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When it comes to the DC Universe line of DTVs, Warner has done an outstanding job. Not only have they already adapted one of the best-selling comic stories ever (Superman Doomsday), they’ve also turned one of the most critically acclaimed comics into a full length animated film (The New Frontier). For the next DC animation outing we get a bridge of sorts between the Christopher Nolan Batman films. While the continuity between the movies (and even the stories at time) is questionable at best, there’s no doubt that fans will find this latest Batman animation venture anything short of a visual delight.
Combining the talent of over four different Japanese animation studios, Batman: Gotham Knight tells six different stories of The Dark Knight in various adventures. Ranging from kids claiming they saw Batman in action to more serious angles such as gang war and a few of Gotham’s seedier villains like Scarecrow and Deadshot, Gotham Knight is a rich pallet of animation and storytelling from some of Japan’s premiere animation studios, as well as some of the comic book communities top writing talent. While it may have been conceived to be a cash-in to The Dark Knight’s upcoming theatrical release, the final product is nothing short of a well-crafted series of short stories that show off the Bat like never before.
When typing that this film was a cash-in for The Dark Knight I had a sudden flashback to the last cash-in DTV that we were given in the DC animation world. I’m sure many will remember, with much disdain I’m sure, the Brainiac Attacks DTV that got thrown out around Superman Returns release. While Superman Returns may have been a box office disappointment (as well as the recipient of some lukewarm fan feedback), Brainiac Attacks was simply a rushed disappointment that failed to entertain the vast majority who watched it (I’ve yet to set eyes on a single frame of it since completing my review—and would have to be paid to watch it again).
Those worried that Gotham Knight might have suffered from a similar issue need not worry. The writing found in Gotham Knight is some of the sharpest and darkest pieces to come out of the Batman world. On top of the writing is some of the most visually stunning animation that you’ll likely ever see the Batman character take part in. While it’s obviously all of the anime variety, the pieces presented in the six different stories are all wildly different (for the most part) in terms of character designs, with the only consistency being Gotham City in a few of the pieces (not surprising, considering Studio Bihou did the backgrounds for all of the segments).
There’s plenty to talk about with each segment but I’ll leave that for the more in-depth and spoiler filled review portion to follow. For now I’m just going to go for more breadth and increase the depth once we get to each individual story. One thing that sparked an odd amount of fan feedback was the casting of Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman. While many figured that the cast of The Dark Knight would be lending their voices to the production, ala The Animatrix, we ended up not receiving a single member of the films cast in this production. As I surmised before viewing the film, the continuity between the Nolan universe and the one presented here is negligible. You’ll definitely benefit from having seen Batman Begins, as there are references to Scarecrow (who appears as one of the villains in Gotham Knight) as well as the Narrows, a place in Gotham that continues to be ravaged by the havoc that Scarecrow created.
What surprised me about the small backlash to Conroy’s casting is that with every production fans asked who would voice Batman and were always disappointed to hear it wasn’t Conroy and would complain that a new person under the cowl might make it too difficult to swallow (I recall a few were disappointed to hear that Jeremy Sisto would voice Batman in The New Frontier…who I personally think do a great job in the role). I can kind of see where the disjoint would be if this was as connected to Nolan’s world as Warner’s original press release would have led you to believe, but honestly Gotham Knight could have been made before Nolan came along and still make sense. The Narrows are a simple setting, one that is audibly and visually explained, so there’s little room for confusion, even if you haven’t seen Batman Begins.
I guess my point is, after two paragraphs, is that Kevin Conroy really just kicks ass. While we hear him bring back some of the Batman elements that we’ve grown to love from his days as the Bat in Justice League, he throws his voice down even lower in some segments, creating a much darker sounding Batman than we’ve seen previously. Some areas we have a Bruce Wayne that’s lighthearted and in others one that is deep and moody. Conroy is all over the map in terms of emotion and there’s honestly not a doubt in my mind that bringing him on board for this production wasn’t one of the best things for it. Bale would have no doubt done a fine job in the role had the scheduling worked out for he and the rest of The Dark Knight cast, but we were definitely not given any kind of short of the stick with the vocal performances in this film—they’re all top notch and utterly fantastic.
One of the things that surprised me most about the voice cast was how little I recognized them. I picked up on Kevin Michael Richardson and Will Friedle only because I’d heard them so much, but Corey Burton, George Newbern, Jason Marsden and Hynden Walch all flew past me as people I’d heard in previous roles. The actors did such a superb job of changing up their roles for this film that when paired with Conroy’s tweaked performances, it really feels like an all new voice cast and nothing like an anime-overlay on the previous DC animated works. On top of the returning DC alum we have some newcomers in Ana Ortiz, Gary Dourdan, and David McCallum, all three of which bring in performances as police detectives and Alfred Pennyworth that will never once have you questioning the quality of the voice work.
