Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Review: Batman Gotham Knight (2008)

A slight detour in my intended series of essays on the original Batman film series (the first one is here). Since I'm seeing The Dark Knight tomorrow evening, I thought it best to review the direct to DVD anthology film that ties into the sequel before I see said sequel. This review deals only with the quality of the feature and not with the quality of the DVD packages.

Batman: Gotham Knight
75 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

At its core, Batman Gotham Knight is an anime-styled series, with six 12-minute short cartoons dealing with Batman in the world established in Batman Begins. All six stories are underwhelming in the story department and even the art leaves a little to be desired. The animation is more conventionally realistic than Batman: The Animated Series or The Batman, but the caped crusader himself never looks terribly imposing or convincing. The stories do have the thinnest of connecting tissue, but really they work better when viewed as six separate stand-alone tales.

And the voice work leaves much to be desired. Yes, Kevin Conroy was dubbed in at the last second as Bruce Wayne and Batman, but it's downright awkward hearing this fifty-three year old voice actor voice a twenty-seven year old Bruce Wayne, especially when Conroy employs his more arching, over-the-top, and older sounding Batman voice that he started using on Justice League (it's far less effective than his subtler readings from Batman: The Animated Series). Dare I say it, but if they wanted continuity from the animated worlds, they should have gone with Rino Romano, who plays Bruce Wayne on The Batman at the same age as he is presented here (Romano may never be Conroy in his prime, but he steadily improved as the show ran its bumpy course). To be fair, Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker suffered the opposite problem when they were forced to replace Stockard Channing with a much younger Angie Harmon as the voice of fifty-something Barbara Gordon. Harmon did what she could, but she just sounded too young.

The other voice work fails to stand out, despite the use of various voice veterans in the Andrea Romano catalog (Rob Paulson, Cory Burton, George Newbern, Kevin Michael Richardson, etc). Jim Meskimen lacks the gravitas to measure up to previous incarnations of Jim Gordon, be it Gary Oldman, Bob Hastings, or Mitch Pileggi. Much of the voice over suffers from a stilted, unnatural delivery, which seems partially the fault of the stilted visuals. The animation seems to not be completely animated (something like every other frame) and it most resembles the three-season Spawn cartoon that HBO aired back in 1994.

As for the much advertised PG-13 rating, it's purely for the dark and gloomy atmosphere and character models. There is periodic bleeding and occasional fisticuffs, but nothing that wouldn't be out of place in the PG-rated Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. And this certainly isn't 1/4 as disturbing as Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker (truth be told, I'll be shocked if Heath Ledger does anything approaching as horrifying as what happens in that direct-to-video shocker). Oh, and Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker was rated PG-13 when it was released in its original uncut form in 2004, so the sticker on the Batman: Gotham Knight DVD claiming that its 'the first ever PG-13 rated Batman animated movie' is blatantly false.

Now, onto the actual stories...

1) Have I Got A Story - Very similar the much-heralded Batman: TAS episode 'Legends Of The Dark Knight'. In that episode, two kids told their differing views of Batman, which in turn were presented as different versions of the character over the years (the first segment was modeled after Bill Finger and Dick Sprang of the 1940s and the second was a riff on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns). At the conclusion, they encounter the real Batman who is a little bit of both versions. This is the same exact concept, except it's closer to the 1973 Batman comic story 'You Shoulda Seen Him'. In this version, the kids tell more surreal versions of Batman (one imagines a Man-Bat, for example) and yes, they eventually encounter the real thing. It's a good idea, but it's easily the third best version of this story, a fact highlighted by the fact that the episode Legends Of The Dark Knight is included on the two-disc DVD and Blu Ray special editions of this title as a supplement (I would have preferred 'Almost Got Im', but that's me).
Grade: C

2) Crossfire - Detectives Crispus Allen and Anna Ramirez (not Renee Montoya, no absolutely NOT Renee Montoya) get caught in a gang war while transferring a prisoner to the Narrows. This one, written by Greg Rucka, deals with Allen's resentment of Batman and his issues with trusting a freelance vigilante. Fair enough, but the dialogue is simplistic and Ramirez is forced to play the role of helpless hostage at the climax for no particular reason (since Allen is the one who doubts Batman, shouldn't he be the one in peril?). For what it's worth, this one gives us a preview of just what happened to the Narrows after Ra's Al Ghul and Scarecrow released their toxin at the climax of Batman Begins. Anna Ramirez is featured in The Dark Knight, and I have no idea why she wasn't named after her comic book counterpart.
Grade: C

3) Field Test - Bruce Wayne tests a new bullet deflection technology with mixed results. This is one of the best segments, with solid dialogue, good interplay between Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox, and a slightly surprising and suspenseful climax.
Grade - B+

4) In Darkness Dwells - Batman encounters Killer Croc in the sewers and gets doused by Scarecrow's fear gas. An entertaining action-filled episode, but it fails to have much of a pay-off.
Grade: B-

5) Working Through The Pain - As Batman struggles to find safety after being seriously wounded, we see flashbacks that show how Bruce Wayne learned to control pain and pain management. An interesting piece of Bruce Wayne's past, but no more than that.
Grade: C+

6) Deadshot - The best episode is saved for last. Written by Alan Burnett (one of the pioneers of Batman: The Animated Series, along with Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Paul Dini), this tale contrasts the sheer obsessive professionalism of Batman alongside master assassin Floyd Lawton (aka - Deadshot). This briefly deals with Wayne's fear of guns and provides a terrific action climax. Batman is at his most bad-ass in this segment.
Grade: A-

Overall, Batman Gotham Knights fails to engage even half as well as lesser episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (or The Batman for that matter). The writing is often simplistic and the action is so stylized that it never gets your adrenaline pumping. In the realm of recent direct-to-DVD DC cartoons, this falls short of silly but fun Superman: Doomsday, the flawed but ambitious New Frontier, and is about even with The Batman Vs Dracula. It is, however, far superior to Superman: Brainiac Attacks (the low-water mark for anything related to DC animation in the last twenty-years). If you're a Batman junkie, it might be worth a purchase just for the documentaries and bonus Batman: TAS episodes included. Otherwise, either rent it or skip it.

Overall Grade: C+

Note – The Extras are actually superior to the feature itself. Included is a crowded cast and crew commentary, and two documentaries running about 35 minutes each. One of them focuses on villains in the Batman canon and the other deals with Batman co-creator Bob Kane. We also have the mentioned four bonus episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (Heart Of Ice, I Am The Night, Over The Edge, and Legends Of The Dark Knight) and a ten-minute preview of the next direct-to-DVD DC comics film, Wonder Woman. It also looks better than this feature.

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