Thursday 7 August 2008

Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)

Thursday 7 August 2008
Writers: Josh Olson, Greg Rucka, Jordan Goldberg, David S. Goyer, Brian Azzarello & Alan Burnett
Directors: Shojiro Nishimi, Futoshi Higashide, Hiroshi Morioka, Yasuhiro Aoki, Toshiyuki Kubooka & Jong-Sik Nam

Voices: Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Scott Menville (B-Devil/Cop), George Newbern (Jacob Feely/Guido/Man/Youth #3), Corey Padnos (Porkchop), Crystal Scales (Meesh), Alanna Ubach (Dander), Hynden Walch (Woman/Young Cassandra), Corey Burton (The Russian/Ronald Marshall/The Scarecrow), Gary Dourdan (Crispus Allen), Jason Marsden (Doctor/Youth #2/Thomas Wayne), Jim Meskimen (James Gordon/News Anchor/Deadshot), Ana Ortiz (Anna Ramirez), Rob Paulsen (Maroni/Mole Man/Youth #4), Andrea Romano (Dispatcher/Young Bruce), Will Friedle (Anton/Cultist/Youth #1), Kevin Michael Richardson (Lucius Fox/Avery/Bulky Man), Brian George (O'Fallon/Arman), David McCallum (Alfred), Parminder Nagra (Cassandra) & Pat Musick (News Anchor)

Obviously inspired by The Animatrix (a 2003 anthology of 10 anime shorts, riffing on The Matrix, timed to coincide with the release of its sequels), Batman: Gotham Knight is the same trick performed for the Batman universe. As a primer for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, it's not particularly effective, but there are a few highlights for die-hard Bat fans...

Like all anthologies, Gotham Knight's very hit-and-miss -- to put it mildly. First up is "Have I Got A Story For You" from Studio 4°C, written by Josh Olson (A History Of Violence). It's a decent start, with three skateboarding street kids trying to out-do each other with tales of their encounters with "The Batman". Their tales are exaggerated and embellished to neat effect, meaning each vignette gives us a unique view on Batman as a shadowy myth: be it a spectral vampire, "man-bat" creature, or powerful robot. The animation is slick and appealing throughout, although the design of the kids was a bit off-putting. I was certainly entertained, but not always thrilled. In retrospect, this is actually a highlight of the disc.

"Crossfire" from Production I.G, written by Greg Rucka, has two Gotham detectives transporting an Arkham Asylym escapee back to the Narrows to be imprisoned. Unfortunately, their car gets caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs. Can the Batman save them? I wasn't very impressed by this episode, mainly because Batman barely features and the animation style didn't click with me -- which, coming from the creators of Ghost In The Shell, is very unfortunate.

The third episode comes from the animation studio Bee House and was written by Jordan Goldberg. "Field Test" has Lucius Fox designing bullet-repelling armour for Bruce Wayne, which he later tests against a yacht of goons, owned by gangster Sal Maroni. The tech in "Field Test" is good fun and the story held my attention, although it was distracting to see a young-looking Bruce Wayne drawn so effeminately and Batman himself resembling a shark in profile. This is an enjoyable time-waster, but too simplistic to carry much punch.

I had very high hopes for Madhouse's "In Darkness Dwells" because it was written by David S. Goyer (who scripted Batman Begins). It's also the first episode to feature a well-known villain: The Scarecrow. There's also an appearance from Killer Croc (a mutant villain from the comics who'll never appear in Nolan's movies). In fact, Killer Croc's appearance throws Gotham Knight's "real world" mentality off balance, and the eventual appearance of The Scarecrow is disappointing. This isn't awful, but it could have been so much better.

The second story from Studio 4°C, written by Brian Assarello, finds Batman shot in the stomach while in Gotham's sewers. During his attempts to escape whilst wounded, we're shown flashbacks that reveal how a young woman called Cassandra taught Bruce Wayne how to control pain. By this stage, I was disenchanted with Gotham Knight as a whole, so "Working Through Pain" didn't hold my attention. I drifted in and out, to be honest. There are a few nice moments, but this was wholly forgettable.

