Remember The Animatrix? 2003's animated foray into the world of The Matrix was a wonderful showcase of what can happen with a collaborative effort. Seeking the creative minds of some of anime's best and brightest the project gave the Matrix universe a breath of fresh air and stirred up interest in anime in general. As a raging otaku and all around comic book geek imagine my enthusiasm when I had heard that a similar project was underway for DC Comic's Batman. Designed to obviously stir up interest among fans with the release of Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight is every bit as successful as The Animatrix was.
Actually, while we're talking about The Animatrix it's worth mentioning how that particular release was polarizing for viewers. Some people just didn't know what they were getting themselves in for and because of that they left disappointed. Gotham Knight has the potential to fall victim to that fate as well. If you think this is a theatrical Batman movie or something like the animated American TV shows then you're probably going to be bored, confused, and disappointed. The content is a little slower than we're accustomed to and though some fantastic action is here it's definitely not a nonstop thrill ride. I suppose the biggest such factor about this release is that it feels different than the Batman we know and love. It has a distinct Eastern feel to it and homegrown fans who like Batman the way he is probably won't enjoy this. However, if you love anime, appreciate change, and you love Batman in any form then boy, are you in for a treat.
To give you a little more background into exactly what this release is, Gotham Knight is a collection of six short (painfully short) stories that are supposed to bridge the gap between Batman Begins and Dark Knight. Each of these tales, or mini-episodes if you will, has something unique to offer as they all came from different writers, directors, and animation houses. The end result is one of the most diverse offerings Batman fans have ever seen and dare I say that some of these interpretations are truly visionary.
There is an undeniable Japanese touch to just about everything here and there are some truly innovative takes on the character. It's safe to say that in most of these episodes you're going to see a spin on Batman that you simply haven't seen before. This is both a good and a bad thing when you get right down to it. The character has such an established history that seeing him presented in such a fashion will undoubtedly be jarring to many fans. Traditionalists will scoff at many moments here while those with an open mind about interpretations of the character will be amazed. While there are some new elements here these episodes also include some conventional ones as well.
The first episode is entitled "Have I Got a Story for You" and it is written by Josh Olson with direction by Shojiro Nishimi. The animation was handled by Studio 4C who also worked on Tekkon Kinkreet and The Animatrix so you should be able to instantly identify their unique style. This story was pretty interesting as it took a look at the urban myth aspect of the character. While we all know who Batman is and what motivates him, the common person in Gotham really doesn't and that angle isn't explored as often as it should be.
The premise here is quite simple as a group of friends gets together and sit down to recount their exciting day as they all had a sighting of Batman. The first describes Batman as a demonic looking being that was a living shadow, the second portrays him as a giant man bat with wings, and the third states that Batman is actually a robot of some sort. While the details are fuzzy in each tale it seems certain that they were all witness to the same encounter between Batman and a mysterious villain. As the tales unfold the story goes backwards in time and it ends appropriately with the real Batman appearing in front of the friends for the final showdown. We are never given much insight into what's going on here but learning about the encounter through the eyes of some kids definitely added a unique spin to it.
"Crossfire" is the second episode of Gotham Knight was written by Greg Rucka with direction by Futoshi Higashide and production by Production I.G. As a rabid anime fan I must admit that I was really looking forward to this one due to Production I.G.'s lineage. With Ghost in the Shell, Blood+, and so many other prominent titles on their resume it's safe to say that they are an anime legend. With this collaboration Batman is taken down familiar paths but once again we view the character from another perspective.
Detectives Allen and Ramirez are charged with transporting a prisoner in this episode but along the way they become involved in a conflict between the Russian and Maroni. In good form Batman has to step in and save their hides. What's interesting about this episode is the perception of the character by the detectives. Ramirez views Batman as an ally while Allen thinks very little of him in general. Given the fact that nothing really new is explored with this episode it felt tamer than the rest but it's great to watch for the fantastic animation nonetheless.
The third episode "Field Test" was written by Jordan Goldberg, directed by Hiroshi Morioka, and produced by Bee Train (Tsubasa Chronicles and Noir). This particular episode was interesting because it showed a significantly younger Bruce Wayne working with Lucius Fox to test out some new equipment. Fox and company have recently applied a piece of technology that creates magnetic distortions at whim. This allows Bruce to harness its power to create a bullet proof shield of sorts that renders all close range guns useless. It's ideal for Batman if you think about it because he refuses to use a gun but there's a twist towards the end that makes him reconsider its usefulness.
