2008’s Batman movie blitz is headlined by The Dark Knight in theaters and Batman Begins finally arriving on Blu-ray. The “other” new Batman film, Batman: Gotham Knight, takes the popular animated route derived from the ongoing TV series and slaps on the first-even PG-13 rating to-boot.
On paper, Gotham Knight is the perfect compliment to the live-action films providing fans yet another adult-targeted Batman adventure. But don’t be fooled by the back of the box, which says the Blu-ray feature includes “six interlocking stories.” The only thing interlocking about these stories is that they all feature Batman. Other than that — as well as a few “big picture” thematic similarities — there’s really is very little commonality among the six short films. And the entire package suffers because of it.
Batman: Gotham Knight starts off showing why it’s the first PG-13 Batman animated release: in the first 12 minutes it has one beheading and a bloody shootout with a Russian gang. The feature is also dark in tone, which is appropriate for a world enamored with Heath Ledger’s Joker in Dark Knight. Yet those same opening 12 minutes are also indicative of the feature’s knack for jolting viewers with disconnected narratives and animation styles.
The Blu-ray Disc is divided into six chapters, each with a different narrative and animation style. The first episode, “Have I Got a Story for You,” sets a disturbing tone for the rest of the chapters. Thematically the concept is sound, as it explores the “urban legend” that Batman could have become if Gotham City were real. This concept is complemented by camera work that moves dramatically during cinematic moments and a fantastic depth-of-field blur as the camera flips between characters. But the characters and vehicles have a decidedly “Pokemon” feel, and the animation on the whole is soft, an ironic realization when one considers the hard outlines of cel-shading. In addition, the camera’s intentional shaky-cam feel is enough to make you feel like you’re having a stroke, and in some cases can actually induce nausea.
Just when it appears Batman: Gotham Knight is going to be too much to bear, the second episode begins with animation that’s much more in line with expectations, and with a Batman character that’s much more in tune with the complex badass one expects to see. The art style of this episode, whether outside an insane asylum or in a gunfight with a Russian gang, mimics a comic book better than any Blu-ray film released. Truly, if comic books were in motion, they would look like this episode. Unfortunately, just as viewers start to “get into” the story, it cuts off abruptly and moves into the third episode.
Called “Field Test,” this third episode has yet another animation style and plot, this time with a much more talkative Batman who follows the age-old belief that Batman will not kill anyone. Ironically, where the art style was at its best in the second episode, it’s this third episode where this “compilation” Blu-ray Disc finds its stride. In addition to the nice soundtrack, this episode includes a more fleshed-out story and begins delving into the actual psyche of Batman as a “man,” not just a superhero. Batman decides at the end of the episode that he’s willing to risk his own life for good, but not someone else’s. But again, just as the content gets compelling, the third episode ends after 12 minutes and moves unceremoniously into the fourth.
“In Darkness Dwells” opens like a theatrical film, with all the surround-sound nuances and cinematic camera moves, but is drawn down to the bottom of the video barrel by one of the grainiest pictures yet to (dis)grace a Blu-ray Disc. In this episode, Batman battles with Scarecrow and the Lizard Man and feels almost like a Terminator in the process with his cyborg-like technology. Unfortunately, all the socio-economic commentary going on in the background is completely undone by the distracting video quality.
“Working Through Pain,” the fourth episode, finally has all the right elements firing on all cylinders. Technically, the short only covers about a 45-second period of time in which Batman is injured and has lost lots of blood. However, during his traumatic rise from the sewers to the street, he has a series of flashbacks that underscore how Bruce Wayne is looking for a way to “deal with his pain.” From excellent editing to outstanding character depth and animation style, this fourth episode really delivers the goods we were expecting from the entire BD presentation. When Bruce Wayne realizes his internal pain is powering a subconscious drive to hurt others, you can almost see the light go on over your own head. Unfortunately, this narrative ends after about 15 minutes, even though it’s the only one that really gets the complex character of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
The final episode, “Deadshot,” tries to wrap the entire collection in a neat bow. It opens with flashbacks of Wayne’s parents’ death, addresses how Batman is obsessed with guns (he finds the power of God in them) and ultimately incorporates the Russians who have been present in three of the other episodes, as they’ve hired an assassin to kill Lieutenant Gordon. By the time Batman saves the day (you knew he would), he realizes that he’s been trying to stop bullets his whole life, and this time he actually succeeded in saving someone he cared about. Hello, depth! Oh, and hello end credits.
During each of these six episodes, Batman: Gotham Knight gets deep for a few split seconds, but its flirtation with a truly compelling plotline is frustrating beyond belief. Had any one of the last three episodes been more fleshed-out, the bonus features wouldn’t be necessary. But with the filmmakers so concerned with experimental art and diversity, the movie never realizes its full potential. In fact, the first bonus feature, the Commentary Track with SVP of Creative Affairs for DC Comics, Gregory Noveck, and former editor of detective comics Denny O’Neil, is actually best viewed before the episodes, not after. In their commentary, the men admit that this is a very different project, as it had six different writers and five different directors, all of whom provide a different point of view and perspective. There’s generally a good rhythm and sense of camaraderie among the men, which doesn’t always come through on commentary tracks, but this one works. It’s a good thing, too, since it’s required viewing/listening for this film.
A Mirror for the Bat (480p, 35:47) is a documentary covering Gotham City’s villains and how they’re actually the yin to Batman’s yang. Outside of the commentary track, this is really the most appropriate bonus feature for this series of episodes, as it explores the core thesis of the last three episodes: who is Batman the man, and what truly motivates him? The villains in Gotham City are a natural thing to focus on, because as the writers discuss, the villains are trying to defeat their inner demons when they go after Batman…and Batman’s doing the same when he goes after his foes. Unfortunately, this fabulous exploration of Batman’s mind is undone by horrible background music and 480p video that downscales the movie footage and makes old footage and interviews look unnecessarily grainy.
The third feature, Sneak Peek at Wonder Woman (10:29, 480p), is the requisite tie-in to get DC Universe fans interested in the upcoming animated film. Even for non Wonder-Woman fans, though, this feature is interesting, as it provides historical context for why Wonder Woman appeared in comics and gives a sneak peek at the upcoming film through animated storyboards.
Continuing that “historical” route, Batman and Me, A Devotion of Destiny (38:25, 480p) is a biography of Bob Kane, the creator of Batman. Through interviews with friends and experts, this feature discusses how Kane basically had to carve his own path in comics, because he was a Jewish boy whose options were really quite limited at the time. The final feature, four bonus episodes from Batman: The Animated Series (480p VC-1 encoding, 1:26:33) includes almost 90 minutes of episodes: “Legends of the Dark Knight,” “Heart of Ice,” “Over the Edge” and “I Am the Night.” They all look fine, albeit a bit soft in 1080p, but if they do anything, they simply reinforce just how unsatisfying the episodes of Batman: Gotham Knight truly are.
Maybe our expectations were too high for Batman: Gotham Knight. After all, this is just a collection of animated shorts. But if Batman: Dark Knight has taught filmgoers anything, it’s that comic books can not only explore deep topics, but do so in compelling ways. Gotham Knight touches on these topics, and in place it even flirts with a satisfying discussion of them, but the disparate stories and short nature of them render this Blu-ray Disc more frustrating than rewarding.