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Non-Review Review: Batman – Gotham Knight

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. This is one of the animated feature films involving the characters from the creators of the original animated shows.

Batman: Gotham Knight was somewhat misleadingly advertised as a “missing link” between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Released in the run-up to Christopher Nolan’s superhero sequel, the film was clearly intended to call to mind the Animatrix, with a strong sense of anime flavouring the variety of shorts on display here. Each was produced by a different studio in a different style from a different author. The result is, as you’d expect, a mixed bag. Some stories are good, some stories are bad – there are interesting stories let down by poor animation and strong stories featuring weak animation. It’s a very mixed bag, which never really seems necessary or exceptional.

Yes, that is a batarang in his hand. And yes, he is happy to see you...

This isn’t Christopher Nolan’s Gotham. I don’t mean that as a criticism – Tim Burton’s Gotham was gothic and beautiful and I loved the neo-art-deco design of Batman: The Animated Series. However, if you are selling a movie as a bridge between two hugely successful blockbuster movies, it might be worth ensuring that you can consistently maintain the tone or the content. Gotham Knight does neither, yet claims to be set in the same sort of fictional universe. I don’t ascribe to a particularly strict sense of continuity – I don’t really care if you have minor conflicting details as long as you tell a convincing story – but here the animated movie so strong rests its appeal upon the link to the two live action films that it’s hard to just let it slide.

This isn’t a gritty noir world. This is a movie where the bad guys can fly jetpacks – there’s crazy aerial combat that would never fit with the world as Nolan constructed it. The sewers are inhabited by Killer Croc, a “former circus sideshow freak” (possibly mutated by “toxic waste”) that wouldn’t seem out of place in Burton’s Gotham, but feels awkward here. Even the little details are incorrect – despite the fact that Eric Roberts had been cast when the animated film was in production, Sal Maroni is introduced with a moustache. For some reason, the Chechen and Maroni are at war, despite being at peace in the film. Batman makes awkward quips to villains (“shoot your mouth off now, Deadshot”). I have no problem with a film telling its own story – or even offering its own version of continuity – but when you are piggy-backing off a more successful film franchise, you owe it to them to get it right.

Na na na na na na na na... Fatman!

More than that, there are major inconsistencies between the segments themselves. If you want to produce a selection of short films focusing on Gotham, telling different stories, then do so – but don’t try to reconcile a wide variety of perspectives and alternate interpretations of the city into one over-arching narrative (and, although the film is cut into several parts, it does attempt to tell one unified story). Sometimes the city looks like New York, sometimes like Chicago, sometimes its gothic, sometimes it’s realist, sometimes it could never exist.

And the animation is, as one would expect in an anthology, wildly uneven. The first segment, Have I Got a Story For You, is almost hard to look at. This (as well as the fact that it borrows from the animated episode Legends of the Dark Knight) undermines the fact that it has some interesting observations to make about the character – particularly his many facets. Here he’s a “living shadow” or a “giant flyin’ bat robot” or any number of other things. This is, of course, somewhat undermined when the character is presented with a strange oval mid-section and stumpy legs – he looks more like “Fatman”.

Rule #1: Always mind your surroundings. Rule #2: Always make sure you have green back-lighting.

Still, there are some nice insights into the character of Batman present. Perhaps the best segment in the short film is Field Test, which sees Batman trying out a new gizmo from Lucius Fox – essentially a forcefield. Wayne looks ridiculously young here, but the story has the right idea. It plays Batman as James Bond, with the hero even having a little golf game with a less-than-reputable individual. However, when Bruce discovers that the technology might put the lives of other in danger (even those firing handguns), he refuses to use it. “I’m willing to put my life on the line if I have to,” he explains. “Just mine. No one else’s.” It’s a strong character moment, and something this animated feature could have done with more of.

Similarly, Working Through Pain demonstrates the fact that Batman isn’t going to have a happy ending. Some of the self-help observations from Bruce’s mentor are just a little too on the nose, but the image of Alfred reaching into the gutter to help his surrogate son is a powerful one. Bruce has gathered up the guns in the storm drain, and looks up at Alfred, just asking for a hand to pull Bruce out. And yet, Bruce can’t take that hand.

The movie never really takes flight...

I do like the portrayal of Gotham City, written by Greg Rucka. Rucka, incidentally, co-wrote Gotham Centralone of the better noir-themed comic books featuring Batman and well worth a look. Rucka perhaps has a decent grasp of the atmosphere that Nolan brings to Gotham (even if he’s hazy on the particulars). This is a city on the cusp of madness. The Narrows, as seen at the end of the first film, are lost. “The whole island is asylum grounds,” Detective Crispus Allen observes, reflecting that “the whole city’s abandoned to madness.”

However, this sense of place and character is erratic. It comes and goes over the course of the film. Although each of the segments does advance a core plot, the payoff in the final section – Deadshot – feels a little underwhelming. perhaps because it seems like an arbitrary cut-off point, or perhaps because the threat wasn’t foreshadowed earlier on. The action, although fantastic, certainly doesn’t make the segment feel like it’s a climax.

Batman isn't washed up at this stage of his career...

It isn’t even that Batman looks out of place in anime. Some of the shorts are wonderfully moody and atmospheric and look pretty decent. Hell, Batman has a long and distinguished history with Japanese artists – the first issue of Batman Incorporated drew in a villain created for the original Bat-manga, reflecting the high esteem in which the work is held. That said, there are animation problems – for every image of the Caped Crusader which “works”, there are several which… well, don’t.

It’s an uneven and haphazard journey. Kevin Conroy, the definitive voice of Batman, provides a hint of consistency as he plays the lead character, but it’s just not enough. One gets the sense that the movie would have been better to either tell one grand story or completely abandon the world crafted by Nolan – it just seems like a false compromise. It isn’t entertaining enough in its own right, but it feels trapped and constrained by its links to two admittedly superior films. It’s just disappointing.

Let’s hope next year’s Green Lantern tie-in (Emerald Warriors) fares better.

3 Responses

  1. I was pissed that this was advertised as a bridge between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but it’s decidedly out of continuity and has no significant relation to either film.

    The Gotham Tonight special on The Dark Knight extra features pretty much does what this was supposed to but it’s actually canon.

    • Yep. It’s not even the continuity aspect of it – I just want a good film. It’s just a big mess of Batman story and character ideas that are inconsistently animated and which sit awkwardly with the expectation of Nolan’s film on their shoulders.

  2. I would agree, Darren. The very idea of these major Japanese animators collaborating on a Batman project had me giddy with joy. The end result just couldn’t live up to the wild expectations I had for “Gotham Knight” and its lumbering pace and fluctuating style didn’t help matters.

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