In between the first Matrix film and the release of its horrendous sequels, Warner Brothers shoehorned in an interesting little collection of Matrix-inspired animated shorts directed by some of the hottest names in anime. The collection – dubbed ‘The Animatrix’ –offered fans different perspectives, both thematically and culturally, of the Matrix universe, with many of the tales tying directly into – and in some cases, tying together – the first two live-action films. It was an innovative and exciting promotional campaign that has since become almost de rigueur, and used by everything from television series (24, Heroes) to video games in order to pique (or keep) fan interest through animated episodes and side stories (oftentimes filling in “gaps” or offering more in-depth looks at peripheral characters). Warner Brothers returns to the territory they pioneered with ‘Batman: Gotham Knight’, a tie-in to the latest entry in the Batman saga, ‘The Dark Knight’. Perhaps the most highly anticipated film of 2008, The Dark Knight is the sophomore outing for Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s rebooted Batman franchise, featuring the reintroduction of two of the caped crusader’s most vile foes (The Joker and Two-Face). Gotham Knight is meant to serve as both a companion piece to the live-action film, as well as a glimpse of the potential goings-on between the movies (in a surprisingly bloody and adult fashion).
The first of the six shorts – ‘Have I Got a Story for You!’ – focuses on a group of skate punks who share stories of their respective encounters with Batman, with each tale seeming more incredulous than the next. It’s a nifty little story, and I especially enjoyed how each of the kids had a different perception of Batman (a robot, a ghost, an actual bat, etc). Directed by Tekkonkinkreet’s Shoujirou Nishimi, Have I Got a Story for You! shares that film’s abstract, fluid, and deceptively “simple” animation style, with somewhat exaggeratedly drawn characters inhabiting an ultra-realistic and detailed world. This was a great way to start things off, but, as I would soon discover, this episode raised the bar too high for a few that followed.
Futoshi Higashide’s (Project AK-0/Gundam) ‘Crossfire’ shows us Batman as seen through the eyes of a pair of Commissioner Gordon’s Major Crimes Unit detectives. While Detective Anna Ramirez thinks that Batman is an invaluable ally in the war against crime in Gotham, her partner, Chris Allen, is distrustful of the costumed vigilante, and feels his relationship with Gordon is an affront to the entire force. When Chris and Anna find themselves in the middle of a turf war between rival gangsters, however, Chris witnesses firsthand the sort hero Batman really is. The animation in this particular episode isn’t nearly as impressive as the previous entry, with production values that aren’t much better than your average O.V.A., and the rather predictable storyline does little to offset the underwhelming visuals.
Things get better with Hiroshi Morioka’s “Field Test”, in which Batman tests a new gadget given to him by Lucius Fox. This new toy sends out a burst of electromagnetic energy that would essentially make Batman bulletproof. The test, however, yields an unexpected side effect. Artistically, Morioka’s entry looks wonderful, and takes the most chances in terms of his interpretation of Batman’s look, but, like Crossfire, the story just isn’t very compelling.
My personal favorite of the lot, Yasuhiro Aoki’s ‘In Darkness Dwells’ offers a terrifically dark and demented look at the Batman through a mix of shadowy and gritty animation and a great short adventure (courtesy of David S. Goyer) in which Batman faces off against Killer Croc en route to foiling yet another scheme by the pesky Scarecrow. I simply loved how this episode looked, and, thanks to Goyer’s familiarity with the property, this particular story had the feel of an issue of the excellent Legends of the Dark Knight comic series rather than just “filler”.
‘Working Through the Pain’ intersperses scenes of a badly wounded Batman trying to get to safety with flashbacks to the training he undertook to learn how to cope with the sort of pain that would put the rest of us out of commission. Toshiyuki Kubooka gives the set its most traditionally anime offering, with the sort of elfin features and big ol’ soulful eyes the medium is known for. It’s a bit generic looking, but the story is effective and expands upon what we learned about Batman in ‘Batman Begins’.
The sixth and final installment, ‘Deadshot’, features the little-known villain, Floyd Denton, who moonlights as the titular assassin. Floyd’s in town to take out some of the mob’s biggest enemies in Gotham, including Commissioner Gordon. Of course, to get to Gordon one needs to go through Batman, and, well, you all know how that’s going to end. This episode, penned by regular Batman scribe, Alan Burnett, brings together elements from each of the first five stories, neatly tying things up.
Batman: Gotham Knight is available as a single disc DVD (reviewed here), as well as in 2-disc and Blu-ray special editions. The single disc features a single commentary track and a trailer for The Dark Knight, but I can’t imagine anyone settling for the single disc edition when the two-disc feature-laden set can be had for only a few dollars more.