Judge Dan Mancini does not wait for you to be ready. Judge Dan Mancini is not considerate, or fair. And make no mistake: Here, you face Judge Dan Mancini.
Get ready…to rage against evil.
In terms of pop mythology, Batman is and always has been the best that comics have to offer. Superman is a boy scout Moses; Spider-Man is a pimply kid worried about rustling up enough money to pay the rent; and Wolverine and Iron Man are, well, lesser versions of Batman…much lesser. The story of Bruce Wayne facing personal tragedy by turning the full force of his intellect, wealth, and will to the cause of justice has proven incredibly resonant and adaptable over the decades—as has the unmitigated coolness of Batman's lurking in the shadows of Gotham and scaring the living hell out of criminals.
While most superheroes (even the top-tier ones) are lucky if they manage to launch a successful film franchise (for every Spider-Man, there's a Fantastic Four), Batman has pulled it off twice. If Tim Burton's 1988 telling of the Batman mythos has become the style guide for comic book movies in the two decades since its release, it's only fitting that the Dark Knight has moved on, leaving his many imitators in his wake. As entertaining as Burton's two Batman flicks are, it wasn't until Christopher Nolan took a decidedly adult (microwave emitter notwithstanding) swing at the character's origin story in 2005's Batman Begins that a big-budget live action Hollywood movie managed to fully capture the spirit and texture of the best years of Batman comics.
Considering how revolutionary Batman Begins felt when it first came out, it's a little odd that over the past year or so it has begun to feel like a mere prelude to what Nolan has in store with his follow-up, The Dark Knight—a movie that builds on Batman's origin story by pitting our hero against his most deadly opponent, The Joker. From carefully doled out trailers, to viral websites, to leaked production photos, the hype surrounding The Dark Knight has only been matched by fan anticipation. And that's where Batman: Gotham Knight comes in. This feature-length collection of six vignettes is designed to bridge the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight…and to whet everyone's appetite for this summer's most high-profile sequel.
Facts of the Case
East meets West in Batman: Gotham Knight as DC Comics and Warner Brothers hand their hottest superhero property over to a bevy of A-list Hollywood and comic book writers and established Japanese animators. Here's a spoiler-free rundown of what you'll find on the disc:
• "Have I Got a Story for You"
• "Field Test"
• "In Darkness Dwells"
• "Working Through Pain"
The chances were always slim that Batman: Gotham Knight could live up to the high expectations produced by the internet release of the first images from the show—images of Batman and Gotham rendered in dark, dangerous, and beautiful anime style. It does not. The problem with assembling a series of six loosely-related 15-minute vignettes is that the result is neither a coherent 75-minute feature nor a collection of fully-formed stand-alone episodes. Instead, it's an uneven program with a couple high points and a whole lot of mediocrity.
It's almost unfortunate that the disc kicks off with the best vignette of the series because it feeds the hope that you're about to experience something truly special. "Have I Got a Story for You" was written by Josh Olson (A History of Violence) and directed by Shoujirou Nishimi (an animator on the groundbreaking Akira). It's a perfect melding of Batman's substance with the high style of anime. Plus, the piece's tightly structured, non-linear narrative is a clever ode to Christopher Nolan's directorial style. The radically subjective observations of a group of teens render Batman as a teleporting ghoul, Manbat-style monster, and flying armored mecha. Weird as that sounds, each incarnation captures something of the Batman mystique—his terrifying persona, ninja agility, and technological wizardry. The kids' recollections are both false and true.
Nishima tells Olson's story with a maximum of expressionistic verve. His characters are egg-shaped with thin arms and legs, but they move with smooth grace and much kinetic energy. "Have I Got a Story for You" is unlike any Batman animated story you've seen. That's what makes it the best vignette on Gotham Knight.
At the other end of the style spectrum and the other end of the disc is "Deadshot." Written by Alan Burnett (scribe for many of Warner's Superman and Batman animated adventures) and not credited to a Japanese director, it is far more traditional than anything else on the disc both in terms of story and design. With the exception of "Have I Got a Story for You," it's also better than its more experimental brethren. In it, Batman takes on the murderous Deadshot, a villain whose love of the kill contrasts nicely with our hero's restraint. "Deadshot" may be more traditional, but that doesn't mean it's dull. Animation highlights include a spectacular assassination and a wild, violent brawl between Batman and Deadshot atop a moving train. It's good stuff.
Between the two excellent episodes that bookend Batman: Gotham Knight is a whole lot of mediocrity. "Crossfire," "In Darkness Dwells," and "Working Through Pain" are all middling efforts that tend to buck against this project's self-imposed constraints of time and animation style.