The plot here is a tad lighter with the Russian and Maroni being brought up again but the main focus is on Bruce's exploration of new gadgets. One thing I enjoyed about this episode was the artistic design that was used. I felt that Batman's costume was very similar to the old Gatchaman series and after listening to the audio commentary I'm pleased to hear that I wasn't the only one.
"In Darkness Dwells" was the fourth episode here and once again it explored a more traditional Batman storyline. Written by David Goyer, directed by Yasuhiro Aoki, and produced by Madhouse (Death Note and Record of Lodoss War) "In Darkness Dwells" is iconic of what you'd expect from a Batman tale. This one sees the Dark Knight getting involved with a case that features people hallucinating and seeing a large crocodile. That's right kids; the Scarecrow and Killer Croc make an appearance here. Batman takes to the sewers to uncover what's really going on and bumps into both villains in the process. This leaves Bruce injured and drugged and also shows how he works through pain which foreshadows the next episode. This was one of the most action oriented affairs on this disc and definitely showed the true potential of this kind of collaboration.
The fifth episode entitled "Working Through Pain" focuses on a moment from Bruce's past training where he learns to deal with pain. Brian Azzarello penned the story, Toshiyuki Kubooka directed it, and once again Studio 4C provided the animation. With Batman still reeling from the pain of his injuries he heads back into the sewers to finish what he started. Some of the hallucination effects are still going strong and Bruce's wounds trigger some interesting flashbacks. This was one of the nicer episodes as it really fleshed out the character and built upon some of the elements of Bruce that have been picked up from special people around the world. The pacing of this one is decidedly slower than the rest but it's a nice character builder.
Alan Burnett wrote the screenplay for "Deadshot" which was arguably the best episode out of the six. Directed by Jong-Sik Nam and production once again supplied by Madhouse this particular episode had some very strong design elements that made me reminisce Ninja Scroll (Bruce's massive chin for example). The plot here focuses on Deadshot being contracted to take down Commissioner Gordon but there's a bit of a twist here and naturally Batman gets involved. There was some nice action in this one and it was a fine way to close out Gotham Knight.
While these six episodes aren't exactly all tied together there are some loose threads between several of them that accomplish that. Taken as they are these are fantastic glimpses into the universe of Batman from prominent writers and visionary production staffs. I personally have enjoyed Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and The Batman but found that the material in Gotham Knight definitely pushed preconceptions of what an animated Batman adventure could be to the next level. I sincerely hope the powers that be consider revisiting this concept again in the future.
There is one more thing worth mentioning with regards to the animated versions of Batman. If you have ever watched any of the aforementioned series then you undoubtedly will recognize Kevin Conroy as the lead voice actor. Fans will certainly be happy because Kevin has more or less been the voice of Batman for the past sixteen years. Viewers of other DC animated series will also recognize the voices of Kevin Michael Richardson, Jason Marsden, Corey Burton, and Will Friedle to name a few. It's a nice way to usher in a new era for Batman as well as service the fans that have helped support the animated franchise for so many years.
Gotham Knight is a nice way to spend some time with Batman and there are some very interesting moments here that take the character down some unexplored paths. If I have any complaint it's that each of these episodes is merely a piece of a larger whole. I wish each was given its own full length release rather than ten to fifteen minute snippets. As it stands these episodes feel like teasers more than actual chunks of Batman entertainment and just as you start to get into it the show's over. The 76 minute run time is much shorter than it should have been and despite the quality of what's here I left feeling shortchanged. Don't get me wrong; what's here is mostly very good. Batman fans should definitely check it out and those among you who love anime can consider it a strong recommendation. Let's just hope that DC and Warner does this again some time but that they give us a little more meat to chew on.
Batman: Gotham Knight is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Considering the diversity of the production houses that went into making this release you'd expect some differences. Each episode more or less has its own tone and quality to it but throughout all six stories there are similarities to be found. Unfortunately the biggest similarity is smattering of noticeable and sometimes distracting flaws.
Grain is a big part of the problem with this release though some episodes are less affected by it than others. I get that Batman is supposed to be gritty but dark areas aren't as solid as they should be and often seem peppered. "In Darkness Dwells" is a prime example of what I'm talking about and it's kind of distracting. In addition to the large amount of grain at times there are also light color gradient issues such as in "Have I Got a Story for You" when the man-bat version of Batman has shimmering blue pixels over his body as he moves. This simply prevents Gotham Knight from looking as good as it should.
