I don't know about you, but I can hardly contain my anticipation for 'The Dark Knight.' It looks amazing, features the return of director Christopher Nolan's stirring 'Batman Begins' mythos, and has quite a bit riding on its back. Thankfully, Warner is releasing a batch of animated shorts (in the vein of 'The Animatrix') that should help keep fans patient. 'Batman: Gotham Knight’ is a collection of interconnected shorts based around Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ universe and characters. Each short features a separate creative team, a completely different art style (from a variety of Asian directors), and a distinct take on the hero as man, myth, and legend.
First up is “Have I Got a Story for You,” screenwriter Josh Olson ('A History of Violence') and director Shojiro Nishimi’s intriguing examination of the subtle relationship between truth and fiction. This light-hearted opener focuses on a group of adolescent skateboarders who share stories about their individual encounters with Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy). The first skateboarder remembers the hero as a living shadow, the second pictures him as a winged bat, and the third describes him as a robot. On my first trip through ‘Gotham Knight,’ I didn’t particularly enjoy the placement of the story itself -- I thought it was too thin to be an introductory vignette and spent too much time on its chatty juvenile delinquents instead of the main attraction. However, in retrospect, Olson’s opener perfectly establishes the awe and mystery surrounding the vigilante and serves as a fitting introduction to the city's new protector. Just don't be duped into thinking this segment was inspired by the "Batman: Animated Series" episode “Legends of the Dark Knight” (which is included as a bonus on this disc) -- Olson has revealed that both the "Animated Series" episode and his 'Gotham Knight' segment were actually inspired by an early '70s issue of Detective Comics ("The Batman Nobody Knows") by Frank Robbins and Dick Giordano.
Next comes director Futoshi Higashide and comic writer Greg Rucka’s “Crossfire,” a tale of two police officers who get caught up in a gangland battle after returning a criminal to Arkham Asylum. This was easily one of my favorite segments simply because it directly deals with the consequences of the climactic endgame in ‘Batman Begins.’ It offers fans a glimpse at Arkham after the Scarecrow’s attack, a pair of feuding gang lords fighting to fill a power void, two police officers who disagree over Batman’s role in Gotham, and a hard-hitting scene involving the lightning fast, monolithic Dark Knight himself. “Crossfire” transitions from examining Batman from a child’s point of view, to presenting him the way he appears to a variety of adults.
From there, writer Jordan Goldberg and director Hiroshi Morioka step in with “Field Test,” a story that follows Wayne Industries mainstay Lucius Fox (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) as he introduces a bizarrely effeminate Bruce Wayne to a new technology that can protect a person from incoming fire. However, when Bruce tests out the device during a gang battle, he accidently wounds a criminal with a ricocheted bullet and has to consider the costs of his actions. I dug this entry for what it’s worth. While it’s the most outlandish visual interpretation of the Batman mythos, it still works from a thematic and tonal perspective. The best moments in ‘Batman Begins’ were those that delved into the psychological motivations of the character and, to that end, “Field Test” succeeds.
’Gotham Knight’ really hits its stride with director Yasuhiro Aoki and screenwriter David Goyer’s “In Darkness Dwells,” the first segment to dip into Batman’s rogues gallery. The pair produce not one, but two villains -- a scythe wielding Scarecrow (Corey Burton) and an animalistic Killer Croc (George Newbern). This is the most action-packed, plot-deficient vignette in the bunch, but I was on the edge of my seat for the first time since I started watching the film. While I wish every segment of ‘Gotham Knight’ dealt with a big-name baddie, I also wish this one had more room to breathe. “In Darkness Dwells” is far too short and leaves too many unanswered questions -- Killer Croc appears for a brief moment and is gone after a vicious attack, the Scarecrow doesn’t get a single meaty scene, and Batman is more reactive than proactive. Still, it’s an exciting short that finally loosens the reigns and lets Batman be Batman.
As ‘Gotham Knight’ nears its end, “100 Bullets” writer Brian Azzarello (one of my favorite comic writers) and director Toshiyuki Kubooka present “Working Through Pain,” a delicious peek into Bruce Wayne’s international travels when he was training to be a crime fighter. This segment introduces a mysterious Indian woman named Cassandra who teaches Wayne how to handle discomfort and subdue pain. While the action isn’t as heavy, this segment includes a better story than the rest of the vignettes. It has a concise beginning, middle, and end, and delivers a complex look into the things that made Wayne into such an independent fighting force. Most of all, I appreciated the interlocking structure of the plot and Azzarello’s simplistic, yet engaging dialogue. Compared to the other segments, this one felt the most like a short story.
Last but not least comes director Jong-Sik Nam and “Batman Beyond” writer Alan Burnett’s “Deadshot,” a one-shot story that hones in on an assassin with impeccable aim. As with “In Darkness Dwells,” this segment plays out like an issue of a Batman comic book. It pits a super-powered villain against our agile hero and allows them to engage in a battle of wits and strength. Sure, it’s not all action and it’s certainly too short, but it manages to build suspense and pull a decent twist out of its hat. I did find myself hoping the story would keep some level of focus on officer Gordon (Jim Meskimen), but I suppose the classic struggle between good and evil was a decent alternative.