So the voices are great, but what about the rest of it? While the first story we get in the feature will no doubt bother some simply because the style and atmosphere of it all is so incredibly different from not what only we’re used to in DC animation but also because it’s not one of the segments that we’ve seen a lot of in the previews. The animation style looks like something out of the video game series Jet Grind Radio and features a cast that sounds like they’re taken out of The Boondocks episodes, but don’t let that throw you off. While I can certainly appreciate the different art style, it will no doubt jar many viewers to the point they’ll wonder what they’re getting into. Stick with it, you won’t be disappointed. There are some absolutely stunning visual moments in the later segments that will make your jaw drop.
For the score we have a mix of composers Kevin Manthei ( Justice League: The New Frontier), Robert Kral (Superman Doomsday) and Christopher Drake (the Hellboy DTVs). All bring their own style to the segments, with Drake throwing in a bit more sounds from the Batman Begins score than the others. I actually thought Manthei scored the final segment of the film—a few cues sounded similar to his work on The New Frontier, but I was surprised to see that Kral had scored them instead. The music is wonderful, especially in the “Working Through Pain” and “Deadshot” shorts, where we get some emotional and action oriented pieces from Manthei and Kral. It seems each time one of these DTVs comes out I get excited by the prospect of the soundtrack release. Here’s hoping La-La Land Records is able to bring this one out as quickly as they have for the previous DC Universe films.
From this point on will be spoilers concerning the individual segments from the film. There are six and all, so there are plenty of details to throw out regarding each one. Again, let me stress that there are spoilers of every kind here, so run away if you don’t want to hear them.
Have I Got a Story For You (12:48)
The film starts out with this segment which isn’t connected to the others in the least. This story focuses on four children and their various encounters with Batman. Anyone who has seen the “Legends of the Dark Knight” episode from The New Batman / Superman Adventures will know what to expect here, only in this case we aren’t pulling from Batman’s comic history, rather we have more abstract and fanciful interpretations of the character. Batman’s shown in a mysterious, shadow-like form that is able to melt away at will (reminiscent of Shadow Thief’s movements from the recent Justice League Unlimited and The Batman series) and is quite honestly one of the most visually pleasing aspects of the film. I probably used the word “visual” a lot to describe the film already, but that’s really what it’s all about—six different takes on the back, all of which vary in visual element only.
Batman’s other forms include a Man-Bat like creature as well as a robotic version, the only of the three versions we see that speaks. Conroy’s voice is first heard through the robotic Batman and is digitized, so it’s not our first true glimpse into what he sounds like after a few years off the job. As a side note, the robo-suit is quite awesome to behold, as it fluidly switches between suit options, some of which remind me of Zeta from The Zeta Project.
Overall while a very nice story, and oddly the only one with a unique title intro (all others are just basic text, unless it’s still to change in the final product—this was a very early release to watch, after all) easily the weakest of the bunch. It makes sense to start out of the gate with it, as it kind of sets the bar low, as strange as it sounds, for the rest of the film to totally kick it up. And kick it up it does.
Todd McFarlane’ Spawn? Yeah this is what Batman would look like in that world. The character models, the lighting and camera direction is so reminiscent of Todd McFarlane’ Spawn that I was really surprised. Once I got over the visual stimulation, I really got into the story, which starts the continuity link between the other four stories in the film. Detectives Crispus Allen and Anna Ramirez are introduced here, who we see throughout the film in various design changes, as with Batman. The story focuses on the Narrows and the troubled state that it’s currently in. In a way, this segment could be compared to the Batman: The Animated Series episode “P.O.V.”, as we see the majority of the story through the eyes of Allen and Ramirez and only see Batman in brief moments until the very end. Batman’s design here is very much like Jim Lee’s design during the Hush run and Conroy provides a deeper voice for Batman. It’s not drastically deeper, but it’s definitely different from his previous voice work as the Dark Knight.
Field Test (11:36)
This bit focuses on Lucius Fox creating more toys for Batman to use. I’d say this is connected to Batman Begins as well if only for the Lucius and Batmobile element. While the Batmobile is a bit different from the Tumbler design seen in Batman Begins, it is very reminiscent of it—almost like a combination between the Tumbler and the Burton Batmobile.
There’s a bit of James Bond action going on in this segment with the development of a bullet deflector. This reflector is a bit more deadly than the one Roger Moore used, however, and ends up causing a situation that has Batman swearing off using the device for good. This is a nice segment, although oddly out of place and only showing vague ties to the rest of the stories. Visually it stands out as the most “anime” of the pieces, with the characters taking on a decidedly more advertised anime style thanks to the popularity of shows like Cowboy Bebop. Not knocking the style in the least, it works for the segment, even if hearing Conroy’s gentle Bruce voice come out of a body that looks like an eighteen year old.
