by Joe

*This advance review may contain some minor spoilers.*

I didn’t really get into anime until the year 2000, towards the end of my college “career.” But even then, while I appreciated a lot of the animation techniques and character designs, the storylines just didn’t hook me. There was too much goofiness to the dialogue, too many side characters simply for comic relief, and not nearly enough characterization and development, critical for one to actually care what the main character was getting into. There were notable exceptions, like Akira and Vampire Hunter D, but after sampling titles like Trigun, Gundam Wing, and Escaflowne, I pretty much gave up.

I do remember thinking, however, “Someone should do an animated comic book film using this style of animation.” Eight years later, it happened.

Batman: Gotham Knight, the newest release from Warner Premiere DVD, is advertised as the missing link between Batman Begins and this summer’s The Dark Knight. There are six stories in total. Each one is handled by a different writer (many of whom have written Batman in the funny books) and Japanese animation house, though all link together. After the success of the straight-to-DVD release of The Animatrix, Warner Brothers decided to apply the same strategy and style to their number one superhero franchise, The Batman.

But does Gotham Knight succeed in its attempt to bridge the two films?

The first tale, written by the Academy Award-nominated Josh Olson, is the aptly titled “Have I Got a Story For You,” revolving around a small group of friends, each detailing their own experiences with the Dark Knight. Each story is farfetched in its own way, as this story capitalizes on teenagers stretching the truth and having overactive imaginations. Batman never looks the same in each flashback, shown once as a ghostly wraith, then later doing his best impression of Iron Man. This was, surprisingly, the weakest story of the batch. One, all of the kids saw Batman earlier that day, with the sun out, and again during their group discussion. Quite the number of coincidences. Second, I’ve seen this story before, and handled much better, in the episode of The New Batman Adventures titled “Legends of The Dark Knight.”

"Crossfire," written by the one-and-only Greg Rucka, writer of DC Comics’ Gotham Central, is the story of detectives Crispus Allen (who fans will immediately recognize from Gotham Central and as the current Spectre) and... Anna Ramirez. You were expecting to read “Renee Montoya.” Me too. But she’s not in it. Why? I’m told I need to watch The Dark Knight for the answer. Fair enough.

“Crossfire” focuses on these two officers, both members of Lt. James Gordon's Major Crimes Unit, and each with an opposing view of Batman. Allen thinks Batman is a vigilante, taking the law into his own hands, and trivializing the role of the Gotham Police Department, while Ramirez is unsure about him, but is thankful that good cops are actually being respected now that Batman has shown up. After taking a recent Arkham escapee back to the asylum (the villain featured in the first story on the DVD), they soon realize they're stuck in the middle of a gang war between Boss Sal Maroni and The Russian. This story functions almost as a direct sequel to Batman Begins, referencing both “The Narrows” and the day of “the breakout.” The entire island is now the asylum, in a nod to “No Man’s Land.”

"Field Test," written by Batman Begins producer Jordan Goldberg, starts with Lucius Fox showing Bruce Wayne some new high-tech gadgets. Among them is a harness equipped with an electromagnetic pulse strong enough to deflect bullets. Batman decides to test it out on Boss Maroni, The Russian (looking remarkably different than in the previous episode), and their goons. Everything is going Batman's way until a certain... glitch occurs, serving a slight wake-up call to the fledgling Dark Knight. This episode strengthens the ties between Lucius and Bruce, and heavily implies that Bruce has trusted Lucius with his secret. "I'm willing to put my life on the line to do what I have to. But it has to be mine, no one else's,” says Bruce.

"In Darkness Dwells," written by David Goyer, the fan-favorite scribe of Batman Begins and the Blade film franchise, has everyone looking for a sewer monster named... “Killer Croc.” Apparently, he was the former patient of a certain Doctor Johnathan Crane. Speaking of whom, we also see the next phase of Scarecrow’s evolution here, and his ties to Killer Croc and various other “oddities” in Gotham City. That being said, as enjoyable as this take on Scarecrow was, he does not seem to be the same person we saw in Batman Begins, even with the extensive dose of fear toxin administered to him in said film. The episode also expands on Batman’s relationship with the Gotham PD, showing their growing trust of one another.

