Batman: Tales of the Dark Knight is the second collection of episodes from the revered animated series, picking up where the previous volume, The Legend Begins, left off. This disc includes the following four episodes:
The Underdwellers: While investigating reports of kleptomaniacal leprechauns, Batman stumbles upon an underground child slavery ring. Underground in the literal sense, he scours the bowels of Gotham in search of their cruel and domineering master, the aptly-named Sewer King.
P.O.V.: When an important drug sting goes sour, three cops are grilled to determine who was at fault for the botched operation. Detective Bullock is quick to place the blame on the Dark Knight and his fellow officers, while Montoya and Wilkes have a different story entirely. Though their perspectives differ, the sum of their individual accounts may hold the key to shutting down the drug peddlers once and for all.
The Forgotten: The police don't take much notice when homeless men start vanishing mysteriously, so Batman takes it upon himself to go undercover and investigate. People are being kidnapped and spirited off to the gold mine of the sadistic, gluttonous Boss Biggis. This would normally be a job for Batman, but when Bruce is struck over the head in a struggle with his kidnappers, he loses his memory and is enslaved.
Be A Clown: After hearing Mayor Hill boast about the security of his mansion, the Joker arrives in the guise of Jekko the Clown and crashes the birthday party of the Mayor's son. Young Jordan, who feels neglected by his father and takes instantly to Jekko's proficiency with magic, tags along to the Joker's lair at an abandoned amusement park. Eager to train a young protege, the Joker tries to turn Jordan against Batman.
Tales of the Dark Knight hits stores a full year after the release of the first volume, and unfortunately, this follow-up isn't really worth the wait. As appreciated as it is that Warner is releasing the series in production order as opposed to arbitrarily selected "best of..." compilations, that order coupled with the paltry number of episodes per volume managed to collect three of my least favorite first-season episodes onto one disc. Considering that there are only four episodes on this release in total, that doesn't leave a lot left to love.
"The Underdwellers" and "The Forgotten" are both very similar, featuring instantly forgettable one-off villains who lord over a group of downtrodden, isolated slaves. They even each have a shot of the badniks sloppily tearing into a turkey drumstick. The premise isn't strong enough to carry a single episode, let alone two. "The Underdwellers" is unintentional cornball almost from beginning to end, from Batman's preaching of gun safety to the Sewer King's lengthy, repetitive rants. Sample dialogue: "Hurry up! Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry! Are you ready for your lessons? Yes, I think so. I think so. Well, so am I: your teacher, your leader, your king. Ready I am, yes." I wasn't aware David Mamet wrote for Batman. "The Forgotten" is the stronger episode of the two, but only by comparison.
"Be A Clown" is one of the lowest points of the series' first season for the Joker, ranking only incrementally above the dismal "The Last Laugh". Pretty much every episode in the first season that prominently features a young kid in any capacity turned out to be pretty bad. Assuming Warner continues following the same release pattern, the next volume ought to include the similarly unendurable "I've Got A Batman In My Basement". There's not really any sort of grand master plan at work in "Be A Clown". The Joker uneventfully crashes a birthday party chases a kid around an amusement park, and subjects Batman to some minimal torture. Not exactly his finest hour.
"P.O.V." is the disc's only particularly worthwhile episode, though it's worth noting that Batman is almost a secondary character in it. The episode gives the supporting cast a chance to shine. Though the perspectives change, P.O.V. avoids telling the same story three times and three different ways. Keeping the visuals uniform while differing the narration contributes greatly to the episode's charm, especially Bullock's incessant buck-passing and Wilkes' mistaking of Batman's gadgets as superhuman powers.
With only four episodes, one villain with any marquee value, and a single genuinely good episode in the lot, Tales of the Dark Knight is tough to recommend. It's a poor introduction to the animated series for those who haven't had the opportunity to catch it before, and casual fans are like to find the $5-per-episode asking price tough to swallow given the lackluster selection on the disc. Warner really ought to rethink their DVD strategy for Batman: The Animated Series. A second layer on the disc would allow for significantly morre episodes to be tacked onto each release, and I'm sure the fanbase is loyal enough to support more than one volume per year. At the rate things are going now, it'll take close to fifteen years just to get the complete first season on DVD.
Video: Each of the four episodes of Tales of the Dark Knight are presented full-frame, just as they aired during their original run on Fox a decade ago. As a whole, they look decent enough, and sharpness is often a noticeable improvement over what I'd expect from rebroadcasts on cable. Crispness and clarity do seem to vary slightly from shot to shot, and there's a moment in a nightmare sequence in "The Forgotten" where the image appears to go in and out of focus.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio is reasonably rich and full, given the age and small-screen origins of the series. For whatever reason, punches seem to carry more of a resonant low-end kick than explosions, collapsing buildings, or gunfire. Dialogue remains clear and discernable throughout. Tales of the Dark Knight includes soundtracks and subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as closed captions.
Supplements: Producer/director Bruce Timm provides short introductions to all four episodes, running between 45 and 51 seconds each. "Voices of Gotham City" (5:23) is, as the title suggests, a brief overview of the recording process, featuring comments by Bruce Timm, voice director Andrea Romano, and Batman himself, Kevin Conroy. It's not the most detailed discussion, and there disappointingly isn't any footage of the voice cast at work. Romano compensates by giving a runthrough of characters falling and duking it out, complete with "oof"s and "ugh"s. "The Line-Up" is a simple game requiring viewers to identify villains in, you guessed it, a line-up.
The disc features static 16x9-enhanced menus, and each episode has been given its own chapter.
Conclusion: A stronger assortment of episodes would've warranted a much stronger recommendation, but unfortunately, this second volume doesn't come close to the best Batman: The Animated Series has to offer. I'm glad Warner is putting out the series in production order, but the year-long span between volumes and the low number of episodes per release come as a great disappointment. If Tales of the Dark Knight had even just a couple more episodes, I'd probably be a lot more enthusiastic about it. As it is, this compilation of four episodes is only going to appeal to completists. Hopefully more substantial collections are lurking in the wings.