Batman: Gotham Knight, Warner Home Video, $24.98. Release date: July 8, 2008.
To say the Batman: Gotham Knight DVD is a must for any die-hard Batman animation fan is an understatement. With the voice of Kevin Conroy as Batman and the mind of Bruce Timm behind the scenes, anyone who enjoys superhero animation knows this is going to be their kind of movie.
The question then becomes how good this DVD is for the rest of the filmgoing audience. Is Batman: Gotham Knight a DVD that the general public will enjoy? And for Newsarama readers in particular, is this something comic book fans should see?
A collection of six animated segments, each with its own artistic vision, the DVD takes place between Batman Begins and the upcoming The Dark Knight, using characters and scenery from the movies to place it within that unique Batman universe. The six segments each have a separate writer, anime team and director, a choice intended to show Batman through a "prism," from many different angles and styles.
If the choice sounds familiar to fans of the Animatrix DVD, it's not something the filmmakers are hiding. DC representatives have admitted their hope for this film is that it bridges the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight similar to the successful Animatrix collection of animated shorts and their link to the Matrix films.
The first segment, "Have I Got a Story for You," sets the scene by literally showing Batman through the eyes of several people. As a group of four kids sit around a skateboard park, their stories about Batman highlight the different impressions the masked vigilante makes on those who see him first hand. Written by Josh Olson, the theme of the segment introduces the idea of the many sides of Batman, echoing the construction of the film itself. While the segment succeeds in its climax and provides a lot of laughs, its light-hearted nature and stylized, misshapen Batman seem a little out of place in a film that is supposed to function within the dark and grounded Batman Begins universe.
Greg Rucka writes the second segment, titled "Crossfire," which features Crispus Allen, a character familiar to readers of the writer's DC comic Gotham Central and the lead in the upcoming Final Crisis: Revelations. Introducing the mob conflict that will play a role in The Dark Knight movie, the short shows Batman through the eyes of the Gotham cops, including Allen, who is bitter about Jim Gordon working with what he perceives as an illegal vigilante. The action sequences in this portion of the film are a little confusing at times, but again, the story was supposed to be told through the eyes of the cops, and when Batman shows up, it's easy to believe the action would be appear to be a little disjointed. For comic book readers in particular, this segment works well, as we already know Allen's voice and recognize Rucka's guidance of it.
"Field Test," the story written by The Dark Knight producer Jordan Goldberg, plays with the idea of Lucius Fox developing a defensive tool for Batman that challenges his moral compass. In this short is where the choice to use various anime studios became questionable, as the story's too-young look for Bruce Wayne and chicken-shaped Batman mask detracted from the seriousness of the segment's theme. However, the idea behind the "field test" was quite fitting given his access to technology, and the decisions that Bruce makes in the story are appropriate within the Batman tradition.
David Goyer, a writer on the feature films, is behind the next segment, "In Darkness Dwells." Focusing on the cult-like followers of Scarecrow and a new version of Killer Croc, this segment feels much like the animated Batman that fans may know best. Battling Scarecrow's fear toxin while hunting villains in the sewers, Batman and his world are familiar in this segment, and fans who like watching action scenes with cool villains will rate this short high, although the more "grounded" explanation for Killer Croc's "condition" might be a stretch for die-hard comic book fans.
By far my personal favorite segment was "Working Through Pain," the story by comics writer Brian Azzarello about how Bruce Wayne trained himself to endure great pain. The one story that most developed Bruce Wayne's character, "Working Through Pain" explored the psychological make-up of Batman without being heavy-handed, often sneaking its message in the back door. In an atmosphere where Batman stories sometimes feel repetitive, this segment had something new to say, and I'll be watching it a few times again.
Probably the strongest overall mix of action and drama was the final one, "Deadshot," by Alan Burnett. Starring the villain of the same name, the story serves as a climax for the entire film and feels the most connected to the movies since its setting is taken right out of the films. It's also got the same flavor as the animated television shows, which comes as no surprise, as Burnett was a frequent writer of that Batman. And anyone who enjoys the Deadshot character will love the little touches in this part of the film that highlight the villain's abilities.
Whether the movie works for a general audience is questionable, but it probably comes as close as any animated Batman before. Because it does function within the universe of the films established by director Christopher Nolan, this will be a Batman that anyone who has seen the film will recognize. And the mix of different anime styles is something that should attract the legions of anime fans who are on the lookout for something new in a style they enjoy.
But the goal of living up to the Animatrix was probably setting the bar a little high. While the animated shorts in Gotham Knight told stories that hold up as surprisingly unique visions of a character who has already been examined exhaustingly in animation, I didn't feel like the film significantly expanded the Batman Begins universe or revealed anything revolutionary about what happened between the movies. The segments were really enjoyable on their own, but few added to the mythos of Batman Begins or offered any new, pertinent information for movie fans.
For comic book fans, I'm tempted to equate this DVD to a highly recommended trade paperback filled with "done-in-one" Batman stories by some of the best writers in the business. While there were a few through-lines that linked the segments, they still felt really separate. That's probably one of the film's weaknesses, but it honestly didn't detract much from my enjoyment. Because I'm accustomed to reading short comic book stories about Batman, this DVD felt to me like a collection of well-written comics drawn in an experimental style that just happened to move. And I'm all about reading a good done-in-one Batman story, especially by writers like Greg Rucka, David Goyer and Brian Azzarello.
While there's nothing here that could be called a necessity for the films -- and there's very little that feels like a mind-boggling addition to what we already know about Batman -- for anyone who enjoys a good Batman story, you're going to get six of them. Six solid, fun, sometimes humorous and often hard-hitting tales about the world of Batman. And with these stories, the popcorn butter on your fingers won't ruin the pages.