Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Batman: Gotham Knight

This is a bold venture from DC Comics and Warner Brothers, an anime version of Batman from six of Japan’s greatest animators telling six interlocking stories that occur between Batman Begins and the upcoming The Dark Knight. Written by Americans and animated by the Japanese, it is to Batman franchise what The Animatrix was to The Matrix trilogy.

The first tale, animator Shoujirou Nishimi’s “Have I Got a Story for You,” is a fun but bizarre combination of the episodes “Almost Got ‘im” and “Legends of the Dark Knight” (included on the Blu-Ray version of this disc) from “Batman: The Animated Series” with a Rashomon spin. And speaking of the animated series, refreshingly Batman is once again voiced by Kevin Conroy, the grandmaster. Skate punks describe three different Batman sightings to each other before they all see the real thing in action together. Imaginative, twisted and fun.

Greg Rucka and Futoshi Higashide’s “Crossfire” is done in more traditional anime style and surprisingly features Crispus Allen, a character from the Detective and Gotham Central comics, and more notably for the real fanboys and girls out there – he’s the new Spectre. But this is pre-Spec, and he and his partner are ordered to take the techno-maniac –captured in the previous episode- to Arkham. Arguing on the way back about whether Batman is a good thing for Gotham or not, they get caught in a crossfire between rival gangs, Maroni and the Russian. Guess who shows up to save the day? Other than Crispus Allen, there’s not much surprising here. The visuals are exactly what one might imagine when one thinks ‘Batman anime.’

The third segment, “Field Test,” is the one that was previewed early on Comcast OnDemand. The style shows Bruce Wayne as a particularly younger looking individual, skewing from the continuity, and vibing the young heroes who usually inhabit Japanimation. Despite the startling visual, Conroy’s Wayne voice still fits perfectly, maybe even better. The “Field Test” Batman has a very interesting look – sort of Zoltar meets Gyaos meets Jack the Ripper. This segment, besides being a fun story and continuing the thread of the whole package, is also a delightful look at the Bruce Wayne ‘disguise.’

“In Darkness Dwells” brings a new villain to the new Batman universe, one that has been around in the comics (and animation) since the 1980s – Killer Croc. For the uninitiated, Croc is a grotesque reptilian man-monster that fits in perfectly with the rest of Batman’s bizarre rogues gallery of freaks, inhumanly strong and also a cannibal, fun for all. Like a baby alligator, he’s right at home in Gotham’s sewers.

Now might be a good time to mention a major character in this animation, Gotham City itself. Gotham has always been a character in the comics, if not in words then definitely visually after Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning designs in Tim Burton’s 1989 feature. Subsequent films have thrown their own ideas into the mix, Batman Begins giving us Chicago with a gothic twist for Batman’s hometown. This DVD continues in that line, giving all the segments the perfect background and atmosphere.

This one, written by screenwriter and comics writer David S. Goyer (Blade, Jumper, The Dark Knight) and animated by Yasuhiro Aoki (Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion), is probably the best of the bunch. The interplay between the Batman and Gordon is priceless and the set-up in the sewers is classic horror movie protocol. And Aoki’s Scarecrow is truly frightening.

Segment five, Batman comics writer Brian Azzarello’s “Working Through Pain,” appears to be a direct sequel to the previous chapter unlike the others. It’s possible, but probably not true – close-eyed viewers will note the wound is on the other side from where Croc bit him. Having been wounded (maybe in combat with Killer Croc, maybe not), Batman flashes back to the past, and his training in India, reportedly a sequence that was supposed to have been in Batman Begins. I gotta say, I was unimpressed with this one, nice voice work by Parminder Nagra as Cassandra though.

“Deadshot,” the final chapter features, guess who, Deadshot. Written by another fantastic writer Alan Brennert, the man who resurrected “The Twilight Zone” in the 1980s, and wrote all the really good Earth-Two stories, this one pits the Batman against his deadly assassin foe, Deadshot. I really didn’t care for Madhouse’s weirdly shaded animation here but no matter how you slice it, the execution here is near perfect. The music by Robert J. Kral here is beautiful and it paces the action exquisitely. Great stuff.

All in all a wonderful collection and the stories are linked well. Refreshing and imaginative, Batman: Gotham Knight is a wonderful addition to any comics fan’s DVD collection.

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