Eisner-Award winning 100 Bullets writer Brian Azzarello tells the tale of an injured Batman on what seems like any other night he puts on his mask in "Working Through Pain," or, as I dubbed it, “How Batman Became a Bad-Ass.” Batman’s resolve and tenacity are highlighted here, as he struggles with his severe injuries. We're also privy to a few flashbacks, tying in nicely with Bruce’s trek in Batman Begins, and we learn the difference between exterior and interior pain, and how Batman uses it to his advantage (like taking a bottle to the head and smiling). Alfred appears in the story, coming to Batman’s aid in a surprisingly heartbreaking ending.

Last, but certainly not least, is my favorite story of the bunch: "Deadshot." Yes, that Deadshot. This bit comes to us from writer Alan Burnett, who has written and produced episodes for pretty much every single DC Animated series ever. Floyd Lawton has come back to Gotham and has set his sights on Jim Gordon. Or does he? This tale serves to enlighten the audience on Batman’s views towards guns, but it also has the coolest version of Deadshot you’ll ever see and the best use of “Bullet Time” since The Matrix.

I want to say that Batman: Gotham Knight is superb. Because it is. But I asked the question earlier, “Does it succeed as a bridge?” No, I don’t think so. It’s visually stunning, but also visually all over the place. The fact that Batman looks different in each vignette, and far more like he does in the comics than in the films, will immediately pull you out of the “Nolanverse.” And even though the stories were meant to be as grounded as possible, there were some things that just didn’t fit. And I’m also certain that aspects of The Dark Knight will negate some of what is seen here; in fact, some of the previews I’ve seen already have (I won’t go much further as I don’t want to give anything away).

But barring that, Gotham Knight is fantastic and a Batman fan’s wet dream. There's really no other way to describe it. I had my doubts about it at first, but those were all alleviated after the first few minutes of the film. The animation is amazing – exactly what I was hoping for back in 2000. Everything moves crisply and smoothly. The fight choreography is akin to a finely-tuned dance, a waltz between Batman’s punches and kicks and his various opponents’ faces. And, even though the artistic style changes per episode, it’s actually quite unnoticeable. The superb voice cast stays the same throughout the entire film and while each individual tale has its own story to tell, they're all connected and flow together nicely. And let me just say - hearing Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman again, I cheered the first time he spoke, it sounds SO right. And while some have complained at the lack of either Harvey Dent or The Joker, I for one would much rather see them debut on the big screen first in full, Technicolor glory!

Gotham Knight is a feature that shouldn't be missed by anybody. Really. Whether you're an anime fan, a Batman fan, or you're just looking for something new to catch your eye, I'd whole-heartedly recommend Batman: Gotham Knight to anyone and everyone (except for maybe my mother who “wouldn’t get it,” bless her soul). It’s got something for everyone- action, romance, mystery, suspense, and more. The animation is beautiful and the stories are incredibly well-written and will keep you interested for the entire 75 minutes. And, again, as for this being “a bridge,” well, if you've seen Batman Begins, you'll be fine when you see The Dark Knight. This is a very nice bonus, though, and is highly recommended.

Rating: A-


Chris Ware said...

Joe, I didn't read the middle portion of this just to stay away from spoilers, but the rest of this has me even more excited to see this on Tuesday. I can't wait...

Doug Smith said...

I wasn't even aware this project existed, but now I've added it to Netflix.

Chris Ware said...

Okay, so now I've watched this and apparently I liked it less than Joe did. The stories were solid, but nothing spectacular. I enjoyed the character interactions in Crossfire and Deadshot's appearance in the final episode, but the others seemed to be standard Batman fare. Aside from the first episode, I really enjoyed the animation throughout, despite the changes in Batman's appearance. I'd give it a solid B.