The fact that there are these flaws in the video is disappointing considering the quality of the animation that went into this release. Studio 4C, Bee Train, Production I.G., and Madhouse all did wonderful jobs here and I begrudge them nothing. The poor elements seem to be a byproduct of the transfer and not the source material in most instances. Then again many won't mind the amount of grit here because after all it's Batman and Gotham is a dirty place.
Batman: Gotham Knight hits DVD with English Dolby Digital 5.1 as its primary source of audio. Fortunately unlike the video which features a less-than stellar transfer, the sound presentation is quite good. The 5.1 track here creates a fantastic sense of immersion that has a lot to offer. Music, ambient noise, and sound effects from the height of battle all find a comfortable home on the rear channels. If you crank up the bass there are some fine moments during the confrontations with Croc and Deadshot. These bits outshine many other scenes due to some reliance on dialogue which comes through the front channels without much separation. Even so the quality in sound is very refined and some bits definitely pack a punch.
This release also includes Dolby 5.1 selections for Japanese and Thai as well as 2.0 for Spanish and Portuguese. Likewise there are subtitles to match for each of those language tracks though the English subtitles are hearing impaired ones.
The 2 disc version of Batman: Gotham Knight contains quite a bit of bonus material to sate your Dark Knight appetite. The first disc offers the feature with a sneak peak of the upcoming Wonder Woman release. Clocking in at 10:28 this little preview offers some storyboard sketches and snippets from Wonder Woman's comic books and the like. The best part about this sneak peak is that we get to see the top notch cast of voice actors talk about Wonder Woman and the animated film. Oh, Bruce Timm and company are also around to discuss the project as well.
The first disc also contains an audio commentary with Kevin Conroy, Dennis O'Neil, and Gregory Noveck. The three talk throughout the course of this release and the commentary streams over each episode. At the beginning of each episode they point out a few things pertaining to the story and its creation. Once they get that out of the way they tend to drift off subject and talk about other things from time to time. I did enjoy Conroy's recounting of his volunteer work during a relief effort for some police and firefighters. It was a fun story and there are a few such as that included here but real information about each episode isn't really available.
The second disc here includes a featurette entitled "A Mirror for the Bat" (35:44). This was a very in depth documentary of sorts with a lot of talking heads from the world of Batman talking about the character and his villains. Rightly so, a hero is often judged by the quality of his villains and that's one of the things that make Batman so fascinating in the world of comic books. His rogue gallery is deep and diversified and that's arguably one of the reasons the character is so popular. Gotham is a crazy place to live and this feature talks at length about the villains that make it as crummy as it is.
"Batman and Me, a Devotion to Destiny: The Bob Kane Story" (38:23) was a fascinating look at the man who started it all. This documentary talked about Kane from his childhood in New York to the day he came up with Batman. He led an interesting life prior to his death in 1998 and all sorts of people come out to talk about the man in this feature from Mark Hamill to Stan Lee. It's safe to say that the comic book world would be a very different place if Kane wasn't the man he turned out to be. The final inclusion on the second disc is a sampling of four episodes from Batman: The Animated Series. These include "Legends of the Dark Knight", "Heart of Ice", "Over the Edge", and "I am the Night". It's a shame that these episodes weren't cut in favor of bonus content specific to Gotham Knight because that's really the area where the material here is lacking.
Batman: Gotham Knight isn't a release for everyone. The six episodes here are painfully short, they aren't very streamlined, and the video quality should have been much sharper. However, if you love anime and you love Batman then you absolutely must check this out. The six episodes all feature amazing interpretations of the character and there's no denying the Japanese influence on the city of Gotham is quite fresh from what we know of the franchise.
The bonus features included with the 2 disc version of the "film" unfortunately do not shed any more light on the Gotham Knight project. This supplemental material does offer some fine insight on Batman in general and makes for entertaining viewing so if you're on the fence about which version to pick up it's nice to know that the extra money does buy some good content.
I suppose at the end of the day Gotham Knight comes down to being a release about vision and potential. If you care about the two then you'll fawn over these episodes but if you're a stickler for traditional Batman and don't appreciate anime or its influences then this release probably isn't for you; especially if you didn't like what The Animatrix accomplished. Those looking for something different that will make them want more should consider this animation strongly recommended (bordering a high one). Despite the video transfer this DVD gets some decent grades. Hopefully the Blu-ray release will feature a better compression rate and transfer than the standard definition DVD.
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