In Darkness Dwells (11:15)
If you were wondering where a lot of the shots released for the film came from, this is it! This segment focuses on Killer Croc and Scarecrow and a very Tim Burton looking Batman. This Batman here is much more aggressive in nature and could be likened to the Batman Begins character in terms of tone (when in the Bat costume, that is). While the supporting cast of the GCPD is a bit cartoonish looking, Batman, Croc and Scarecrow are a bit more realistic looking, mirroring Todd McFarlane’s Spawn again in looks a bit. The brunt of this story is the focus on Croc’s creation, from his origin (one similar to The Penguin’s in Batman Returns) and how he came to be as disfigured and maniacal as he was. The resulting battle with Batman is terrific and the visual (there’s that word again!) elements of not only Batman but the environment are a real sight to behold. The showdown with Scarecrow combined with Conroy’s all out bad-ass performance as Batman makes this one of the strongest segments of the film, as well as the one most obviously inspired by Batman Begins--plenty of personality bits, musical cues and visual references to Batman Begins to be found here.
Working Through Pain (13:05)
This story shows a bit of Bruce’s training to become Batman and is told in a way that’s very similar to the Firefly episode “Out of Gas.” Batman’s injured and we see him flashing back to his training on how to deal with pain. This is actually quite a philosophical episode in terms of tone, especially with how it ends (I’ll admit I don’t readily understand the ending, but it’s the first time I’ve really had to think about something after watching DC animation [in ways that doesn’t make me an extreme nut who debates why a certain color was chosen for a character], so I may just be a bit shell shocked). Still this is one of my favorite elements of the film, simply because it shows not only a side of Bruce’s training that I’d never seen, but also how he still uses in his role as Batman. The design used for Batman here is kind of a 70-80s style, maybe something akin to Neal Adams, only with a different color palette. Also shown here is a Batmobile, which only seen briefly, looks very much like a straight up Burton Batmobile. Obviously a lot of love for Burton’s influence on Batman to be seen in these stories. It’s really one of the more interesting stories to be found in this film and I’m sure a lot of fans will enjoy how deep it takes the subject matter.
And now for the grand finale! “Deadshot” is, without a doubt, the most visually exciting pieces in the film. The landscape of Gotham is in full view and the design and movement of Batman is nothing short of fantastic. On top of the superb animation, Deadshot is a great character to introduce to the film and I could easily see him making it into the Nolan film’s if handled the same way as he was here. The story picks up where “Working Through Pain” left off and with the amount of guns shown off here, as well as Bruce’s speech about how he can see the appeal of them (which sounds kind of like an advertisement for the NRA), make for a very interesting portrait of how this particular interpretation of Batman focuses on guns. I’ve actually never heard Wayne or Batman talk about guns in such a way, usually it’s a straight dismissal but here he actually talks about what instruments they are, and how they make you play the role of God.
As stated previously there are some great visual pieces here, particularly the flow and movement of Batman’s cape. His train top fight with Deadshot is a great sight to see and the dialogue exchange between the two is something you’d expect from a James Bond movie (I just came off a marathon of watching all twenty-one films, so pardon my references to him), only slightly less hokey. While Gotham Knight started with a whimper, it ended with a bang. “Deadshot” is easily the highlight of the film for me and I’m sure many fans will feel the same way as well.
While the film may have started with a whimper, it ended with a bang. It slowly ramped up the depth and intensity with each story and while it isn’t the Nolan universe tie-in you may be expecting, it is some of the finest animated Batman work I’ve seen. Visually the film was astounding, aurally the film was fantastic with the superb voice work and scores and from a writing standpoint it can’t be beat. While the first script seemed too much like something we’ve seen before, the following stories were all crafted and each one felt unique and not like anything we’ve seen in DC animation before.
Even after watching the film, I’m not sure how to feel about it. The fact that the stories remain intertwined yet separated makes it feel like it should be one cohesive story and instead it’s just a chopped presentation. It really seemed like from the start that the stories would be completely disconnected from one another, as you go from a bright and rather cheery intro straight into something out of the HBO Spawn but soon everything else is connected either by characters or events that happen in each of the segments. It can be a bit confusing to watch as you can only treat a few of the stories as stand-a-lone, while others rely on certain bits from the previous story or even two stories before it.
Aside from the waffling between connected stories and stand-a-lone, there isn’t too much to find fault with in Gotham Knight. It’s something new and entirely fresh for The Dark Knight and that alone is worth checking it out if you’re a DC Animation fan. If you aren’t already a fan of Batman or the previous animated DC efforts, then I’m afraid you won’t find much here to reel you in. Casual viewers will likely not have much patience to sit through all of the segments, as when treated like a “film” there’s no real flow between stories and it’ll probably generate more confusion than it should. As stand-a-lone units they’re almost too short to really get anyone too interested, as all of the artistic styles are different, which I can see turning away a few.
In any case, Gotham Knight will likely share the same success as The Animatrix. It’s audience may not have been as wide as the feature length Matrix films, but the die-hard viewers and casual fans greatly enjoyed it and there’s no doubt in my mind that Gotham Knight will please those who know what they’re in for. Recommended.