If Superman is America's North Star of superheroes, ever stalwart and never changing, his "shadow," as it were, Batman, is more of a changeling, with many versions and characterizations seeping into the public consciousness since creator Bob Kane first came up with The Dark Knight in the late 1930s. I'm probably about to date myself, but my first introduction to Batman was the ABC series with Adam West. Dark and brooding it was not. That show led me to the comic book, however, and I stayed with that one long enough for one of the first revisals of the character, after the television series had ended, when Batman once again regained his original Bob Kane status as The Dark Knight. With various film adaptations sometimes hewing to the original Kane vision, at others not so much, it was something of a relief, darkly speaking, to have director Christopher Nolan play up the doom and gloom aspects of the character in his two recent Batman outings. The fact that someone finally realized the "should have been obvious all along" connection between Batman and anime has now been exploited to varying degrees of success in Batman: Gotham Knight, an episodic animated feature helmed by six different anime directors, all working in the context of the Nolan vision of Batman. Both Batman and a lot of anime features work within a dusky dystopian universe peopled with villainous freaks, so this would seem to be a marriage made in heaven. Whether or not the honeymoon lasts with you personally will probably depend on your tolerance for productions like The Animatrix which reimagine feature films in a different idiom and with different creative teams working on different elements.
The varying characterizations of Batman is a story trope itself in the initial outing of Batman: Gotham Knight, "Have I Got a Story For You," filled with director Shoujirou Nishimi's always distinctive character designs (if you've seen Tekkonkinkreet, you have a good idea of what you're in for). This examination of the dialectic between perception and reality follows three youths as they retell their recent interactions with Batman. Each of these skateboarding kids "remembers" Batman in totally different, and at times oppositional, ways, adding to the mystery and allure of our caped hero. I was pleasantly surprised at this opener, with its eye-popping colors and unusual design scheme. It may come off to some as too slight for such a "heavy" character as Batman, but it's enjoyable eye candy and paves the way for some of the darker elements which follow.
Nolan's Batman Begins is directly referenced, more or less, in the next outing, "Crossfire,' helmed by Futoshi Higashide. A policeman and policewoman are shown debating the merits of working with Batman in the wake of the Scarecrow's attack on Arkham Asylum as portrayed in the feature film. We're pretty much dunked head first into the darker aspects of the caped crusader in this episode, which can seem like jumping into an ice cold pool after a warm summer's day, after the introductory episode. But it's an enjoyable shock after all, filled with some excellent visuals (the battle where Batman saves the policewoman is especially visceral and worthy of Nolan himself). Batman emerges as fully opaque in this episode--a mystery wrapped around an enigma with a curt voice (Kevin Conroy) emanating from his cowl.
Probably the relatively weakest outing of this animated feature is up next, Hiroshi Morioka's "Field Test," a short and slight offering featuring Bruce Wayne working to develop an electromagnetic field that prevents bullets from piercing Batman's body armor. The fact that Wayne decides to utilize the device to win a golf game against a smug competitor doesn't exactly paint Batman's alter-ego in a completely positive light. The Batman portion of this segment is exceedingly well done, however, with some comically feuding gangsters fighting over divvying up Gotham's neighborhoods and Batman's use of the bullet shield having some unexpected consequences. This is a visually impressive entry despite its story shortcomings, with some excellent use of perspective and inventive framings (a hole in one is shown from the cup's point of view).
With all of the recent hoo-hah over Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) in recent Blu-Ray releases like the Director's Cut of Dark City, I had to wonder if director Yasuhiro Aoki opted for the other end of the spectrum which I can only assume might be called Digital Noise Augmentation (DNA?) with "In Darkness Dwells". I have to believe that Aoki intentionally filled this episode with enough animated grain to make you think your Blu-Ray player needs an immediate firmware upgrade to stop the pixellation. Aside from this patently bizarre visual presentation decision, the episode otherwise is one of the strongest in the set, with two, (count 'em), two villains, Scarecrow and Killer Croc, working in tandem with yet another Arkham Asylum connection. Though there are enough plot threads left dangling in this brief episode to leave most anyone scratching their heads (why does Killer Croc suddenly appear, only to imbue Batman with hallucinogenic toxin, and then disappear again as quickly as he came in, for instance), this is one of the more enjoyable thrill rides of this set and nicely opens up the final trio of episodes which rely more specifically on the Batman Begins mythos.
