“He ain't no bat and he ain't no spooky livin' shadow!”
Batman is one of only a handful of fictional characters who actually benefits from and possibly needs frequent rebirth and reinterpretation. Other notables in this career-longevity program would include James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. But, Superhero-wise, Batman is unique in that he can weather such metamorphosis, origin tweaks and conceptual re-evaluations. The template may be sacred, but the number of spins the format seems able to handle often appears infinite in diversity and execution. From comics and books to radio, TV and film and, of course, animation, Batman is impervious to the scrutiny that each particular medium places upon him, his phenomenon forever unyielding to psychological and artistic license. Thus, he can be the figurehead of post-World War II propaganda, camped-up by Adam West in the sixties, allied to other DC stalwarts in the Justice League, taken to the future and beyond and ground-down to an urban crusader that could exist on our streets today, and Bob Kane's creation will remain immortal throughout a hundred more transformations that society thrusts upon him, I'm sure.
And so we come to this collection of stories that place differing lights upon the cursed hero and radical visual depictions that place him and his ceaseless quest on a global, as well as ideological platform.
“Yo, wait a minute! Batman never cut nobody's head off! Everybody knows he don't kill no-one.”
The first story, "Have I Got a Story For You," is a neat idea and one that actually sums up this entire project's grand objective in one fell swoop. A group of streetwise kids meet up and swap tales about the now-legendary Batman. Their alleged eye-witness accounts all revolve around the same conflict that the Dark Knight has been having with a crafty criminal who has been laying siege to Gotham. We see various depictions of Batman's powers as interpreted and embellished by the kids' differing idealistic views and eyes-agog opinions. But no-one is surprised when the only one of the teeny-mob who hadn't actually been privileged to have seen one of these furious encounters finally gets to see the real thing up close and personal, and, even have a hand in the outcome of the skirmish. The animation is neither entrancing nor kinetic, the style far too impressionistic. Batman is a living shadow, able to slither in and out of the frame like a ghost - which is a nice idea - but his more static appearance is overly caricatured and cartoonish ... big body on tiny little stick-legs a bit like some of the more amusing Hellboy incarnations that have appeared in the comic-books over the years. The look is odd and geometric, characters blocky and hyper-stylised against settings that are tangible, detailed and totally at odds with those moving about in front of them. It is a unique look and not one that I find appealing. But, something that is definitely in this entry's favour is that fact that it plays out almost entirely in bright, broad daylight - which you have to admit is a refreshing slant on the Bat's normally nocturnal activities. Curiously, this element is something that I only really picked up on after the story concluded. “Have I Got A Story For You” is written by Josh Olson of A History Of Violence fame and directed by TekkonKinkreet's Shoujirou Nishima.
“Are you in pain?”
“I work through pain.”
Crossfire brings us back to the movie-addition of the Narrows, Gotham's little island-within-the-city that houses the ultra-lower-class and, of course, Arkham Asylum, now notoriously left at the mercy of the escaped lunatics that Ra's Al-Ghul freed during Christopher Nolan's movie. With two cops - who look suspiciously similar to the ethnic partners who pursued our hero in his first season of The Batman, one of whom went on to become Clayface - transporting a crim to Arkham, a process that means having to cross the no-man's land of villain controlled urban wasteland once the security-controlled bridge has been lifted behind them, the scene is set for a ferocious gun-battle between two heavily armed organised gangs with the unlucky escorts stuck in the crossfire. A fair bit of bickering about the Bat's practicality and vigilantism becomes moot when the Caped Crusader drops in to save the day and the story does chalk up quite a bodycount. An iconic image of the hero standing amidst the flames of a burning hulk is possibly the highpoint of this all-too-brief drama that, when all said and done, doesn't offer us much that is new to the character. “Crossfire” is written by Greg Rucka and directed by Futoshi Higashide.
The third tale, “Field Test” is decidedly poor, though. Visually, it is gorgeous to look at - full of wild colours and neon-saturated vistas - but this also contains the worst-looking Bruce Wayne and the most horrid bat-cowl, that more resembles a Battle Of The Planets-style helmet than Batman's mask. With Wayne now looking too ridiculously young for Kevin Conroy's voice to suit him, and his face that rather clichéd anime-staple of huge eyes and diamond-shaped bone-structure leading to a microscopic pointed chin, this is not Batman. Here we have a simple tale revolving around a new protective device from Lucius Fox that will make Batman bullet-proof, but also one that will ultimately reveal a rather tritely handled observation about his sacrificial crusade. Beautiful imagery, but a quite bland and pointless story from Futoshi Higashide.
“Gotta say, this place gives me the creeps. A whole island abandoned to madness.”
“This whole city's abandoned to madness.”
Once we reach the fourth story things finally start to pick up. “In Darkness Dwells” features Killer Croc - albeit briefly - and the Scarecrow, both cooking up some menace down in the dank sewers beneath Gotham to which they have spirited a poor priest. Batman goes below into a virtual netherworld of subterranean forgotten people - down and outs, vagrants and crazies - and witnesses, first hand, the bizarre and unearthly society that they have carved out for themselves amid the glazed terror of Scarecrow's patented fear-toxin. The most intensely film-like of the selection, this story has an intentionally grainy and distorted image that, if I'm honest, detracts from what is, in actual fact, a great little vignette from David S. Goyer that definitely taps into his screenplay for Batman Begins. This is the “creepy” Batman story that relies on skewed angles, Spielberg fish-eye-lens zooms and wonderful tracking shots along rank sewers. Topside is massively gothic, whilst the underworld is literally, as well as figuratively, hellish. This is also a moment where Batman reverts to being a detective again, and this is a welcome facet that, these days, is all too often forgotten. But I'm just not fussed on the visual design of the tale and it doesn't help that Killer Croc is very disappointingly drawn and gone in the blink of an eye, either. Still, “In Darkness Dwells”, as directed by Yasuhiro Aoki, is the best of the bunch, so far.
