In the '60s, DC Comics regularly published something they called the "80 Pg. Giant," a plus-sized comic book with more bang for your...quarter, a pulp anthology of imaginative stories featuring a favorite hero—in my case, Batman. Batman has always functioned well in pretty much any format (with the possible exception of his upbeat radio adventures), and the comic-book short story is no exception. Give or take a few pages, Warner Premiere and the DC Universe Animation division have given us a modern 80 Pg. Giant in animated form: Batman: Gotham Knight, a collection of six tenuously "interlocked" stories about the tortured hero.
The two prime movers of Batman: The Animated Series—Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett—are involved here, Timm as an executive producer and Burnett as a writer. That series is highly esteemed by Batman fans for boldly presenting, in a Saturday-morning cartoon, the vision of Batman as a Dark Knight, living in a dystopian Gotham City and eternally haunted by the death of his parents. The show evinced a noir feel (though often lightened with humor), and though mostly bloodless, got away with serious themes and scary, even demented, situations. As good as the animation was for the time and the economic bracket of the show, some were dissatisfied by the blocky stylization of the characters, a loose hybrid of the Flesicher Superman and the Dick Sprang Batman, painted black.
Batman: Gotham Knight takes on a new style, or rather six. The third original movie in the DCU series (after Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier) brings together the work of six experienced, American Batman writers and six distinctive Japanese anime directors (from four animation studios, with Studio Bihou doing all of the dazzling Gotham City backgrounds). Each director was encouraged to serve up his own visual design on Batman. To some degree, then, Batman: Gotham Knight gives "the best of both worlds" when it comes to the animated Batman: sophisticated writing married to sophisticated visuals. Furthermore, it's big news that animated Batman voice artist Kevin Conroy—skipped over for Kids' WB's The Batman—returns to the role for which he's best known, though perhaps that wan't the best choice after all, given the incongruous effect of Conroy's familiar take on Batman within a yet darker tonal context.
There's also the added cachet that the film is intended in small part to bridge the events of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. But as an anthology film—a 76-Minute "Giant" telling six pretty much self-contained stories—it's also a mixed bag. It's worth noting the connections of Nolan insiders: Nolan's wife Emma Thomas is among the executive producers, and Jordan Goldberg—Nolan's former assistant and current associate producer—gets principal story credit for his hand in sketching out the narrative throughline. I'll take each segment on its own:
"Have I Got a Story for You"—Screenplay by Josh Olson (A History of Violence). Directed by Shojiro Nishimi. Three skater kids take turns telling their stories of witnessing a Batman smackdown, while a fourth sulks that he's never gotten a chance to see Batman in action. The idea of allowing multiple characters to narrate hyperbolic perspectives on Batman and his appearance is not a new one, though it's certainly a self-referential choice for the first segment in Gotham Knight. Batman: The Animated Series also told a story of three kids sharing Batman encounters ("Legends of the Dark Knight," included on the Two-Disc Special Edition of Gotham Knight), and it was a basic idea played out at least once in the comics, as well. For die-hard fans, this one is liable to feel redundant, and Nishimi's visions of Batman aren't compelling enough to convince us otherwise.
"Crossfire"—Screenplay by Greg Rucka (Gotham Central). Directed by Futoshi Higashide. Rucka revives the comics character of Det. Crispus Allen (Gary Dourdan) and pairs him with Det. Anna Ramirez (Ana Ortiz) in the Major Crimes Unit. (The Dark Knight alert: Ramirez is a character in the 2008 film.) In another familiar story beat, the two detectives carry on a simplistic debate about Batman's vigilantism while escorting a prisoner through the dangerous Narrows. When they find themselves amidst a shootout between mobsters Sal Maroni (Rob Paulsen) and The Russian (Corey Burton), only one man can save the day: debate over. (The Dark Knight includes Maroni and a character apparently called "The Chechen.") Like the first segment, "Crossfire" has a very simple point to make and does so predictably, with slightly above average anime.
"Field Test"—Screenplay by Jordan Goldberg. Directed by Hiroshi Morioka. This story evolves naturally from Batman Begins by showcasing the dynamic between Bruce Wayne and the puckish, Q-esque Lucius Fox (Kevin Michael Richardson, subbing for Morgan Freeman). Wayne Enterprises has a promising new defense technology: a body armor with a stasis field that deflects bullets. While getting between Maroni and The Russian again, Batman will have a chance to decide if the technology holds up in the field. This one loses points for its occasionally cheesy anime style (with doe-eyed, floppy-haired Bruce and a Batsuit reminiscent of the vintage Gatchaman), though it's good that the story doesn't feel crowded in its allotted twelve minutes, and the Bat-moral has a certain freshness to it.
"In Darkness Dwells"—Screenplay by David Goyer (Batman Begins). Directed by Yasuhiro Aoki. While certainly action-packed, "In Darkness Dwells" also tries to cram too much story into a short segment. In Gotham's sewers, Batman has a perfunctory wrassling match with Killer Croc then proceeds, battered and disoriented, to confront the Scarecrow (Corey Burton). Aoki brings a lot of style to the segment, perhaps too much; emulating much of modern action cinema, Aoki "shoots" much of the Scarecrow fight in tight configurations, with quick edits, leaving one without a clear perspective.
