Friday, 3 June 2016

Film Review - 'Batman: Gotham Knight'

Batman: Gotham Knight is something a little different for fans of DC's line of animated films. Rather than a single, self-contained, feature-length story, this film presents the audience with a series of short stories, each based around the figure of the Dark Knight - and, each developed by a different team of writers and animators, and a different director. It was also intended to be something of a collaborative effort between DC, and the various Japanese animation studios tasked with bringing the film to life.

What this means, for the audience, is that each of these stories is going to have its own distinctive look and feel - with the selection of short films varying to an occasionally drastic degree.

The central idea with Batman: Gotham Knight is that this sequence of short stories is intended to fit into the continuity established by Christopher Nolan's trilogy of films - with the sequence of stories taking place between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, in particular. It's really the same basic idea that we had with The Animatrix, which was released during the height of popularity of The Matrix, and its sequels.

One bizarre little detail that you might pick up on early on, though, is the number of odd little inconsistencies which seem to undermine the whole idea of these stories fitting in with that broader context. In the process of actually watching Batman: Gotham Knight I found myself constantly convinced that, despite the film's basic premise, the writers and animators weren't actually all that interested in being consistent with Christopher Nolan's films - which, of course, calls the entire point of the film into doubt.

In one story, for example, we have a clear shot of a Batmobile design taken straight out of Tim Burton's own original films - which, of course, doesn't fit, at all, with the version of the Batmobile that we see in Nolan's films. Then, there is the fact that, in both stories that feature him, the loyal and stalwart butler, Alfred Pennyworth, looks and sounds nothing like Michael Caine - with his portrayal, each time, being much closer to his traditional portrayal as an elderly British gentleman, with the stiffest of upper lips.

Perhaps most importantly, though, there is the casting of Batman, himself. While casting Christian Bale to reprise his role, here, probably wasn't ever a realistic option, the film-makers also made no real effort to cast anyone who have attempted to recreate his performance. Instead, they went with the fan-pleasing decision to cast Kevin Conroy - a decision which ensured that Batman, too, sounded nothing like he did in Christopher Nolan's films. Kevin Conroy may many fans' favourite voice-actor, for Batman's animated adventures - but, in this film, he actually felt oddly out of place.

Honestly, if not for the fact that the film had deliberately promoted itself as a direct tie-in to the continuity of Christopher Nolan's film, there would be no way to know that this was supposed to be the case. In the end, it feels as though the only thing really added by the film's connection to that broader continuity is a vague sense of irritation with these very blatant inconsistencies - which, honestly, makes me wonder why they even bothered. By the end, it made much more sense, to me, to just try to ignore this unnecessary connection, as I tried to enjoy the film on its own merits.

The individual stories, themselves, do each manage to be effectively entertaining in their own right, at least - though, perhaps naturally, some prove to be more effective than others. My own personal favourites are the first two - 'Have I Got News For You' and 'Crossfire'. Each of these short films takes the interesting approach of giving us a view of the Dark Knight through the eyes of the people that he fights to protect. In the first, a group of teenagers had had each, separately, caught a glimpse of Batman's encounter with a new villain swap stories of their encounter - and, amusingly, it soon becomes clear that each has come to perceive this mysterious figure in a very different way.

The second, meanwhile, gives us a story of Batman coming to the rescue of police officers who find themselves caught up in the middle of an outbreak of gang violence - and, here, we get some interesting insight into how the police see this masked vigilante.

Each of these two stories proves to be very entertaining - effectively combining moments of humour with intense action, and giving us a glimpse of the conflicted feelings that the people of Gotham City clearly seem to hold for their self-appointed champion.

The rest of the short stories tended to be much more traditional - focusing on the Dark Knight, and his efforts to protect his city. 'Field Test' sees Batman taking the fight directly to Gotham City's newest crime-lords, while testing out some new technology in the process. 'In Darkness Dwells' has Batman wading through Gotham's sewers, and toward a confrontation with dual villains, Scarecrow and Killer Croc. 'Working Through Pain' gives us a deeper insight into a part of the intense training process that Bruce Wayne put himself through, in order to become Batman - flashing back to his training in pain resistance techniques under the guidance of a mysterious woman named Cassandra. Finally, to bring the film to a close, there is the action-packed climax of 'Deadshot', where Batman is caught up in a race against time to stop a mysterious assassin hired to kill Jim Gordon.

Many of these stories are also linked to each other by recurring plot-threads, clearly indicating that each of these small tales is also a part of the same broader continuity - though, sometimes, that connection will only be a very minor part of the story, as a whole. The villain that we see Batman fighting in 'Have I Got A Story For You', for example, will set the scene for the action of 'Crossfire', as the officers at the centre of that tale are tasked with escorting him to Arkham Asylum. The outbreak of gang violence seen in 'Crossfire', meanwhile, will set the scene for 'Field Test' - when we see Batman's response to this new threat to Gotham City. The injuries that Batman suffers during 'In Darkness Dwells', meanwhile, also provide the context for the flashbacks we see in 'Working Through Pain'.

The odd thing about all of this for me, though, was the fact that I ended up being more put-off by these little connections than I was appreciative of them. The thread of plot-progression from one short film, to the other, just seemed to defeat the entire purpose of Batman: Gotham Knight being a selection of short films about Batman - just as the blatant inconsistencies seemed to undermine the entire idea of connecting these stories to Christopher Nolan's films.

Instead of being given a self-contained story to work on, as they developed their own impression of this popular character (which is something that I would have enjoyed), it felt as though each team had been handed a chapter of a larger story - and, to make matters even more confusing, they had then been required to work on their own portion of the film without any reference to what the other animation teams were doing. Due to that, the sudden changes in animation style and character design just came across as jarring, and very out of place.

The end result is, unfortunately, that of a failed experiment. By the end, it felt as though Batman: Gotham Knight would have been more successful if the film had simply been a traditional, self-contained, story - or, otherwise, if they individual stories had truly been allowed to stand on their own.

Despite that, though, each individual film still provide an entertaining addition to the 'Batman' story, whether you take it as a part of Christopher Nolan's own take on the character, or not. Taken on their own, each of these short film is genuinely entertaining and exciting - so, it's just a bit of a shame that the film's efforts to link them all into a broader continuity fail so drastically.

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