Gotham Knight: “Getting Psyched for Stuff by Watching Other Stuff”

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07/14/2008 1:15 PM |

In which Jesse Hassenger anticipates The Dark Knight, in the process proving himself to be an even bigger dork than previously believed. (Sorry Jesse, but that’s what you get for admitting to having seen Batman and Robin on opening night.)

I did not go out to a single movie this weekend, which for me is a little bit like a New Yorker not taking a single subway, a Williamsburg kid not wearing a single item of tight clothing, or a Nielsen family not watching a single hour of CBS. I wish I could say that Mamma Mia! scared me off of the stuff, or that everything else feels pointless now that The Dark Knight is just about upon us, but really there just wasn’t much that held my interest. I saw Hellboy II to review it for the L, and although I’m usually happy to sort through the cinematic junk drawer, neither Meet Dave nor Journey to the Center of the Earth caught my fancy (maybe if Robert Rodriguez had made Journey). Shorn of just two or four watching hours, my weekend felt oddly free and clear.

But that bit about Dark Knight and pointlessness isn’t entirely inaccurate. I feel a tiny bit like a cog in the media hype machine for saying so, but I have not been this excited for a big summer movie in years — probably since the first Christopher Nolan Batman movie. I have 12:01 tickets to a movie for the first time since the Star Wars series ended. I was down for Iron Man and the Spidey sequels and all of that, but Batman is the character where I actually read those comics when I was twelve. In my (not at all proverbial) closet, I have issues not just of Batman and Detective Comics, but books with less venerated titles such as Robin, The Batman Chronicles, Shadow of the Bat, and Legends of the Dark Knight. I watched Batman: The Animated Series after school well after the point where you were supposed to be watching stuff after school. I saw Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in theaters. I saw Batman & Robin at all (actually, opening night). It doesn’t matter that this is a flavor of the week for the media or your coworker who sees four movies a year. I am downright hopping to see this damn movie.

So this weekend, instead of going out to the movies, I watched Batman: Gotham Knight courtesy of Netflix.

If you don’t frequent a variety of nerd websites, Gotham Knight is the newest participant in a mini-trend: the animated companion film to a big-budget film series. The most famous of these is probably The Animatrix, an anthology of Matrix-related shorts by anime or anime-inspired directors, which I think a lot of Matrix fans enjoyed more than the stories the Wachowskis chose to tell in the actual sequels. There were also a couple of Hellboy animated movies between the first movie and the second one; I believe there was also a Riddick cartoon that helps explain what happened to the Vin Diesel action character between the events of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick (unfortunately, there is no cartoon to explain to me what happened in The Chronicles of Riddick itself).

The six stories of Gotham Knight sort of bridge Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and like The Animatrix, employs anime staff in bringing its anthology to life — along with a roster of comics-experienced writers, including David S. Goyer, who has story credits on both of Nolan’s films. But while Gotham Knight has a much more fixed between-movies timeline than The Animatrix, which offered, among other things, two brief histories of the entire pre-Matrix mythology, it turns out to be a less perfect fit.

Batman and other popular comics characters are well-suited to adaptation and re-interpretation; Gotham Knight trips up over the fact that its format is actually less novel than it was with The Animatrix, because we’ve been watching animated versions of Batman for decades now. In fact, one of these segments — “Have I Got a Story for You,” in which three kids try to top each other with their personal Batman stories — is a near-replication on an old episode of the sophisticated Batman cartoon that aired on Fox and The WB in the nineties. It’s a fun device, and the animation, as with all of these pieces, is stylish and kinetic, but the film doesn’t deepen or develop past its enjoyable gimmick.

This is true of several other segments, which find interesting cracks in this Batman universe, like the half-corrupt, half-honorable Gotham police department (“Crossfire”) or the development of new Bat-gadgets (“Field Test”), but fill them in with boilerplate storytelling. “Crossfire” in particular has dialogue that sounds translated and simplified from another language — not a good sign for something written by an American novelist and comics author.

It helps when the writers seem to recognize their strengths; Goyer, for example, who’s had a hand in projects ranging from excellent (Batman Begins; Dark City) on down to good fun (the Blade trilogy) and below (Jumper; The Crow: City of Angels) concocts a taut action-driven tour of the Gotham sewers with “In Darkness Dwells,” featuring Killer Croc (a comics villain who seems like he ought to be fighting Spider-Man) and a return engagement for the Scarecrow; his story blends with the zippy animation, rather than undermining its effectiveness. Another villain-based segment (“Deadshot”), filling the crazy-efficient assassin subsection of Batman’s supervillain quota, shows similar understanding of how to write an action cartoon, courtesy of Batman/Batman Beyond veteran Alan Burnett. The animation that the writers struggle to match creates its own problems: it’s so uniformly strong throughout that Gotham Knight feels more like an erratic feature than a typical up-and-down anthology.

Still, this imperfect DVD nonetheless functions as a part a hallowed tradition: getting psyched for stuff by watching other stuff. This is an area, by the way, in which cable television could use massive improvements. I guess programmers just figure everyone has Netflix or OnDemand or their own DVD collections and can program their own get-psyched film festivals, but I was still shocked last January when I searched my TV listings for the first three Rambo movies (on which I needed to catch up before the impending number four), and found nothing but a stray showing of First Blood Part II on a single pay channel. Similarly, I looked for Batman-related programming for this week, and could only find a single psychology-of-Batman special and a single airing of Batman Returns (which, like Begins and Mask of the Phantasm, I have on my shelf). I did see an ad for a Batman/Joker animated marathon… airing the day after Dark Knight comes out. This is damn near useless. Do you know what Batman fans are going to be busy doing the day after Dhe Dark Knight comes out? That’s right: seeing The Dark Knight for somewhere between the first and fifth time.

So none of my hundred-plus channels have been enterprising enough to schedule such a marathon, say, tomorrow night, yet Spike has shown all six Star Wars movies multiple times over the past few months (I’m assuming they’ll find a way to actually avoid doing this the week before Clone Wars comes out). Of course, movie pre-gaming is something I only do about twenty percent as often as I intend to; I’ll leave the chicken/egg debate about whose fault that is to, well, probably no one. Rest assured, I’ll be registering my disgust to the major cable conglomerates just as soon as I finish watching the eight X-Files episodes I DVR’d last week.

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