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"Batman: Gotham Knight": Kicking Ass from Here to Japan

by on July 8, 2008

Batman: Gotham Knight is the kind of DVD release I’d normally sink my teeth into with a review. This time I’m going to let my colleague Ed Liu do those honors. In this review, I’ll just content myself with finding half a dozen ways of saying that this latest DC/Warner release kicks all kinds of ass all over town.

Oh, no, not the robot theory again!This 76-minute production will inevitably be remembered as the “anime Batman,” which will be fortunate if it excites an interest in anime in some quarters, and will be deplorable if it causes people to approach it with blinkered expectations. Instead, I’ll suggest that Batman: Gotham Knight is what so many fan boys have professed to yearn for over the years: an animated comic book. Taut, gritty, and jaw-droppingly beautiful, it has all the virtues we’ve come to expect of graphic novels, while still being intensely and viscerally cinematic.

The DVD consists of six overlapping stories, each told in a slightly different visual style and with a slightly different emphasis in subject and tone. The very first, “Have I Got a Story For You,” sets the tone and design for what follows. Structurally it harks back to The New Batman Adventures‘ “Legends of the Dark Knight” and earlier stories: Three urban kids recount their particular glimpse of a running battle between Batman and a high-tech thief, each seeing a different “Batman”—a form-shifting shadow; a vampiric monster; an armor-suited knight—before Batman himself appears. The battles are intense—there is one shot whose inclusion, I am stunned, did not earn this DVD an “R” rating—and the animation is gloriously fluid, all of it set against intensely realistic backgrounds.

Visually and thematically, the rest of the film takes this conceit—of Batman’s various facets glimpsed indirectly and allusively in the course of a loose story—and develops it. The running plot involves a mob battle between an Italian and a Russian gang that is tearing the city apart, and a sub-plot about a crooked developer whose tactics may include murder, but each short simply catches a different frame of this story and uses it for its own purposes. “Crossfire,” for instance, shows two of Gordon’s honest cops transporting a prisoner while angrily debating the state of the city and Batman’s place in it; they are then caught in the middle of a Russian-Italian gun battle. “Working Through Pain” flashes back to some Bruce’s early training as, wounded from a battle, he tries working his way through the sewers to safety. Each short stands on its own, but each also contributes a small piece toward the larger story.

That larger story, in turn, is not so much a coherent, well-defined and well-developed plot as it is a character study—both of Batman himself and of Gotham. On the commentary track, the point is made that Gotham City itself is a character, and you could certainly make the case that Batman: Gotham Knight is about the hard, almost-but-not-quite-despairing duel between Batman and his city. Gotham isn’t a background to the gangsters and monsters Batman fights; it’s more like a mindless, living thing that has vomited them up. The color scheme—dominated by dirty browns and fetid greens—makes it a hot, dirty, flyblown kind of place; you can practically smell the gasoline in the air and feel the smog in your eyes. Watching it, I felt less concerned that Batman could dodge a bullet and more concerned that he would be able to keep properly hydrated. That may seem like an odd kind of worry for a Batman story to raise—but it reflects the incredible, though stylized, realism of the visuals.

Though the film was worked on by different production teams and directors, those looks are tied to their particular stories. “… a Story for You” with its three different “Batmans” is a particularly extreme example, but the thought is at work in the others. The hard-bodied, big-chinned Batman of “Deadshot,” for instance, is perfect for a story in which our hero must show himself bullet-proof. “Field Test” will probably cause the greatest surprise; it shows him as a very young and soft-looking Bruce Wayne, and even as Batman he looks very vulnerable. Yet that look is necessary to a story where he shows off the self-sacrificing side of his persona. That short, I will mention as an aside, is my favorite of the bunch, and is a very affecting portrait of the way man and mask have intertwined within the character.

This film, I should caution, is not for everyone. Never mind its well-deserved “PG-13” rating: it is for grown-ups, for people who enjoy subtle, introspective stories without melodramatic histrionics. Those looking for flash and thrills will also get them, but this is not an “action” picture within the normal meaning of the word, and those accustomed to a succession of rock’em-sock’em set pieces may wonder at some of the longeurs. Those used to Batman as he’s done in Western animation—whether it is in Superfriends, Batman: The Animated Series or The Batman—may also have some issues to work through before settling into it.

Warner Bros. gets a lot of grief from superhero and cartoon fans—most of it deserved. But Batman: Gotham Knight may be one of the bravest (or most foolhardy) things the studio has ever done, and everyone involved in it, from the executives who green-lit on down, must be fervently congratulated, praised, and thanked for giving us this film. It probably won’t stand athwart the history of the character as a turning point, the way Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns did, but it will go down as one of the pinnacles in his history—not just animated history, but in his entire canon. It is a must-buy, must-own, and must-treasure DVD.

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