is ever to be truly saved, he will need to take the law into his own hands.

Each has similar goals, but each goes about pursuing these goals in their own way. For James Gordon, the focus in on dealing with the corruption among his fellow officers - and, in turning the GCPD into a true force for justice in the city, once more. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, takes his first tentative steps toward become 'Batman', as he goes on the offensive against the various criminal elements active in Gotham City.

The film may be called Batman: Year One - but, it becomes clear fairly quickly that this is as much an origin story for James Gordon, future Commissioner, as it is for the Dark Knight. With each character being given roughly equal screen-time, and with their related story-lines blended in genuinely interesting ways, it seems clear that the audience is supposed to see them as equally important.

When the balance does actually start to shift in favour of one over the other, though, it isn't really in the direction you might expect - with James Gordon being the one who seems to take on the central role in the battle against organised crime. In the end, Batman is really only there to provide back-up and support.

It seems as though this should be a fairly major problem for the film (it is supposed to be about Batman, after all). But, it actually isn't - and, much of the credit for that would have to be attributed to the characterisation of James Gordon. Here, we see a character who as tough and uncompromising a hero as Bruce Wayne aspires to become. He is, ultimately, a character who could have easily carried the entire film, by himself - and, who comes awfully close to stealing the spot-light, entirely, from the still young and inexperienced Dark Knight.

It probably doesn't help that so much of the young Bruce Wayne's history, and current motivation, is brushed aside so blatantly, too - with much of what went in to making him the person that he is seemingly filed away under 'assumed knowledge'. We get the obligatory recreation of the murder of his parents, of course - but, beyond that, all the film really shows us is a young man who returns to the city, after a long absence, entirely convinced that the best way he could help would be to dress up like a bat and prowl the streets at night. Any long-time fan of the character would know that there is a bit more to it than that, of course - but, in the film, we simply aren't shown any of it. Next to that, James Gordon really can't help but comes across as the more interesting, and well-rounded, character.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the whole experience, for me, is the extent to which I actually wanted to think of this as a film about James Gordon, by the end. I enjoy Batman as much as anyone, of course - but, this young and inexperienced version of Bruce Wayne just wasn't a terribly interesting character. The story of his first year in the iconic costume just doesn't measure up to that of the only honest cop in a corrupt city.

It's not a complete loss for the Caped Crusader, though. His screen-time may lack some of the genuinely compelling character drama that we get with James Gordon but, as you might expect, his presence does provide the film's best moments of action (although, to be fair, Gordon does provide some competition, even here). Also, I have to admit, there is something genuinely fascinating about a Dark Knight who is still inexperienced enough to make amateurish mistakes.

A third plot-thread which, I admit, caught me somewhat by surprise was the sudden inclusion of Selina Kyle, and her first steps toward becoming Catwoman. Catwoman's comic-book origins isn't something that I've ever been familiar with - but, here, all really seems to take is a brief glimpse of a man dressed as a bat for her to decide that she can do it, too. Of course, her own intentions are nearly as pure, as she almost gleefully throws herself into a life of crime.

While the 'Batman' and 'James Gordon' plot-threads seems to share roughly equal screen-time, and are eventually merged into a unified effort to take on Carmine Falcone, Selina Kyle is always kept off to the side - and, her purpose in the film often seems unclear. With her plot-line eventually being dropped entirely, well before the final climax, I was genuinely left a little confused about why she was included, in the first place.

With her putting in such a surprising appearance, I was expecting Catwoman to go on to play an equally important role - or, at least, for the film to include some elements of the the bizarre relationship that has always existed between Batman and Catwoman. But, that simple doesn't happen - and, we end up with something that just feels like a wasted opportunity.

So, in the end, we have a film which attempts to juggle three distinctive plot-lines - and, manages to do so with moderate success. Bruce Wayne/Batman is oddly underwhelming, though far from a disappointment - and, Ben McKenzie (who, as an amusement note for trivia fans, went on the play a young James Gordon in Gotham), while not quite matching up to the best 'Batman' voice-actors, still gives a decent performance. Selina Kyle/Catwoman's plot-thread is entertaining enough but, with the way that the film seems to push her aside toward the end, it feels oddly out of place - and, Eliza Dushku does a decent enough job with what she was given (though, she has much more compelling material to work with in the DC Showcase: Catwoman animated short that was included with the DVD release of the film). James Gordon is the true driving force behind the success of Batman: Year One, though - to such an extent that it would probably be worth watching the film just for him. And, given that he had the best material to work with, it probably shouldn't be much of a surprise that Bryan Cranston is able to give the most compelling performance.

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