“Now why would someone want to shoot me, Mr. Fox?”
“Let's just say your boyish charm may not work with everybody.”
Next up is a story that I first thought was a severe disappointment, but have since viewed again and found to be much more intelligent and thought-provoking. Written by Brian Azzarello and directed by Toshiyuki Kubooka, “Working Through Pain” is a sort of follow-on from the previous tale, with an injured Batman remembering events from his past, his “learning days”, as he battles to survive a bloody wound and escape from the sewers. Told essentially via flashbacks to his time in India, this features some ravishing imagery. The countryside and gardens are simply radiant and there is an astonishingly jaw-dropping red sunset that you think couldn't look any better - until it then segues into a wondrous, lilac-hued twilight. Detailing a feminine influence upon the fledgling Bat, from another social outcast, this also features a nice Matrix-style brawl that splashes blood across walls, boasts a now-clichéd slow-mo somersault and even offers up a great gob of gunk hoofed from the mouth of one yob as he is gut-kicked into oblivion. I suppose what really made me re-think this tale was listening to esteemed Bat-book writer Denny O'Neil on the commentary track as he made a terrific point about the visual metaphor right at the very end of the vignette - about Batman being literally weighed-down by crime and violence. The lingering final image certainly proves this powerful statement, all right.
“I must say, Batman, that's the first time anyone's tried to stop my gunfire by running into it.”
But by far the best story on the disc - both visually and in terms of plot and overall style - is “Deadshot”. Here we get to see the bruising conflict between Batman and the aristocratic super-sniper whom we believe, at first, has been hired to kill Jim Gordon. Actually tying-in quite nicely with the recent cinema release of the Jolie/McAvoy comic adaptation “Wanted”, this also features dynamic bullet-play, a splashy head-shot and a riveting action set-piece atop a speeding train. Indeed, the episode barrels along like a runaway locomotive from the very start, wasting no time with needless exposition nor bogging its momentum down with knowing asides or unnecessary thoughtful interludes on the psychology of it all - barring Wayne's professional fascination with guns, that is. Clean, linear and relentless, this is the disc's showstopper and really makes you wish that this was the tone that the rest of the stories had adopted also. The animation is striking, too. One glorious moment tracks the course of a bullet from leaving Deadshot's barrel to entering a target's skull across an epic chasm between high-rises. Another provides the incredible lengths to which the assassin will go to in order to acquire his shot - the split-second timing between two passing trains, whilst he is actually on board one of them is a wonderfully constructed set-piece. This is a powerhouse of a tale, masterfully written by Alan Burnett whilst its actual director's identity is still in confusion. Friction behind the scenes may account for the likely candidate having had his name removed, but “Deadshot” remains a mini-classic, nonetheless.
Despite the series having a tenuous overarching link - events do tie-in with one another and there is a sense that we are building up to something - the one real constant that we have throughout all these visual guises is the voice of a returning Kevin Conroy, perhaps now “the” vocal interpretation of choice for Batman. However, as I've already said, the voice does not necessarily fit all the incarnations on display. It is nice to hear another familiar tone amongst the vocal talent, that of veteran TV star David McCallum as Alfred. But even if each story is perfectly accessible as a go-it-alone mini-adventure, their running times are distressingly slight, and I hope that any further instalments in this style will be expanded upon.
“Alfred, how's the satellite picture?”
“Splendid, sir. I can almost see your pointy ears ...”
The sticker on the packaging on the disc makes great reference to this being Batman's first PG-13-rated animated adventure and the stories herein are certainly a tad grimmer and more explicitly violent than most that have gone before, but don't go expecting too much. Whilst there are dead bodies aplenty and blood on show throughout, there is nothing too troubling here. A gory operation aside as well as a surprising decapitation, these stories are more adult in tone simply by virtue of the maturity and/or narrative abstraction that they showcase, meaning that younger minds more in-tune with constant battling may find them dry and unappealing.
Ultimately, Gotham Knight is not as compelling as you may think. The hodgepodge of tales found here rarely hit the right buttons, merely going through the motions and only half-heartedly attempting to break new ground. Anime-fans may find something more satisfying in the project but, as far as I am concerned, this collection struggles to consistently deliver the goods. The potpourri-style, in itself, isn't a problem, although I would have liked the stories to have had a little bit more time to breathe - they rush by far too quickly and run the risk of leaving you feeling slightly short-changed - and the bridging effect that this collection was apparently meant to have had between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is not convincingly accomplished but, that said, there is room in the Bat-mythos for these meanderings and, seriously, no Bat-fan is going to pass this release up anyway, whatever I say about it. But, once you've got through this vaguely unfulfilling smorgasbord, you are bound to be consumed by the desire to watch either the original Animated Series, the neon-stippled revamp of The Batman show or either Keaton or Bale don the costume for some live-action crime-fighting again.
A brave endeavour, certainly, but Gotham Knight is still sadly rather a dull and un-involving affair that seemed to promise so much but neglected to pack much in the way of mood or atmosphere until the second half of the six stories. Play these last three together and you've got a terrific Batman triple-whammy. But three out of six isn't so good, is it?
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