Fortunately, the disc ends on a high-note with "Deadshot", written by Alan Burnett and animated by Madhouse. The story pits Batman against comic-book villain Deadshot (a sharpshooter assassin with a bionic eye who "never misses"). The best thing about this episode is that it provides compelling evidence for Deadshot to appear in Nolan's movies. The bionic eye might be slightly too unbelievable (and unnecessary), but otherwise he's a nice fit for Nolan's vision of the Batman universe. The animation is excellent and there are some stunning sequences, leading to an enjoyable punch-up on the roof of a moving train. It's a shame every episode wasn't this good.

Ultimately, Batman: Gotham Knight is only going to satisfy diehard Batman fans who believe the character works best when drawn. The fact Kevin Conroy (Batman in the award-winning '90s cartoon series) lends his distinctive drawl across all 6 episodes, will be another reason Bat fans will pick this up. Personally, I was disappointed by Gotham Knight because it had the potential to be something truly awesome: taking the realistic proviso of Nolan's movies, with no budgetary limits and free reign to experiment. But nothing exceeded my expectations.

A lot of people hated The Animatrix, but it included two canonical prequel episodes to The Matrix and one rendered in expensive CGI. There's nothing that cool in Gotham Knight, and most of the episodes don't tell strong stories. The Matrix movie was also inspired by anime, so there was a stylistic link with The Animatrix that's missing here. Best to publish a Dark Knight prequel comic, surely? Purely on a superficial level, where was the Batmobile and why didn't they take this opportunity to bring popular villains like Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler and Mr. Freeze to the screen? Fear of stepping on Christopher Nolan's toes?

Overall, this project would likely have worked better as a trio of half-hour animations, each instalment given time to breathe and tell a proper story. As it stands, Batman: Gotham Knight is an occasionally impressive, generally limp sextuplet of arty vignettes. If you're a fan of anime or particularly enjoy Batman in animated guise, you might get a kick out of this (so add a star to my rating). If you're just a regular Batman fan with a passing interest in animation, I suggest you lower your expectations -- only 2 of the 6 episodes are worth watching ("Have I Got A Story For You" and "Deadshot"), making this a big opportunity missed.


Audio Commentary: a yak-track from DC Comics' Senior Vice President of Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck, ex-Batman editor Dennis O’Neil, and vocal artist Kevin Conroy (Batman). The three men discuss the birth of this project and the Caped Crusader's mythology, which is quite interesting. But why not just feature the writers and directors of each chapter, talking about their own work? Or is that, like, too obvious?

Batman & Me: The Bob Kane Story (standard-def, 39-mins): Biographer Tom Andrae looks into Batman creator Kane, featuring interviews with his wife, original Batman artist Jerry Robinson, and many other famous faces from the world of comics. Great archive footage and a compelling look at Kane's motivations.

A Mirror For The Bat: The Evil Denizens Of Gotham City (standard-def, 36-mins): Excellent documentary with a stack of comic-book writers discussing the psychologies of Batman's greatest enemies: The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, Two-Face, Catwoman, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Deadshot, Ra's Al Ghul and Harley Quinn.

Wonder Woman Sneak Peek (standard-def, 11-mins): A puff piece about the upcoming Wonder Woman animated movie, with no actual footage. Only worth watching to hear the vocal cast (Nathan Fillion, Keri Russell, Rosario Dawson and Alfred Molina) tease fans.

Classic Animated Episodes (standard-def, 79-mins): 4 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series for your delectation. "Over the Edge", "I Am the Night", "Heart Of Ice” (Emmy-winning Mr. Freeze story), and "Legends Of The Dark Knight." A nice reminder of the impressive '90s series, although it's a very bad transfer -- particularly apparent if you've just watched the high-def main feature!

Warner Brothers
75 minutes