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When it comes to the DC Universe line of DTVs, Warner has done an outstanding job. Not only have they already adapted one of the best-selling comic stories ever (Superman Doomsday), they’ve also turned one of the most critically acclaimed comics into a full length animated film (The New Frontier). For the next DC animation outing we get a bridge of sorts between the Christopher Nolan Batman films. While the continuity between the movies (and even the stories at time) is questionable at best, there’s no doubt that fans will find this latest Batman animation venture anything short of a visual delight.
Combining the talent of over four different Japanese animation studios, Batman: Gotham Knight tells six different stories of The Dark Knight in various adventures. Ranging from kids claiming they saw Batman in action to more serious angles such as gang war and a few of Gotham’s seedier villains like Scarecrow and Deadshot, Gotham Knight is a rich pallet of animation and storytelling from some of Japan’s premiere animation studios, as well as some of the comic book communities top writing talent. While it may have been conceived to be a cash-in to The Dark Knight’s upcoming theatrical release, the final product is nothing short of a well-crafted series of short stories that show off the Bat like never before.
When typing that this film was a cash-in for The Dark Knight I had a sudden flashback to the last cash-in DTV that we were given in the DC animation world. I’m sure many will remember, with much disdain I’m sure, the Brainiac Attacks DTV that got thrown out around Superman Returns release. While Superman Returns may have been a box office disappointment (as well as the recipient of some lukewarm fan feedback), Brainiac Attacks was simply a rushed disappointment that failed to entertain the vast majority who watched it (I’ve yet to set eyes on a single frame of it since completing my review—and would have to be paid to watch it again).
Those worried that Gotham Knight might have suffered from a similar issue need not worry. The writing found in Gotham Knight is some of the sharpest and darkest pieces to come out of the Batman world. On top of the writing is some of the most visually stunning animation that you’ll likely ever see the Batman character take part in. While it’s obviously all of the anime variety, the pieces presented in the six different stories are all wildly different (for the most part) in terms of character designs, with the only consistency being Gotham City in a few of the pieces (not surprising, considering Studio Bihou did the backgrounds for all of the segments).
There’s plenty to talk about with each segment but I’ll leave that for the more in-depth and spoiler filled review portion to follow. For now I’m just going to go for more breadth and increase the depth once we get to each individual story. One thing that sparked an odd amount of fan feedback was the casting of Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman. While many figured that the cast of The Dark Knight would be lending their voices to the production, ala The Animatrix, we ended up not receiving a single member of the films cast in this production. As I surmised before viewing the film, the continuity between the Nolan universe and the one presented here is negligible. You’ll definitely benefit from having seen Batman Begins, as there are references to Scarecrow (who appears as one of the villains in Gotham Knight) as well as the Narrows, a place in Gotham that continues to be ravaged by the havoc that Scarecrow created.
What surprised me about the small backlash to Conroy’s casting is that with every production fans asked who would voice Batman and were always disappointed to hear it wasn’t Conroy and would complain that a new person under the cowl might make it too difficult to swallow (I recall a few were disappointed to hear that Jeremy Sisto would voice Batman in The New Frontier…who I personally think do a great job in the role). I can kind of see where the disjoint would be if this was as connected to Nolan’s world as Warner’s original press release would have led you to believe, but honestly Gotham Knight could have been made before Nolan came along and still make sense. The Narrows are a simple setting, one that is audibly and visually explained, so there’s little room for confusion, even if you haven’t seen Batman Begins.
I guess my point is, after two paragraphs, is that Kevin Conroy really just kicks ass. While we hear him bring back some of the Batman elements that we’ve grown to love from his days as the Bat in Justice League, he throws his voice down even lower in some segments, creating a much darker sounding Batman than we’ve seen previously. Some areas we have a Bruce Wayne that’s lighthearted and in others one that is deep and moody. Conroy is all over the map in terms of emotion and there’s honestly not a doubt in my mind that bringing him on board for this production wasn’t one of the best things for it. Bale would have no doubt done a fine job in the role had the scheduling worked out for he and the rest of The Dark Knight cast, but we were definitely not given any kind of short of the stick with the vocal performances in this film—they’re all top notch and utterly fantastic.
