In 2003, right before the release of The Matrix Reloaded, Warner Bros. released The Animatrix, a collection of short animated films that renewed our acquaintance with the world of the movie. The films themselves were produced by some of the top anime talent at the time (with the exception of Peter Chung’s “Matriculated”), which also allowed the Wachowski’s to pay homage to one of their major influences. Considering how well received The Animatrix was, it’s a little surprising that it took Warner Brothers five years to repeat the experiment, but they finally have with the direct-to-video anthology movie Batman: Gotham Knight, which uses six loosely connected stories to bridge the gap between Batman Begins and the upcoming The Dark Knight.
All but the best anthology movies all face the same problem: some segments will be much better than others, and this problem afflicts Batman Gotham Knight as well. The movie is split into six chapters, with a loose overarching story written by Jordan Goldberg holding them together. There is only one sequence that is truly disappointing, but there are also only two sequences that are truly outstanding. The remaining three are fairly conventional Batman stories, not appreciably better or worse than what could be found in earlier animated series. Also, despite multiple claims that the movie tells a larger, overarching story, the links between the chapters are tenuous at best. If there is consistency to be found on this disc, it is in the beautiful animation, which is almost universally excellent and quite successful at evoking the shadowy world of Batman, but with a completely different visual style than shows like Batman the Animated Series or The Batman.
The DVD begins with “Have I Got a Story for You,” where four kids share their encounters with Batman, with wildly divergent conclusions on who or what Batman really is. It is another take on a story from a late 1960’s Batman comic book and in the “Legends of the Dark Knight” episode of Batman the Animated Series. The visual style is easily the best thing about this chapter. It is directed by Studio 4ÂºC’s Shojiro Nishimi, who combines graffiti art styles with the slightly grotesque and distorted figure designs that he used on the radically different anime movie Tekkonkinkreet. It is quite serviceable as a story, but comes up short in comparison to “Legends of the Dark Knight.” By appropriating visual and thematic styles from different comic book eras, “Legends” works beautifully on multiple levels as both a story in its own right and a commentary on the different eras of Batman. “Have I Got a Story for You” is a good Batman story, but lacks the extra depth of “Legends of the Dark Knight.”
The second chapter is “Crossfire,” which focuses on two members of the Gotham City Police Department Major Crimes Unit and their feelings toward Batman. This chapter is written by Greg Rucka, and will look and feel familiar to fans of the now-cancelled Gotham Central comic book. If anything, this sequence runs a bit too long. The beginning and the end of the chapter are fascinating, starting with a delightfully gloomy visit to Police Headquarters and ending with an extended gun battle between warring mob factions. Unfortunately, the middle section just stops the narrative flow dead in its tracks for a visit to the prison island of the Narrows. It’s an interesting look at the Batman Begins world, but it runs for far too long and for no very good purpose.
The next chapter is “Field Test,” the worst of the chapters. The plot revolves around a live test of a bulletproof shield provided by the geniuses at WayneTech. The narrative doesn’t really make much sense and the entire segment is paced quite poorly. There is little sense of narrative urgency, making the whole thing drag. There are also multiple characters introduced for no very good purpose, even if one considers their appearances later on the DVD. Despite the promise that these tales will be at least somewhat connected, “Field Test” fits poorly with the other chapters of the movie. Finally, its explanation for why Batman would reject such a potentially useful piece of technology seems somewhat farfetched and unconvincing. Other than the striking visuals (where Bruce Wayne bears an unnerving resemblance to Roger Smith from The Big O), there is little here worth watching.
On the other hand, “In Darkness Dwells” is one of the strongest segments on the disc, with a simple narrative (Batman enters a sewer to rescue a kidnapped churchman) driving some of the most arresting visuals and exciting sequences of the movie. It’s often said that Gotham City is a character of its own in Batman stories, and this chapter proves what a marvelous character it can be. The sewers are appropriately dark, dank, and claustrophobic, and the thick ink outline around everything are highly reminiscent of comic book inking lines. They also make for wonderful chiaroscuro shadows and gloriously moody atmospheres. Adding in some intense, drug-induced hallucinations is just icing on the cake.
“Working Through Pain” may be the most ambitious of the chapters in this DVD, so it may be forgiven if its reach somewhat exceeds its grasp. The majority of this story, written by Brian Azzarello, is an extended flashback showing one of the many teachers that Bruce Wayne studied with in preparation for his role as the Dark Knight. In this case, it is an Indian woman named Cassandra who teaches him how to manage physical and emotional pain through yogic discipline and a bunch of quasi-spiritual claptrap. While the short doesn’t overdo the exoticism of India too much, there are many points when it comes off as pretentious as hell. Still, Cassandra is one of the most interesting characters introduced on the DVD, and the climactic fight scene at the end of the chapter may be the best single action sequence on the disc.
The best was saved for last with “Deadshot,” the sixth and last chapter, written by Alan Burnett. The title character is a longtime foe of Batman, and even appeared in animated form in the first season of Justice League, but this version of the character is far darker and takes full advantage of the movie’s PG-13 rating. He has received a radical visual reworking, becoming a refined, gentleman killer with just a touch of kink in his outlandish outfit. This may not be the most innovative of the stories on this disc, with a fake-out plot twist that will be obvious from a mile off, but its success lies entirely in the execution. It is also definitely one of the best animated of the chapters, with the dramatic climactic fight sequence melding CGI and hand-drawn animation beautifully. If anything, the thick ink line of “In Darkness Dwells” is even more exaggerated here, making this chapter feel like an art deco woodblock print come to life at times. If the rest of the shorts had managed to maintain this level of quality, Batman Gotham Knight would have been a sure-fire home run.
As with the earlier direct-to-video efforts, Batman: Gotham Knight gets a sterling presentation on DVD, with a crystal clear widescreen image mated with a nicely full 5.1 digital soundtrack. The major extra on the DVD is a commentary track with DC Senior VP Gregory Noveck, long-time Batman writer and editor Dennis O’Neil, and voice actor Kevin Conroy. The relatively small number of commentators and their distinctive voices makes it very easy to follow who’s saying what, in contrast to the 6-8 commentators who tend to blend together on many other DC animated DVDs. It’s also nice that Denny O’Neil was included, since his long tenure as a Batman writer and editor have left fingerprints on the character that are still visible today. The three make a fair number of interesting comments, but despite Noveck’s best efforts to keep things going, there is a non-trivial amount of dead air or moments where the conversation drifts to fairly banal platitudes about Batman just to fill time. The track is especially disappointing because none of the three were directly involved in the production of the animation itself (Conroy recorded his lines to finished animation), so the commentary lacks any really good behind-the-scenes information about the movie. The other extra is a sneak preview of the upcoming Wonder Woman direct-to-video movie; because the movie seems to get the big details right about Wonder Woman, the featurette may be forgiven for being a bit too self-congratulatory on Wonder Woman’s importance. There is a 2-disc special edition that will contain another disc of extras, although all of them seem to be about Batman and none of them are about the making of this movie.
If it doesn’t quite rise to the high-water mark of The Animatrix, Batman Gotham Knight deserves a look from Batman fans simply because it has such a radically different visual style than any other animated version of Batman. On the other hand, it’s also yet another Batman animated project when there has been a small glut of them, and the weaknesses of the final product make it something to be admired more than loved. It’s not quite successful as a true cross-culture product, and its doubtful that it will be truly satisfying to very many hardcore fans of Batman or anime. Still, it’s a solid enough attempt that deserves no small amount of praise for even being willing to try.