My personal favorite in Batman: Gotham Knight was far and away Toshiyuki Kubooka's "Working Through Pain," which derives its title from a quick throwaway line by Batman in the previous episode. This visually resplendent and intriguingly scripted episode gives us some fascinating background information into Bruce Wayne's travels to India as he sought to attain Yogi-like control over pain. These memories play out against the "present" sequences, where a severely wounded Batman attempts to make his way up through the sewer system (why is Batman so thoroughly "underground" throughout some of these episodes, I wonder) back to Alfred's helping hands. The interplay between the two time periods is deftly handled with some really interesting segues, and the script in this particular outing finally is equal to the visuals, despite some patently simplistic dialogue.
Gotham Knight comes to a rather sudden end with "Deadshot," Jong-Sik Nam's take on the unerringly accurate sharpshooter nemesis of Batman. This is a pretty by-the-numbers piece, with Deadshot purportedly out to get Gordon. There are some nice effects associated with Deadshot's early killing (a bullet's eye point of view, for example), and overall the animation finally lightens up a bit (literally) after several pretty dank episodes. If only the pat plot had had a little bit more meat on its bones, Gotham Knight could have gone out with a bigger bang.
You might be lured into thinking Batman: Gotham Knight will be a reference quality disc due to its brilliantly saturated and startlingly clear opening episode. Unfortunately that excitement will probably dim right along with the color palettes used for the bulk of the rest of the episodes. It's not unusual to expect differences in quality when you're dealing with different animators, but the overall quality of this 1080p (VC-1) transfer really doesn't fully exploit Blu-Ray's potential. Some of this is due to obviously conscious choices some animators have made, like imbuing their scenes with softening fog and mist effects, but the overall visual presentation of this enhanced 1.85:1 transfer is just a tad lackluster.
The big news is there's no lossless track included on Gotham Knight. That said, the DD 5.1 mix is relatively robust, with excellent use of all channels (weighted slightly to the front end) and some fantastic sound effects thrown into the mix. Dialogue and underscore all remain well reproduced and crystal clear. There are also DD 2.0 Spanish and German soundtracks available, as well as subtitles in English, Spanish and German. If you set your player's startup language to Japanese, there is also a Japanese 5.1 track and subtitles available. Why Warner decided to do that this way is anyone's guess.
There are some great extras on this Blu-Ray (all of them in SD), chief among them for me the fascinating look at Batman's creator, Bob Kane, in "Batman and Me," which utilizes a lot of archival footage featuring Kane himself. There's also a neat featurette on the many villains of the Batman universe, entitled "A Mirror for the Bat." Moving down the quality chain we have four episodes from "Batman: The Animated Series" and a storyboard-laden sneak peak at the upcoming Wonder Woman animated feature. Finally there's a middling to occasionally interesting commentary featuring DC Comics executive Gregory Novick, Batman's voice Kevin Conroy and Batman editor Dennis O'Neil giving an at times too sparse look at the project. Personally I would have loved to have heard from some of the writers and even moreso from the directors themselves, but perhaps language issues prevented that.
Gotham Knight has some great moments interspersed with some pretty run of the mill material. Visually impressive less of the time than one might hope, it still has enough moodiness and allure to satisfy most Batman fans of the brooding type. Whether or not this Blu-Ray is worth a purchase is probably a judgment call, so I suggest an evening's rental to begin with. However, there's enough content here to justify an overall Recommended rating.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet