Short version: Gotham Knight sucks.
Long, painful version: Gotham Knight is the latest direct-to-DVD release to sport the DC Universe Animated Original Movie label. Yeah, a real mouthful. Universe Animated Original…blah. Too many vowels. The label bears no relation, continuity-wise, to the DC animated universe (or DCAU) established by animators Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Glen Murakami and others. So these flicks have nothing to do with the stories told in Batman Beyond or Justice League Unlimited.
It’s a nifty idea to keep the enormous roster of DC characters and stories alive in animation but limited run times, inferior writing and some just plain bad voice work keep these alternate universe movies – just Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier so far – from being anything more than a rental.
Gotham Knight is the latest stab at this DC character cartoon thing. Besides it’s obvious cross-market tie-in with The Dark Knight the biggest thing about Gotham Knight is the anime aesthetic. It consists of six short cartoons done in the anime style from various animation studios, written by bonafide comic book authors like Josh Olson (A History of Violence), Greg Rucka (Queen and Country, Batman: Death and the Maidens) and Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, a heavy-handed run of Superman with artist Jim Lee). Listening to the guys behind the project talk about it you’d think they were on to something momentous. Indeed, the potential for a “Batmanime” is vast. (The potential is usually vast for animation – budget and imagination is your limit. So it’s a wonder why, considering the tons of work it takes to make an animated production, so much of it is so bad.) They set out their goals: Bring Batman into anime, bring anime to a whole new audience, explore all new creative possibilities! And the names involved. Bruce Timm, one of the DCAU founding fathers, returns in a vague “executive producer” role. The voice of Batman, Kevin Conroy, returns to bring the Bat to life once more. The back of the box claims “6 Interlocking Stories. 6 Acclaimed Directors. One Groundbreaking Masterpiece.”
Hoo boy, well, forgive me for being disappointed.
What a missed opportunity. Aside from a few glimmers of eye candy and one stand-out installment Gotham Knight aims straight for the middle. The stories are dull and only interlock in a way that you get some Batman Begins references and a black cop Greg Rucka made up shows up twice. Too bad he and the rest of the characters are weak. The directors involved are total mysteries, who they are or why they’re acclaimed isn’t apparent at all. I had to scour Wikipedia and message boards to find out who did what. And the animation, the anime style that is the whole point of all this? It’s all over the board. The voice acting sucks. Nobody fits, and if they do it is barely passable. You have to try pretty fucking hard to make Kevin Conroy, who’s played the role since 1992, feel out of place as Batman. He just doesn’t fit at times and other times he sounds bored. It’s great they included him, an obvious selling point for fans frothing at the mount for more animated Batman, but it’s odd he’s Batman all the time considering these are supposed to be different versions of Batman and they all sound the same.
However, I suppose they delivered on their promise. This looks like anime Batman. The exaggerated expressions and overstylized designs are all there but the stories lack the underlying psychological tension, the classic tropes, the samurai and ronin analogies you would think an anime based on Batman would have. You’d think there’d be one little link to Japan or Japanese culture besides the visuals. Gotham Knight feels like fan art. It’s all surface. Some of it is crisp and cinematic, some of it is Yu-Gi-Oh-grade garbage. But I’ll get to that.
The first offering opens the Animatrix-esque collection quite well with a story called “Have I Got a Story For You” about urban youth trading stories about their respective encounters with Batman. A throwback to the American Batman Animated Series episode “Legends of the Dark Knight”, which features the exact same scenario. Kids in Gotham relate stories about Batman as he’s interpreted through the ages: a childish 50s-themed Batman with a benign Joker and giant instruments, to an 80s-theme Frank Miller Batman with female Robin – an animated representation of Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.
“Have I Got a Story For You” offers the same general formula. A kid describes what Batman is like then the next kid says “You’re whack, this is what Batman is really like!” and we see what he describes. Batman is remade over and over anyway, so it feels imprudent to complain about the “been there, done that” feel of the episode. It’s also a fun, fitting way to open a whole anthology of different Batmans. Some of the kid’s interpretations – Batman as a shadow beast, Batman as a mech – aren’t all that creative design-wise but the way they move is cool to watch. The animation, done by Studio 4C (looks like the TekkonKinkreet guys took a whack at this) is fantastic – everyone moves fluidly and the Manhattan-inspired Gotham City is detailed to an insane degree. Unfortunately, the dialogue is awful as it tries so hard to make the kids sound urban and hip though I’m sure it’s neither. It’s just bad, and makes me wonder if Josh Olson is really Josh Olson Jr. or something.
