Traditionally, I have never been a big Batman fan. Over the years, I've stood firmly on the Marvel side of the fence, but that doesn't blind me to the fact that Batman is the single most cinematic of the mainstream superhero brigade. He's dark, tormented, dresses in black, has the cool car, and -- despite essentially being just a guy who works out a lot -- can even occasionally kick Superman-butt. He's made for the screen, really.
Which is why it's shocking just how all the on-screen versions of him disappoint so sorely. Television's Biff-Pow-Splat series is ridiculously fun campy entertainment, but Holy Utility Belt, it turned Batman into an absolute joke. The movies all faltered in their individual way. Tim Burton went gloriously loony with his two films, but Michael Keaton never filled that cowl adequately enough. Also, Burton's Batman killed people, a move that shocked purists to the core. (Though I remain convinced that the only reason Batman never killed a guy in the comics was more due to the strict Comics Code Authority than any deep-rooted moral code. But that's just me.)
Val Kilmer was an interesting Batman, but while he moved forward as Batman in Forever, the rest of the film -- Jim Carrey as The Riddler, for example -- regressed into TV show ridiculousness. George Clooney's Bat attempt was an ill-fated disaster, producing the one Uma Thurman movie that is impossible to sit through. And then there was Christopher Nolan's Begins, where, much as I like Christian Bale, his Batman seemed exaggerated and while the director pandered to the fanboys, it doesn't really impress as a film. I have been accused of being far too critical in my review for that one, but it's merely because I have far greater expectations, from the Prestige maker -- and, from Batman.
Now, days before Nolan raises the curtains on the undeniably, lipsmackingly promising The Dark Knight, we have finally hit paydirt.
Batman: Gotham Knight is the single greatest screen version of any Batman ever, and it's simply marvellous.
Sculpted in anime and timed to release a couple of weeks before the big movie itself -- remember when Warner Brothers did the same with that fantastic The Animatrix to go with those godawful Matrix sequels? -- this is a stunning blend of East-meets-America, a rocking mix of surreality and style, of traditional Bob Kane silhouettes and a totally fresh pair of eyes. Six directors; six Batman short films; six ways to talk about the Batman; six radically different styles. The characters speak in American accents, but this isn't a US cartoon at all. Nor is it another anime. Ladies and gents, this is Batmanime.
And it will blow you away.
It starts with perception. It's all very well to believe in the Bat-Signal, to say that the people of Gotham City implicitly trust in the man in black -- unlike those fickle Spidey-hating New Yorkers -- but he is a man dressed like a bat, goshdarnit, operating almost exclusively in the shadows. There will be doubt, to say the least. And so Gotham Knight kicks off by exploring how we look at Batman, what we think of him, and how basic descriptions we don't think twice about in superheroland -- 'disappeared into the shadows and reemerged from the darkness' -- can take on greatly kinetic vividity in the visual form. Wow.
So kids, skeptical cops, and even Commish Gordon, spend the first three shorts thinking about Batman. And the joke is on them, because -- as readers, audiences, fans -- we know Batman, and that he can't fly or teleport. But it's fascinating to see their bewilderment, their cynicism, their faith. Fresh pairs of eyes, all the way.
And then, as we enter the third segment, Field Test, we meet a bushy-tailed Bruce Wayne trying out a gadget that could make his batsuit nearly-invulnerable to bullets -- except it isn't the safest thing for bystanders. We get our first glimpse of the workings of Bruce's brain, and even share a precious smirk with him as he ruins a drive. And Kevin Conroy, who's been great as Batman's voice in the wonderfully edgy Batman Animated Series, is flawless here too -- cold apathy with just a touch of nuance. Nice.
The only supervillain to really show up in these shorts is Deadshot -- while The Scarecrow has a fleeting appearance. Which is a tremendously interesting fact considering that we always invariably focus so much more on Batman's super rogues gallery instead of the Bat himself. And these films, while completely off-the-wall different in terms of style, form and storytelling, are all about Bats. And we needed this.
And Batman needed the vulnerability. In a chapter called Working Through Pain, we see a wounded Wayne struggle through a dark shaft while flashbacking to early pain-management lessons learned on the banks of the Ganges. While Parminder Nagra voices the visibly Indian woman who trains him, she is perplexingly named Cassandra. She is an interesting character, though, and tutors him after the fakirs turn him down. 'They say you are not looking for enlightenment or truth,' says Wayne's guide, nudging us toward Bruce's ever-seething need for revenge.
And with perfect timing, after all the character development and introspection, we have the last chapter, Deadshot -- a no-holds-barred Batman actioner. Picking up on a haul of guns, Wayne admits he'd never use one, before lyrically going on to appreciate the heft and the possibilities. Deadshot, the modern, DC comics equivalent of The Man With The Golden Gun, is visually great to play with, and the animators go wild following bullet -- and batarang -- trajectories.
Holy Batcave, that cape hasn't looked this striking in ages. Batman: Gotham Knight is as staggeringly beautiful a work of art as it is a well-rounded view of the iconic detective hero. Directors Shojiro Nishimi, Futoshi Higashide, Hiroshi Morioka, Yasuhiro Aoki, Toshiyuki Kubooka and Jang-Sik Nam deserve a major round of applause -- while credit must be split with hardcore comic writers Brian Azzarello, Josh Olson, David Goer, Greg Rucka, Jordan Camera Goldberg and Alan Burnett. It's a fantastic set of team-ups, marriages made in... well, Wayne Manor.
Sure, Batman's always been the 'cool' one, but hot damn it's been a while since his entry-shots gave us goosepimples. And this one did it for me, thrice. And coming from a Bat-indifferent Spider-Fan, that's as high as praise gets.
You a Batfan who liked Clooney's version better? Want to go on complaining about the Batman Begins review? Or just have a favourite Batman joke? Write in to me about all things superhero or cinematic at firstname.lastname@example.org. Seeya next week, folks.