Batman: Gotham KnightReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/15/08 00:14:07
(Worth A Look)
Few comic book characters are as flexible to interpretation as Batman. While heroes like Superman and Spider-Man remain relatively fixed in terms of costume design, attitude, backstory, and storytelling range (any much publicized variations always end quickly), Batman is open to an endless variety: pick up any ten Batman comics, and you’re likely to find ten completely different stylized takes on the character and his universe. Indeed, several anthology collections (such as “Batman: Black & White”) invite writers and artists to stretch the boundaries of the hero’s external and internal designs; could any other comic book icon invite such storytelling diversity?This makes the Caped Crusader the perfect fit for an anthology like “Batman: Gotham Knight,” a direct-to-video effort made to ride the hype of “The Dark Knight” yet thrilling enough to stand smartly on its own. “Gotham Knight” steals its premise from a similar Warner Bros. project, “The Animatrix.” That film asked several top anime directors to offer their own visions of the “Matrix” universe, the animated short films tying together to act as something of a bridge between the first and second live-action films in that franchise. “Gotham Knight” does mostly the same thing - call it “The Batmanimatrix” - and it does it quite well. The variations aren’t as dissimilar as one might hope (the sameness of the anime style limits how far the designers go), but as something of a Whitman’s Sampler of the darker side of Batman mythology, it’s enough to please.
The six stories here are linked slightly, each one carrying something from its predecessor, which allows for a nice flow. The film starts with “Have I Got a Story for You,” in which several kids trade tales of their recent encounters with Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy, a tip of the hat to the 1990s cartoons that originally cast him in the role), the twist being nobody quite gets it right. One boy swears Batman is a robot, a girl insists he’s a giant flying bat, and so on. It’s quite similar to “Legends of the Dark Knight,” an episode from “The New Batman Adventures” that played with a youthful misinterpretation of memories; “Story” loses the visual hook of that episode (namely, the animators got to play with an assortment of retro comic book styles) but holds tightly as a story thanks to a gradual unfolding of a single chase between Batman and a masked villain. It also helps set the tone for the rest of the film: prepare for changes.
In “Crossfire,” two detectives - one who praises Batman’s vigilante work and one who despises it - get trapped in the middle of a gangland shoot-out. Light on story but heavy on style, “Crossfire” is eager to push the film’s PG-13 rating by emphasizing the anime genre’s love for guns and gunfire. Quite visually striking, the segment paradoxically works best before the gunplay, when the slim story is allowed a chance to breathe.
“Field Test” follows more of those gangsters as Batman tries out a bullet deflecting device invented by Lucius Fox. Obviously intended as a close tie to “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (with emphasis on the gadget-making), the chapter expands quite nicely on the morals of our hero, providing a counterpoint to the high body count of the Nolan films and, more importantly, the gun fetishism of the previous short. While that chapter allowed a villain to dodge hundreds of shots unscathed, “Field Test” shows the more likely outcome of a single bullet.
Killer Croc and Scarecrow pop up for “In Darkness Dwells,” an action-oriented short set in the sewers of Gotham. The short aims to mesh the realistic feel of “Batman Begins” with the fantasy elements of Batman’s more outlandish villains. It works well enough, with a grimy mood providing plenty of atmosphere. A brisk pace keeps the action moving forward at a steady clip.
Bruce Wayne’s training is the focus of “Working Through Pain.” A seriously injured Batman remembers his time spent studying in India, where he learned to accept pain and use it to his advantage. More than just another yarn of how Bruce became a human hyperbole (oh, how writers love telling us how Batman learned to do the impossible), “Pain” finds some nice character elements: Bruce’s teacher overcomes the hatred of her neighbors; she later frowns upon Bruce’s potentially careless decision to turn to violence. The result is a multilayered work that mixes tight suspense with a curious study of anger and hate.
The closing chapter “Deadshot” deals with Batman’s previous discovery of a pile of guns hidden beneath the city. These weapons act as temptation to Bruce, who admits he understands the allure of the damn things. As if to highlight this point, this final chapter has as its villain the assassin Deadshot, whose skills are shown as something to applaud. This short is all action, from the “Wanted”-style glorified gunplay to a dazzling brawl atop a speeding train. A few flashbacks to young Bruce’s days as a volunteer in some third world war hospital are a nice touch, but they don’t gel with the rest of the short as well as the other flashbacks do. There’s less emphasis this time on the psychology of our dark hero, leaving “Deadshot” to offer exhilarating action but somewhat shallow drama.All six shorts squeeze into a snug 75 minute running time, which keeps everything rolling ahead quite nicely, calling it a day before the gimmick of the style-centric shorts runs thin. And although its dark tone and experimental style might limit its audience to lifelong fanboys, those fanboys will be rewarded with sleek, bite-sized adventures that, more often than not, satisfy any Batman jones.
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