Complaints? Sure. Taken as a whole, ‘Batman: Gotham Knight’ is every bit as disorderly and disjointed as ‘The Animatrix.’ However, each individual segment accomplishes what it sets out to do and delivers more than a repetitive series of fights between Batman and whatever villain-of-the-week the writers could have chosen. ‘Gotham Knight’ didn’t do anything like I expected it to do and definitely followed the path less traveled. A short with the Joker or Two Face may have sold more discs, but I appreciated each team’s creativity and originality. Each episodic chapter rounds out the ‘Batman Begins’ universe and whetted my appetite for next this summer’s debut of ‘The Dark Knight’ even more. Give it a spin and see what you think.
To cut right to the chase, I’m a bit disappointed with the 1080p/VC-1 transfer Warner has created for the Blu-ray edition of ‘Batman: Gotham Knight.’ I’m a huge proponent of the improvements high-def can bring to 2D animation but, in this case, I was really surprised to find a rather soft, dull transfer that provides little more than a minor upgrade from the standard DVD. In a side by side comparison, the BD transfer boasts a reduced level of source noise, slightly sharper line art, and marginally bolder colors, but it didn’t do much else to set itself apart. In fact, compared to similar 2D animation available on Blu-ray like ‘Tekkon Kinkreet’ and ‘Justice League: The New Frontier,’ the results are slightly underwhelming. Black levels aren’t always resolved, banding sometimes pops up in the skies of Gotham, and contrast occasionally suffers from faint wavering and middling brightness.
Add to that the inconsistency from segment to segment, and a real problem begins to emerge. Don’t get me wrong, I expected saturation levels, color choices, and line clarity to shift each time a new vignette began, but I was completely unprepared for the varying technical quality of each short. “Have I Got a Story for You” barely pops, “Crossfire” drowns in crushing and banding, and “In Darkness Dwells” looks jaw-droppingly terrible -- its noisy, degraded appearance may be intentional, but the bottom-rung quality distracted me from the story and sent me running to my other Blu-ray players to verify that my primary unit wasn’t malfunctioning. As it stands, “Field Test” and “Working Through Pain” were the only impressive presentations I encountered during my time with the film.
Does ‘Gotham Knight’ look better than the DVD? Yep. Does it benefit from the fundamental upgrades of high definition? No doubt. Is it impressive? Hardly. This is an average Blu-ray presentation that can’t compete with better 2D transfers on the market. It may benefit from increased background detail and line clarity, but it just doesn’t offer the kind of technical impact I look for when evaluating high-def animation.
Warner’s standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track improves matters, but still sounds too similar to its standard DVD counterpart to warrant a higher score. In recent months, Warner has been adding lossless tracks to almost all of their releases, so it’s unfortunate that ‘Gotham Knight’ represents a technical step back for the studio.
Regardless, dialogue is clean, crisp, and well prioritized in the mix, delivering every word in the midst of a hushed city and in the chaos of a collapsing sewer system. Sound effects are a bit clipped and compressed, but they still manage to take advantage of the LFE channel and make their presence known. With that being said, the individual musical scores and soundtracks provide the real showcase moments in each short. Bass beats lift the floor, trumpet flares punctuate the soundscape, and orchestrated strings fill the soundfield from every direction. While I wasn’t a big fan of the track’s stocky pans and flat accuracy, I really enjoyed the dynamics of the music and the interplay of each tone between the speakers. If I had any major complaint, it’s that the rear speakers only pipe up when action explodes on the screen. Otherwise, ambience is light and fails to invite the listener into Batman’s world.
In the end, ‘Gotham Knight’ sounds pretty good and gets the job done. However, I’m left to imagine how much stronger it could have sounded had it been presented with a TrueHD mix. Compared to the high-end audio tracks Lionsgate uses to bring the Marvel animated films to life, a barebones DD mix like this one just doesn’t have the power or the support to live up to such lofty standards.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Batman: Gotham Knight’ ports over all of the supplemental features from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD, including four bonus episodes from the extraordinary ‘90s cartoon, “Batman: The Animated Series.” All in all, the content itself is quite impressive and is only marred by Warner’s shoddy, standard definition encoding.
At the end of the day, I really enjoyed ‘Batman: Gotham Knight.’ Unfortunately, an inconsistent, problematic video transfer and a decent (but underwhelming) audio track make this Blu-ray edition a hard sell. It includes all of the special features from its standard DVD counterpart, but it doesn’t have the extra high-def shine that makes it worth the additional cost. If you’re dying to see ‘The Dark Knight’ this month in theaters, this is a nice appetizer, but if you’re a casual fan looking for a solid high-def purchase, you may want to give this one a rent before busting out your credit card.