The animated direct-to-DVD film Batman: Gotham Knight swooped into stores on July 8. It arrives 10 days before the national release of The Dark Knight, Batman Begins' highly hyped sequel. Animated movie tie-ins often serve as ancillary merchandise, on par with toys and quickie novelizations. Batman: Gotham Knight certainly seeks to drive Bat-fans to the cineplex, but the violent, knotty PG-13 anthology film also reveals some heavy ambitions.
A purely kid-oriented flick simply would've pitted the Caped Crusader against different villains from his rogue's gallery (the Joker, Catwoman, etc.). Gotham Knight features bad guys such as Scarecrow, Killer Croc and Deadshot, but the six interlocking stories expose different psychological facets of Gotham City and its brooding protector. Batman Begins co-writer David Goyer scripted one of the segments, which rarely nod to the Christopher Nolan films (apart from rendering Bruce Wayne to look vaguely like Christian Bale).
The first two features depict Batman from the point of view of characters who'd normally be background players. "Crossfire" follows a pair of Gotham police detectives, one of whom resents the police department's tolerance of a masked vigilante. The other, "Have I Got a Story For You," shows a group of young skate punks recounting Batman's exploits. Each describes him differently, exaggerating the hero's larger-than-life traits: In one, Batman resembles a ghostly shadow, in another, a high-tech cyborg. The witty resolution reveals the "real" Batman as winded, wounded, paunchy and otherwise human.
"In Darkness Dwells" offers a deliciously Gothic monster story, its style reminiscent of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola's artwork. The final segment, "Deadshot," ties together the loose ends and features the most exciting set pieces as Batman takes on a brilliant assassin. The most interesting short, "Working Through Pain," juxtaposes a wounded Batman's struggles to escape Gotham's sewers with memories of a young, pre-Batman Wayne learning martial arts in India. The short emphasizes the personal toll of being Batman and ends on a pointedly ambiguous note.
All of the shorts feature a nifty, anime-influenced style that's sharply different from the more splashy, simplified Batman cartoons. None looks quite like the others, and if the facial expressions lack nuance, the animation makes up for it in the moody, almost operatic landscapes and wicked-looking gadgets. One story depicts Gotham city as a high-tech urban hell along the lines of Blade Runner. Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman on several animated shows and DVD movies, reprises the role in a nod to the character's cartoon history. Conroy delivers the right balance of intensity and authority, and Batman comes across as driven without seeming like a lunatic.
Like Justice League: New Frontier, DC's DVD feature from earlier this year, Gotham Knight suffers from brevity. It's 76 minutes, including the lengthy end credits, and perhaps one more story would have fleshed out its ideas and better tied together the chapters.
Overall, Gotham Knight resembles 2003's Animatrix DVD, an anime-influenced anthology that filled in the blanks of the Matrix universe, and arguably proved more satisfying than the two Matrix sequels. Throw superhero animators a few more resources, and they may even start beating live-action filmmakers at their own game.