In retrospect, “The Dark Knight” (2008) perhaps didn’t need much of a promotional boost; it was one of those movies that came out at the right time, en route to box-office records. Nonetheless, it did have a neat little tie-in “movie,” the Eastern-style animated “Batman: Gotham Knight.” Much like “The Animatrix,” this is a series of short segments – six of them, totaling 75 minutes – that purports to flesh out the larger universe.
Unlike with “The Animatrix,” “Gotham Knight” is not at all essential viewing. It’s set in the world of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy but it doesn’t seem like it — but that’s of trivial concern anyway. Basically, this is a way to promote the wider saga and make a few bucks while also letting various writers and animators experiment in Batman’s sandbox.
The animation is consistently strong — occasionally you’ll see a gorgeous shot of neon-lit or dank-and-dark Gotham, or flickering flames in the wake of a battle, or Gordon standing in the rain while chatting on his walkie-talkie. “The Animated Series’ ” Kevin Conroy does Bruce/Batman’s voice, which is great, but it’s also the main reason why it’s hard to think of this as being the Christian Bale Batman.
Here are my rankings of the six installments:
1. “Deadshot” (written by Alan Burnett) – “Gotham Knight” generally puts style over substance, and “Deadshot” most embraces this tenet, culminating with Deadshot (Jim Meskimen) taking on Batman atop a zipping subway train. Deadshot is a very simple character here (you’ll actually get more of an arc from the lamented “Suicide Squad”): He’s accurate at shooting. But he has charisma. And I like his scheme of pretending to target Gordon in order to lure out The Bat.
2. “Working Through Pain” (Brian Azzarello) – OK, so “Gotham Knight” is mostly about style, but this one is the most effective fable. “Bend It Like Beckham’s” Parminder Nagra plays Cassandra, an Eastern mystic whom Bruce hopes can teach him to use pain to his advantage. In a fight scene that’s neat for its unusualness, Cassandra and Bruce take on a street toughs and just let boards break against their heads. But then Bruce fights back and swiftly takes them all down – thus failing Cassandra’s lesson. Hey, Luke Skywalker could commiserate, Bruce.
3. “Have I Got a Story for You” (Josh Olson) – This opening segment digs into Batman-as-myth, as four skater kids give differing accounts of the Batman they’ve seen in action. Depending on the kid, Batman is a slinky smoke-beast, a flying mutant bat (very much like Man-Bat), or an indestructible robot (almost like Ben Affleck’s suit in “BvS”). We’re left to meditate on how his legend grows through storytelling, especially since he needs one of the kids to save him from the villain at the end.
4. “Field Test” (Jordan Goldberg) – The animators do a great job of drawing Morgan Freeman’s likeness for Lucius Fox, and Kevin Michael Richardson nicely imitates his voice. The anime-esque Bruce looks so unlike Bale that I didn’t realize it was him at first. Once I caught on, it was fun to see another tech demonstration from Lucius – the technology in question being a device that emits a force-field, protecting Bruce from bullets. He gives it a test, someone gets hurt because of the device, and it goes back on the shelf. So for nerds wondering “Why doesn’t Lucius just make him a force-field?,” here’s your answer.
5. “In Darkness Dwells” (David Goyer) – The portrayal of Scarecrow’s fearscape through Batman’s eyes is decent, as it incorporates abandoned sewers and tunnels – which aren’t that much worse than the rest of Gotham. An underground homeless man asks Batman what the city looks like from above, and he says “Dirty.” Most creepy is that the Scarecrow looks like a scarecrow made out of bones, making it hard to reconcile this with the “bag over his head” design from “Batman Begins.” Killer Croc makes a bland cameo.
6. “Crossfire” (Greg Rucka) – This one didn’t work for me, although it has intriguing aspects. GCPD partners Anna Ramirez (Ana Ortiz) and Crispus Allen (Gary Dourdan) share their differing views on Batman – is he a boon to the crime-plagued city or a dangerous vigilante? They drop off one of Batman’s catches at Arkham Asylum, here portrayed as a massive complex of towers, taking up a whole island “Escape from New York”-style. But the titular shootout between Russian and Italian mobsters is confusingly staged, so I have to put “Crossfire” in last place.
The six shorts of “Gotham Knight” add little or nothing to the “Dark Knight” trilogy story. However, they are all easy to watch, and some are quite good, especially if you’re watching for the artistry of the animation more so than the story. “Batman” buffs should find this collection to be a pleasant diversion.