Directed by Futoshi Higashide (a key animator on Air), "Crossfire" tries to squeeze too much conventional storytelling into its 15-minute window. The problem is compounded by its story (penned by graphic novelist and video game writer, Greg Rucka) being entirely predictable. If anything, the episode's purpose seems to be the introduction of Jim Gordon's Major Crimes Unit, a police entity not yet formed in Batman Begins but that plays a major role in The Dark Knight. That kind of functional storytelling is snooze-inducing and not at all necessary, I'm sure, to understanding the MCU's role in Nolan's blockbuster.
"In Darkness Dwells" sounds better on paper than it is in the actual execution. How can a story involving Batman in a throw-down with Killer Croc in the sewers of Gotham be anything but awesome—especially if it's written by David Goyer (Batman Begins) and directed by Yasuhiro Aoki (animator on Neon Genesis Evangelion)? Again, the vignette seems more interested in wrapping up loose ends from Batman Begins and creating a thematic link between that film and its sequel than in telling a compelling and concise story that stands on its own. The fight between Batman and Croc is visually expressive and kind of fun, but the paper-thin plot mutes any sense of real danger.
Comic book writer Brian Azzarello's (100 Bullets) "Working Through Pain" is a well-structured piece, jumping back and forth in time as an injured Batman attempts to extricate himself from danger while remembering an earlier time when young Bruce Wayne learned some valuable lessons in overcoming pain. The problem is, much of what we see is so similar to the training detailed in Batman Begins that the vignette feels like a rehash. Also, one of the great weaknesses of the shorts in this set is their depictions of Bruce Wayne. Here, director Toshiyuki Kubooka (animation director on Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water) presents Wayne as a typical wide-eyed, tousle-haired, close to androgynous anime hero. The character design is okay, but it's not Bruce Wayne. Batman fans will be sorely disappointed that the decision to hire Kevin Conroy to voice the Dark Knight is largely a bust because his voice is entirely inappropriate for the Bruce Waynes (and sometimes even Batmen) that we see onscreen.
At the bottom of Batman: Gotham Knight's barrel is "Field Test," an insufferably bad entry written by Jordan Goldberg (an associate producer on both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) and directed by Hiroshi Morioka (a unit director on .hack//Sign). Everything about the episode is ill-conceived. It's bad enough that the technology developed by Lucius Fox is entirely inappropriate to the Batman mythos, but Bruce Wayne's moral reasoning for not utilizing the technology once it's introduced makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The character design for Batman is the worst in the set, looking more Gatchaman than Caped Crusader. And Morioka's version of Bruce Wayne is even more twee than Kubooka's. "Field Test" is a poor entry from top to bottom.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite my general disappointment with the stories in most of the set's vignettes, Batman: Gotham Knight has a few things to recommend it. "Have I Got a Story for You" is a great episode; the three mediocre episodes are at least novel in their visual style; and, isolated issues of character design aside, the animation is as beautiful and kinetic as you'd expect from an anime version of Batman.
The disc's 1.78:1 transfer, enhanced for 16X9 displays, ably captures all of the visual splendor. Colors are accurately cool and bleak. Detail is superb. Challenging imagery like fog is stable and supple. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio is equally impressive. Warner scores extra points for including a wealth of high-quality audio and subtitle options.
This Two-Disc Special Edition also comes with an impressive slate of extras. A commentary track (also available on the single-disc edition) featuring DC Comics senior vice president Gregory Novek, legendary Batman writer Dennis O'Neil, and Kevin Conroy is as easy-going and charming as it is informative.
Disc Two contains two documentaries: "A Mirror for the Bat," which examines Batman's rogues gallery of enemies, and "Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story," a biography of the Dark Knight's creator. Also on tap are four episodes of Bruce Timm's Batman: The Animated Series: "Legends of the Dark Knight," "Over the Edge," "Heart of Ice," and "I Am the Night." The documentaries are decent if slightly fluffy. Those who already own Batman: The Animated Series on DVD should probably opt for the less expensive single-disc edition of Batman: Gotham Knight as the best supplement (the commentary) is included on that release and the documentaries on the second disc of the Special Edition aren't worth the extra coin.
In light of the hype surrounding its release, Batman: Gotham Knight is a disappointment. The excellent animation throughout coupled with the quality of a few of the vignettes makes it an easy recommendation for Batfans, but more casual viewers will want to steer clear.
The court finds Batman: Gotham Knight cool despite its guilt.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary
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