One of the things that surprised me most about the voice cast was how little I recognized them. I picked up on Kevin Michael Richardson and Will Friedle only because I’d heard them so much, but Corey Burton, George Newbern, Jason Marsden and Hynden Walch all flew past me as people I’d heard in previous roles. The actors did such a superb job of changing up their roles for this film that when paired with Conroy’s tweaked performances, it really feels like an all new voice cast and nothing like an anime-overlay on the previous DC animated works. On top of the returning DC alum we have some newcomers in Ana Ortiz, Gary Dourdan, and David McCallum, all three of which bring in performances as police detectives and Alfred Pennyworth that will never once have you questioning the quality of the voice work.
So the voices are great, but what about the rest of it? While the first story we get in the feature will no doubt bother some simply because the style and atmosphere of it all is so incredibly different from not what only we’re used to in DC animation but also because it’s not one of the segments that we’ve seen a lot of in the previews. The animation style looks like something out of the video game series Jet Grind Radio and features a cast that sounds like they’re taken out of The Boondocks episodes, but don’t let that throw you off. While I can certainly appreciate the different art style, it will no doubt jar many viewers to the point they’ll wonder what they’re getting into. Stick with it, you won’t be disappointed. There are some absolutely stunning visual moments in the later segments that will make your jaw drop.
For the score we have a mix of composers Kevin Manthei ( Justice League: The New Frontier), Robert Kral (Superman Doomsday) and Christopher Drake (the Hellboy DTVs). All bring their own style to the segments, with Drake throwing in a bit more sounds from the Batman Begins score than the others. I actually thought Manthei scored the final segment of the film—a few cues sounded similar to his work on The New Frontier, but I was surprised to see that Kral had scored them instead. The music is wonderful, especially in the “Working Through Pain” and “Deadshot” shorts, where we get some emotional and action oriented pieces from Manthei and Kral. It seems each time one of these DTVs comes out I get excited by the prospect of the soundtrack release. Here’s hoping La-La Land Records is able to bring this one out as quickly as they have for the previous DC Universe films.
While the film may have started with a whimper, it ended with a bang. It slowly ramped up the depth and intensity with each story and while it isn’t the Nolan universe tie-in you may be expecting, it is some of the finest animated Batman work I’ve seen. Visually the film was astounding, aurally the film was fantastic with the superb voice work and scores and from a writing standpoint it can’t be beat. While the first script seemed too much like something we’ve seen before, the following stories were all crafted and each one felt unique and not like anything we’ve seen in DC animation before.
Even after watching the film, I’m not sure how to feel about it. The fact that the stories remain intertwined yet separated makes it feel like it should be one cohesive story and instead it’s just a chopped presentation. It really seemed like from the start that the stories would be completely disconnected from one another, as you go from a bright and rather cheery intro straight into something out of the HBO Spawn but soon everything else is connected either by characters or events that happen in each of the segments. It can be a bit confusing to watch as you can only treat a few of the stories as stand-a-lone, while others rely on certain bits from the previous story or even two stories before it.
Aside from the waffling between connected stories and stand-a-lone, there isn’t too much to find fault with in Gotham Knight. It’s something new and entirely fresh for The Dark Knight and that alone is worth checking it out if you’re a DC Animation fan. If you aren’t already a fan of Batman or the previous animated DC efforts, then I’m afraid you won’t find much here to reel you in. Casual viewers will likely not have much patience to sit through all of the segments, as when treated like a “film” there’s no real flow between stories and it’ll probably generate more confusion than it should. As stand-a-lone units they’re almost too short to really get anyone too interested, as all of the artistic styles are different, which I can see turning away a few.
In any case, Gotham Knight will likely share the same success as The Animatrix. It’s audience may not have been as wide as the feature length Matrix films, but the die-hard viewers and casual fans greatly enjoyed it and there’s no doubt in my mind that Gotham Knight will please those who know what they’re in for. Recommended.