Monday, April 28, 2014

Review - Batman: Gotham Knight

Batman is a cultural icon.  He has thrived in comic books, newspaper strips, movies, video games, television shows, radio shows, campfire stories, toys, postage stamps, novels, and I'm willing to bet that somewhere out there is a form of Batman being used in a safety video for an office.


If the Dark Knight has a format he's done consistently well in, it's animation.  The Batman: The Animated Series show completely changed the look at Batman, telling stories appropriate for children and adults, and forever cementing the idea of Kevin Conroy as the voice of Bruce Wayne (rather than Christian Bale's guttural shout)  and Mark Hamill as the Clown Prince Of Crime.  It's the series that took Mr. Freeze and turned him into an iconic character.  It introduced us to Harley Quinn.  It opened the doors for a Superman series and then a Justice League series.

While the movies have gone their own way, it's felt as of late that the DC animation department is floundering a bit.  They're doing animated versions of all the latest big events, but they still have regular Batman cartoons coming out on DVD.  The problem is there isn't a coherent timeline for these stories, with some taking place in the original animated series universe, others taking place in their own realities, and some just trying to keep up with the books or film and feeling rushed because of it.

I finally got around to watching the Batman: Gotham Knight DVD, and while it wasn't bad by any means, I just felt rather underwhelmed.

The movie is broken up into chapters, each one being a standalone story but having connections to the other tales.  It's very similar to the Animatrix film, including looking at the studios doing the animation.  While initially promoted as taking place between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but the producers have said it isn't specifically supposed to be limited that way.  I think that it's even more limited if you look at it outside of the films, however, because of things I'll touch on soon.

So let's look at the film chapter by chapter, see what works and what doesn't.

Chapter 1: Have I Got A Story For You.

This is the episode that left me wondering how this could be happening in a universe built by Christopher Nolan.  You have four teenagers meeting at a (literally) underground skate park, where three of them tell their stories in backwards chronological order about their Batman sightings.

Now, when I was a teenager, I think I would have had more sense than these kids.  They're all seeing Batman during the day time, and yet the three kids are convinced he's some kind of shadow monster, a giant man-bat creature, and a Robocop-like being able to jump from building to building.

If this world is so grounded in realism (within reason), I find it peculiar that we'd have these disconnected ideas of what Batman is.  There's no harm in playing up different aspects of him: gadget guy, ninja, close combat expert, armored costume, but you can still give us the idea of all these people seeing a superhero a different way without taking it that far.

Now, I know that in the comics and everything else Batman is thought of as being anything from an army to a vampire to Superman slumming.  However, in those worlds we have a lot more to separate us from grounded reality.  Ice guns, giant Venus fly traps, and Superman all let us think something that "out there" might be possible because we have a context to fit it with.

Chapter 2: Crossfire

This chapter I had a better time imagining in the Nolan-verse.  You have that distrust the cops have of a vigilante doing their job and leaving them with boring work.  You have two large gangs fighting for territory, and you don't even really get that much Batman until the end.

Of the six stories, this is the one I wish they'd flesh out further.  You have the dichotomy of someone not local to Gotham seeing Batman as part of the problem, whereas a native sees him as the first step to things getting back on track.  I was a huge fan of the Gotham Central comic book series and watching regular cops deal with crime so far above what regular cops deal with, I'd love a single movie or television series that explores the same idea of "just how relevant are we when we need a vigilante and a spotlight to make a difference?"

Chapter 3:  Field Test

For what chapter two did to pull me back into the idea of this being the same universe as Christian Bale, this one through me out to a completely different level.  Having Batman test some new equipment is fine, but when you're introducing bullet deflecting force fields, I think you start to step away from what makes Batman "Batman."

Plus, you'd think Batman would take the time to test the equipment further rather than just strap it on and pick a fight with the two gangs from the last chapter, but you'd be wrong.

I do, however, appreciate the focus on Batman not wanting to take a life.  It plays more to how I envision the character, and "nobody will die while I'm on the job" seems like something a man who proclaimed "when I grow up, I'll defeat all crime" would say.

Chapter 4: In Darkness Dwells

Everybody lives, unless they hang out in sewers, then whatever.

Having a chapter where the entire point of the chapter is that Bruce Wayne won't risk anyone else's life loses a lot of meaning when, in the next chapter, Batman blows up a chamber full of cultists and the Scarecrow then floods it while saving someone rather defeats the point of what happened before.  I also find it rather entertaining that after the first chapter tries to establish how people think "The Batman" is anything from a demon to a monster, there's a guy in the sewers willing to just straight up talk to him.

I do think that somehow, despite the fact the episode took place primarily in a sewer, it gave a larger scope to the size of Gotham than we had seen so far.  The fact that Gordon and the cops needed a helicopter to cross the city to follow Batman let you know how far he's moving, and the chamber where the confrontation happens with Scarecrow is dazzlingly deep.

It's great to see the inclusion of Croc as well, if just to watch the slow evolution of crime in the city.  There wasn't much of him, though, and I would have preferred to see that aspect followed up on more.

Chapter 5:  Working Through Pain

This episode.  You guys, this episode.

I always like to get a glimpse of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, and this was quite a glimpse.  I don't remember if we've met this new character before or since this video came out, but I'd like us to see more. However, the best thing about watching Batman become Batman is seeing how things could be different, except his mission overrides everything else and takes him down his own path.

The storyline taking place in the present is also interesting, with an ending that left me mulling it over for a few minutes.  The fact that Batman wasn't able to let something go that connects so much to his identity and his motivation is so telling that deep down, no matter what he does as Bruce Wayne, there's still that scared boy in the alley.

Chapter 6:  Deadshot

This one was my favorite.  I love every incarnation of Deadshot I've seen, whether it was the "hey, I could be Batman but with a gun!" guy or simply the ultimate professional sniper or the costume-clad wise cracker who doesn't take any lip from heroes or villains, he's one of my faves.  Seeing him here as an assassin that could put some of the best from comics, cartoons, or anime to shame was great, though I have to point out one thing.

Batman punches a rifle round out of the sky.  Seriously.  I had no idea how to react to that then, and I still don't.

It's a good wrap up to the series as a whole, especially with how this episode opens and its link to how the last one ended.  Plus, it fits well with any type of Batverse, whether movie or comics.

So, what problem did I have with this series as a whole?  Well, I loved Deadshot and Crossfire.  I was okay with Working Through Pain and In Darkness Dwells, but the others left me underwhelmed.  There wasn't a lot of depth of character given save for two cops and a bit of Batman, but half the fun of watching a Batman story is the motivations and depth of villains, and that was missing almost entirely from the whole thing.  Watching Batman fight mobsters who are completely interchangeable (even with the superb voice acting of Rob Paulsen) was just nowhere as interesting.

It wasn't a bad slice of animation, it was crisp, clean, and had an insane amount of background detail, but without e hook to hold you on both the hero's side and the villain's side, it just overall falls flat.

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