“Crossfire” features two boring Gotham detectives waiting for Batman to show up, and it also shares similarities with a Rashomon-inspired DCAU episode of Batman called “P.O.V.” In both stories Gotham cops argue the value of Batman amidst fiery settings. Unlike “P.O.V.”, “Crossfire” has lots of poorly-delivered, poorly-written dialogue (“He’s a vigilante.” “He’s not.” “He’s a vigilante, Anna!”), and when Batman finally does show up to punch mobsters in the face it has all the punch of a wet ham sandwich. It’s too bad because the episode really wants to feel like his arrival is a big deal. Every character gets a big fat close-up with a typical “UWAAA!” anime surprised expression scribbled across their faces. It looks a lot like this emoticon: [:0 but with more rows of impossibly white teeth. Batman also walks through flame like he’s Sephiroth, which may be cool to some Final Fantasy fangirls, but the effect is dampened by the low, lousy soundtrack and, uh, oh yeah, it’s boring anyway.
If there’s one remarkable thing about this episode it’s the Italian mobster cleverly named Sal Maroni, who is voiced by Rob Paulsen. He did the voices for Yakko Warner, Pinky (of “and the Brain”), Mighty Max, Raphael the Ninja Turtle and about a few hundred billion other cartoon characters. If you’ve been watching cartoons as long as I have it’s easy to pick him out. Fun fact: He’s the production assistant in Brian De Palma’s Body Double whose one line of dialogue is … well, I don’t want to spoil it because I sort of half-recommend the movie but it’s not something you’d expect to hear on Animaniacs.
Mwah! Good night, everybody!
Wait, I was talking about “Crossfire.” Yeah, it takes place after Batman Begins. As Gordon says at the end of that, the Narrows is lost and Arkham inmates run wild all over the island. The cops go there to drop off some criminal, dunno or care why none of it made much sense or mattered, and you’re treated to some shots of the madness. None of it’s very mad at all, just stills of prisoners with toothy grins. Like everyone’s astonishment at Batman it’s very lame and smacks of laziness. The animation is very limited, with no attempt to match the voicework to the characters’ mouth movements. This is one of the major instances where Kevin Conroy doesn’t fit. He sounds so friendly, coming out of this supposed-to-be-fearsome flame retardant Batman. Bleh. The other really remarkable thing about this one is the studio behind it – Production I.G. a.k.a guys behind Ghost in the Shell and End of Evangelion. They must’ve called in the auxiliary team for this one, or scabbed some guys from the Yu-Gi-Oh studio, because that’s what It looks like: bad.
With animation by Bee Train, the studio behind .hack and Noir, the next episode, “Field Test”, doesn’t look too shabby, despite the bishounen character design of Bruce Wayne. Resembling Death Note‘s Light Yagami, though lacking hat character’s flair for foresight, this Bruce Wayne is sort of a dope. For some reason Wayne asks Lucius Fox to build a sci-fi gizmo that repels bullets with a force field. Odd since this is the Batman Begins universe and Fox already bestowed Wayne with bullet-proof armor in that movie. So why an extraneous force field? Why can’t Wayne see what harm could come from bullets bouncing off of him? Of course, his contraption gets a thug injured and Batman feels bad. He takes the thug to the hospital in the Batmobile but … forgets to disarm the guy. The guy, still in the Batmobile, waves his gun around in front of the hospital until Batman yells at him to stop. The end.
“Field Test” isn’t just dull and pointless, it makes the characters morons for its pointless, artificial drama. What exactly is the deal with the Q-Bond relationship between Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne? At the beginning of “Field Test” it finally looks solidified – Fox knows he’s Batman. He’s building a FORCE FIELD GENERATOR DESIGNED TO REPEL BULLETS so it’s pretty clear he knows he’s Batman’s gadget hound now. But at the end they still flirt with each other as if Fox has no idea he’s really Batman. What?? This is definitely the dumbest of Gotham Knight‘s lot, a pity too because it’s the one with the most confusing element that somehow works. Somehow Conroy’s voice fits the kawaii Bruce Wayne. Sometimes. I doubt anyone will agree with me on this, but, there it is. Damn those Japanese animators and their bland-yet-attractive designs. Maybe it’s the relatively improved dialogue. (Fox: “Marco’s reputation is getting a little too shady for me.” Wayne: “I like the shade.”) Maybe I just want a better Death Note / Batman mash-up.
