Hiroshi Morioka, & Shoujirou Nishini
“I never seen him before, but I’m like I so know who this is,” a teenage skateboarder proclaims in Have I Got a Story For You, which serves as the first entry of the impressively animated if uneven six part anthological comic book come to cinematic life in the new DVD release Batman: Gotham Knight. Of course, the caped crusader to whom the teens are referring is none other than Batman and in a series of escalating stories, the group tries to outdo one another as a sort of fanboy version of a “your mama” joke. While it's admittedly a rather weak way to open the episodic work, from a narrative perspective, it makes perfect sense to ensure the audience’s thirst for good old fashioned storytelling by listening to several tall tales in preparation for the film’s far superior yarns to come. And indeed, much like a perfect mix CD made by a friend who knows your musical taste well, the six talented Japanese anime experienced filmmakers responsible for Gotham Knight know how to excite viewers as the film climbs steadily, building upon itself to become worthy of the formidably high bar that Batman enthusiasts have set for any entry in the series.
Broken into a half dozen distinctive chapters, each of the tales in Gotham Knight was created by an entirely different director and screenwriter. Now while in traditional live action form this may be distracting (and some critics referenced the failure of Four Rooms in their Gotham reviews) and it's also been pretentious (such as in the overly long Paris je t’aime), this technique can also provide a unique visual take to differentiate the chapters and better serve the story, such as Kieslowski employing a different cinematographer for each individual segment of his brilliant Three Colors Trilogy. Granted it’s not in the same league as Kieslowski nor should one compare apples to oranges-- or more precisely an anime take on a comic book with some of the best foreign films of the 1990’s-- but the bottom line is, it works in the exact same way in avoiding getting viewers lost in the shuffle of too much stimuli by switching up the visuals, not just for novelty or to pander to the ADD attention spans most filmmakers assume those of us reared on MTV, video games and Choose Your Own Adventure books have, but to better the experience considerably.
And although the mission may have been to segue from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins into the hotly anticipated sequel The Dark Knight or-- at its most cynical-- another excuse to get more bat bang for the box office buck, Gotham Knight offers several fascinating looks at the comic book’s mythology including various points-of-view when it comes to the existential hero himself. In addition it references not only Nolan’s works but also the films from the other directors including the horribly campy Schumacher offerings, Burton’s masterworks, the comic book itself as well as the deliciously cheesy television series and original film from 1966.
Upping the action considerably from Story, the film moves into Sin City like territory with the dark and breathtakingly animated Crossfire. In this short, we’re given a cop’s-eye-view of Gotham City and just what moral and ethical quandaries go along with having a vigilante like Bruce Wayne’s Batman basically jeopardizing their job security, with some officers led by Lt. Gordon who are in favor of his unorthodox and not exactly legal crime fighting and others who seem more annoyed by the caped one than the average Joe is of telemarketers. Above all, we’re constantly reminded of Bruce Wayne’s code of honor and the fact that-- while he’s arguably one of the darkest comic book characters ever created-- he doesn’t kill anyone and is always willing to put his own life on the line but will never ask anyone else to do the same for him.
Of course, Batman wouldn’t be able to whip out the “kapow” and “splat” without throwing some villains into the film and we’re given some genuinely exciting confrontations with Scarecrow (whom viewers recall from Nolan's Batman Begins) in the short chapter In Darkness Dwells and a humdinger of an introduction to Deadshot in Deadshot. In fact just these two shorts put together more than make up for some of the ridiculous villains and storylines introduced in the late 90’s Schumacher sequels wherein the franchise hit an all-time low with nipples on the batsuit, a wasted Jim Carrey, and trying to cram in an obligatory pop song every twenty minutes to sell Bat-soundtracks.
However, and thankfully never wearing out its welcome in its seventy-five minute running time, the film’s true standout comes in the form of director Toshiyuki Kubooka’s Working Through Pain which was penned by screenwriter Brian Azzarello. In Pain, we find Bruce Wayne heading east where he enlists the mentorship of a bright Indian woman named Cassandra to help teach him how to control his body’s responses and deal with the excruciating pain in which he often finds himself. Instead of just rehashing the tried and true Mr. Miyagi inspired Karate Kid clichéd plot, the filmmakers dig deeper to make Cassandra the most fascinating supporting player in the film that isn’t a regular part of the mythology as we learn that in order to acquire her knowledge she had to hide the fact that she was a woman, only to be accused of witchcraft when her gender was inevitably discovered.
It’s these little touches in the storytelling along with awe-inspiring artwork that separate the film from simply being labeled a clever marketing tool. And by giving audiences a chance to go from one episode to the next, similar to waiting for the next installment in a comic book series, we’re given a richer look at the man in black than perhaps what would’ve been shared if we’d only been offered one single narrative to sum up the endlessly complicated bat.