Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Jul 8th 2008
Batman: Gotham Knight
6 short films that weave a tale about the Dark Knight himself, Batman, battling the mob, dealing with pain management and fighting off Killer Croc, the Scarecrow and a hyper-talented assassin named Deadshot.
Batman: Gotham Knight is a series of 6 vignettes, written by 6 different American writers and directed by 6 different Japanese animation directors that kinda-sorta connect to one another. There's an attempt here to tell a cohesive narrative, but these really are six different stories; the Warner Bros. marketing is selling this as a “bridge” to fill in the gap between director Chris Nolan's remarkable Batman Begins and his upcoming sequel, The Dark Knight, but that isn't entirely the case; this is standalone material and anyone remotely familiar with the Batman mythos will be right at home without any further explanation. The only problem is that it's pretty uneven and never really rises above “mediocre, leaning toward decent”.
The film opens with Have I Got A Story For You, which involves a group of 4 skaters who all tell differing stories about the time they each saw Batman. In every story Batman looks and behaves differently; at times a beast, others a machine (with a mask that alludes to this summer's other most popular superhero, Iron Man), and in the end – when he inevitably shows up – a pudgy, damaged man fighting a mysterious shadowy figure with red-eyed goggles. Directed by Shojirou Nishimi, who did character design for the Tekkonkinkreet movie (and the design here is clearly reminiscent of that film), this is the most light-hearted of the six stories in Gotham Knight, and does its job setting up the basic premise of the film: six teams, each with a different vision, bringing Batman to life.
The next short, Crossfire, is easily the weakest on the disc. Directed by relative newcomer Futoshi Higashide (whose previous credits are composed mostly of inbetween animation and some key animation on the popular moe-fest Air), it's stilted, poorly written and cheaply animated. If there's a lone example in this film of how specifically not to use anime as a means to showcase creative and visual flair, this is it. The dialogue is uniformly terrible and the dub feels weak. The story is very simple; two detectives, one a big Batman fan and the other a skeptic who thinks he's a dangerous vigilante, deliver a criminal to Arkham Asylum, which is now an entire island. They find themselves in the middle of a mob war between the Russians and the Italians (a plot thread that weaves through most of the rest of the film), and Batman shows up to save them when they get caught in the – wait for it – crossfire! That's all there is to it.
This leads into one of the stronger stories in the film, Field Test. This is probably the most traditional short film in Gotham Knight; it looks like high-end anime with very stereotypical character designs (ask yourself if you'd ever really want to see bishonen Bruce Wayne; if the answer is yes, this will be your personal favorite). Field Test finds Wayne testing out a new high-tech system for deflecting bullets, developed by genius inventor Lucius Fox (who fans will remember from Batman Begins, played there by Morgan Freeman and here by veteran voice actor Kevin Michael Richardson). When he uses it in the middle of a heated battle between the aforementioned mob bosses, he accidentally deflects a bullet straight into a gangster's chest, and since Batman doesn't kill people he winds up having to take the guy to the hospital and shelves his new bullet-deflecting technology. It's nothing particularly special, but it's not bad.
Up next is In Darkness Dwells, which finds Batman skulking around in Gotham's dangerous sewers, searching for Killer Croc, who's been tainted by the hallucinogenic toxins employed by the Scarecrow. It's all action, nicely animated if a bit confusing in the storytelling. The angles are razor sharp and very distinctive, and the character designs are simple and fluid. This one was directed by Yasuhiro Aoki, a Madhouse mainstay who also directed the pilot episode of Tweeny Witches. It's entertaining enough but, like all the other shorts in this collection, it lacks any weight. Batman fights Killer Croc, thwarts the Scarecrow, the end.
The penultimate short is Working Through Pain, wherein Bruce Wayne seeks out the aid of a guru in India to help him, uh, work through the pain. The guru is an outcast in her own village and is feared and hated as a witch, but she has a remarkable technique that negates the effects of physical pain. She mentors Wayne, who learns her spiritual message and eventually confronts a local gang of thugs, taking a glass bottle to the head with little more than a shrug. Working Through Pain is easily the best-written short on the disc and if the better-than-average storytelling quality in this one was spread around a little more, Gotham Knight would've been a much more successful venture.
Finally, there's Deadshot, a remarkably silly story about a tremendously skilled assassin who's taking down Gotham elites one by one. Batman finds him and takes him out, but not before delivering lame Spider-man style one-liners while Deadshot monologues in true supervillain fashion. Oddly enough, this was clearly supposed to be the centerpiece of the film; images from Deadshot are used all over the marketing for Gotham Knight and the animation is top-notch, with Yoshiaki Kawajiri-style character designs. Problem is the story is really poorly-executed and way too short. If this is supposed to be the crown jewel in this anthology, color me surprised. It does attempt to tie up all the simplistic themes explored briefly in the other shorts, but it does so while simultaneously being clunky and lame.
Ultimately the problem with Batman: Gotham Knight is that it basically amounts to nothing. None of the stories are particularly well-told (Working Through Pain being the lone exception) and due to the bizarre decision to try to weave certain story elements into all 6 films without requiring a solid straightforward narrative, the result is a bunch of disaffecting, lightweight stories that have less depth than your average single-issue comic book. It simply doesn't go anywhere and accomplishes nothing. Had they gone the route of The Animatrix – telling distinct, self-contained stories, perhaps with longer individual run times – or took cues from standard feature-length DC animated films and just told a normal narrative, Gotham Knight probably would've worked out. Unfortunately the creative decision to try and blend the two cripples the film.
It's important to note that Warner is really downplaying the anime angle; nowhere on the disc outside of the closing credits is there any mention of the Japanese directors who brought their unique styles to the shorts in this anthology. With The Animatrix, there was a clear focus on the Japanese side of production, and even a documentary that introduced new viewers to anime as a medium. Not so much with Gotham Knight – there is much celebration of the well-known American writers who scripted the short films, but there isn't even a making-of documentary that spotlights the Japanese directors. Obviously the aim here is to sell Gotham Knight primarily to Batman fans rather than anime fans, but some recognition, perhaps some interviews, in the special features would've been nice.
There isn't anything particularly good – outside of the animation, and the film's uniformly beautiful background art that depicts Gotham as a filthy, crumbling metropolis – nor anything particularly bad about Gotham Knight, which makes it tough to really recommend it to anyone who doesn't count themselves as a devoted Bat-fanatic. Even they might find the writing to be extremely mediocre, especially when compared to previous animated efforts like the classic 1992 series Batman: The Animated Series, which was lauded again and again for its excellent writing. In fact, on the 2-disc DVD and Bluray special edition versions of this film, Warner saw fit to include 4 sterling episodes from that cartoon. They serve as a reminder of what Gotham Knight could've been, rather than the uneven, uninvolving and ultimately forgettable film it is.
Overall : C+
Story : C-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Beautiful background art, some decent fight scenes, it has Batman in it and Batman is pretty cool.
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