“In Darkness Dwells” is written by David Goyer (co-writer of Batman Begins and writer-director of Blade: Trinity) and animated by Madhouse, who did Death Note and Cardcaptor Sakura. The animation looks pretty good in this one. Augh. Sometimes. When Batman fights and does stuff it’s cool but the lip synching, once more, is just awful. There’s clearly no attempt to match the voices with the mouths, and it is distracting. Kevin Conroy still doesn’t sound like he gels at all in this universe. This one is also talky and slow but has the distinction of actually having villains from Batman’s rogues gallery. That alone nets it a few points since the other entries couldn’t be bothered to instill interesting things in their work. The dark character designs remind me of Mike Mignola. Lots of heavy blacks especially Killer Croc who looks like a demon pulled straight from the pages of Hellboy. Huh. If only they got Mignola involved in this, the story and writing, which involves Batman saving a rabbi from the sewers by exploding methane gas, might suck less. At least Batman kind of looks like Michael Keaton this time.
Studio 4C gets it right again in “Working Through Pain.” The frame story has Batman, bleeding and beaten, trudging through Gotham’s sewers. He flashbacks to his time in India studying with a babe who specializes in pain management. The story jumps between past and present, linked together with classy graphic matches. It’s symbolic and cool and the writing, animation and direction is definitely the best Gotham Knight has to offer. It has the most impressive pedigree as well, as far as I could discern. Directed by Toshiyuki Kubooka, the animation director for Gunbuster, Giant Robo and Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, he also designed the characters in the Lunar RPG series. The short’s overall look, the way the characters move as well as the “flat”, crisp visual design resembles Morimoto Koji’s Magnetic Rose – always a plus. The flashback/flashforward nature of the story keeps it unpredictable. It’s the talkiest of the bunch but every line of Brian Azzarello’s dialogue has some meaning for Bruce and his future (or rather, present). It’s also the bloodiet, has the best fight scene of the whole anthology and it is the saddest entry. The best Batman stories never end well and “Working Through Pain” shows how bleak and futile Batman’s struggle is. The last line and image ought to strike a chord in every Batfan’s Batheart. If isn’t clear by now this is easily the best short in the anthology. It does way more than just show Batman in a badass pose. The amount of effort and emotion clearly on display should have been Gotham Knight‘s standard.
“Deadshot” stands out not only as Madhouse’s return for animation duty with a more Ninja Scroll-inspired look, but it works as an entertaining little story despite how stupid it is. Consider that Batman flies more than he glides. Consider the dumb Matrix-y slowdown during the shooting segments. Consider the beginning when Bruce Wayne picks up a handgun and talks about how he understands the allure of a firearm. It’s understandable Batman would know how to handle a gun, it would help to know how to disarm criminals. His little speech also gets the story going (about an assassin named Deadshot who, yup, is gonna use a gun to kill James Gordon) but watching Bruce Wayne pick up a pistol from his collection and say “Yeah, I get why they like to shoot these” is akin to Superman taking a cab. Or, uh, holding a gun. It’s just weird. The animation varies a lot too. Sometimes there’ll be cool camerawork and some creative angles, then there’s a shot of people in a train that looks like a still because nobody’s moving. Total bullshit. However, despite everything against it “Deadshot” emerges as Gotham Knight‘s third-best short though it trails far behind Studio 4C’s output. Well, they all do.
It may be asking much for a scant 6 minute cartoon to satisfy on all levels but that’s the difference between a Gotham Knight and an Animatrix or the DCAU. I cannot recommend this as a purchase (it’s on blu-ray and there’s a special two-disc thing too) but if you can rent it or see it on demand definitely check it for “Working Through The Pain.” It’s gets Batman and his plight right. The other Studio 4C short, “Have I Got a Story For You” and “Deadshot” aren’t too bad either. So I guess they got this anime thing half-right. I’d say Batman animation fans deserve better than this but we already got the best more than a decade ago.