"Working Through Pain"—Screenplay by Brian Azzarello (Batman: Broken City). Directed by Toshiyuki Kubooka. This four-star segment alone justifies the purchase of this disc. Superbly animated in a realist style, "Working Through Pain" is also a miracle of screenwriting economy by Azzarello. Azzarello illuminates a hidden chapter in Bruce's training, as an Indian woman named Cassandra (Parminder Nagra) shares techniques of supreme focus to manage pain. The development of the theme can be inferred from the title's wordplay, but I won't spoil its development. I will say that the final image belongs in the all-time annals of the Dark Knight. (And a shout-out to onetime Man From U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum, who takes on the role of Alfred.)
"Deadshot"—Screenplay by Burnett. Directed by Jong-Sik Nam. Continuing the film's momentum, "Deadshot" gives the film a satisfying action climax that furthers a theme of "Working Through Pain." The choice of villain is significant: the world's most deadly marksman, Deadshot (Jim Meskimen), makes known his intention to shoot Lt. Gordon (also Meskimen), but Batman has no intention of letting Deadshot have his way. Set aside logistics and just go with this one. Fashon-wise, Nam puts a fly spin on Deadshot. He also depicts Batman as most comics fans see him; as in the previous segment, it's just a joy to see him animated so well.
Though the first four segments are arguably mediocre, the pleasures of the excellent latter two should not be underestimated by someone inclined to enjoy a good Batman yarn. The film is PG-13, with significant gunplay and some realistic bleeding (Riddle me this: what's a good Batman story without bleeding? A: Bloodless), but mature youngsters will love it, as will a lot of adults of perhaps questionable maturity. After the wayward kiddie stuff of The Batman, Batman: Gotham Knight's adult tone and visual wonderment are like (bat-)manna from heaven.
On DVD, Batman: Gotham Knight looks good, but not great. It's partly the oft-murky style of the old-school anime that sometimes gives an impression of an anime that's twenty years old, but it's also partly compression artifacts resulting in some mild digital noise. Presumably the Blu-Ray edition looks sharper, but I can't say. Still, viewers will quickly adjust to the anamorphic widescreen transfer (paired with 5.1 surround soundtrack). In addition to a one-disc DVD version, you'll find a two-disc DVD special edition and a mirrored one-disc Blu-Ray with all of the special edition extras.
Disc one of all versions includes two significant extras: a commentary track and a preview of the next DCU Animated Original Movie, Wonder Woman. The commentary track is reasonably good fun, gathering DC's Senior VP/Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck, legendary Batman writer/editor Dennis O'Neil, and Kevin Conroy (the voice of Batman) to chat about the segments, their favorite bits, and impressions of the character. Truthfully, the most memorable parts involve Conroy discussing his vocal approach and the experiences he's had with fans; it's unfortunate that we learn nothing more about the animation than Noveck reading the director's name off a page.
"Wonder Woman" (10:28) gets our hopes up for the next flick, a full-fledged retelling of our favorite Amazon's heroic origin story. We get a brief history of the character, glimpses of storyboards edited in rough animatic form, and comments from DC president/publisher Paul Levitz, DC Senior VP/executive editor Dan DiDio, Noveck, producer Bruce Timm, director Lauren Montgomery, writer Michael Jelenic, and the impressive voice cast: Keri Russell (Wonder Woman), Nathan Fillion (Steve Trevor), Virginia Madsen (Hippolyta), Alfred Molina (Ares), and Rosario Dawson (Artemis). The disc spins up with previews for 10,000 B.C. and Appleseed Ex-Machina, and trailers are also included for The Dark Knight (2:08), Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2:08), Lego Batman (1:15), and Popeye the Sailor 1938-1940—Vol. 2 (1:40).
Disc Two of the DVD special edition (and the Blu-Ray disc) includes two additional documentaries and four classic episodes of Batman: The Animated Series selected by Bruce Timm. First up is "Batman and Me: A Devotion to Destiny" (38:25), the Bob Kane story. This one walks a fine line, needing to be honest about Bob Kane's well-known failings while also duly celebratory of the man officially credited as the creator of Batman. Some balance is provided, and the featurette is certainly interesting, failing only in a complete lack of mention of Batman's true co-creator, Bill Finger. The glaring omission would seemingly be a legal requirement, and perhaps a sticking point for the participation of widow Elizabeth Kane. Anyway, this is well worth a watch, filled as it is with vintage interview clips of Kane (one with NPR's Terry Gross), rare photographs, and new, historic interviews. Participants include Batman and Me author Tom Andrae, celebrity Bat-fan and Kane acquaintance Mark Hamill, Batman artist Jerry Robinson (creator of the Joker), Levitz, producer Michael Uslan, Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, photographer/friend Jonathan Exley, and friend Dr. Myron Shapiro.
"A Mirror for the Bat" (35:46) is a bit more standard-issue. After a while of watching the DC talking heads wax on about the characters, one can feel one's seen and heard it all before, but luckily gregarious Greg Rucka and a bluntly amusing Brian Azzarello are in the mix of this fairly deep-digging featurette on Batman and his Rogue's Gallery. Screenwriter Josh Olson also comments, along with Noveck, Levitz, DiDio, O'Neil, Batman writer Paul Dini, and writer/historian Andy Mangels. For those who don't already own Batman: The Animated Series, the Timm-selected episodes will also be a treat: "Heart of Ice," a highly influential Mr. Freeze story; "I Am the Night," in which Batman nearly gives up crimefighting on one of the most emotional nights of his career; the aforementioned "Legends of the Dark Knight," with extended riffs adopting the art style of Dick Sprang and Frank Miller; and "Over the Edge," a creative story about what would happen if Batman's whole world came crashing down on him.
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