Thoughts on the Animated Batman: Gotham Knight

Batman: Gotham Knight DVDSince I’ve written about Batman Begins, I thought it might be nice to write about its follow-up. No, not The Dark Knight. Chronologically, Batman Begins is followed by Batman: Gotham Knight, a made-for-video collection of six animated short films set in the universe of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

The shorts take place between the two films. The six shorts each work as stand-alone animated sequences, but they do connect to each other as well as to the wider continuity in which they are set. Christopher Nolan even exercised some approval over the contents.

The films were animated by Japanese animation studios, giving the collection something of the feel of anime (or Japanese animation), although the shorts all have their own styles. Some artistic consistency is provided by the fact that Studio Bihou did the backgrounds for all the shorts, which has the side effect of making Gotham City look consistent despite the various styles employed in the foregrounds.

still from Batman: Gotham KnightThe collection was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 8 July 2008, just ten days prior to the 18 July (North American) release of The Dark Knight. It even received its own novelization (written by comics scribe Louise Simonson), which was released on 27 May 2008. As with prior DC original animated movies, its soundtrack was released by La La Land Records on July 22, 2008.

Gotham Knight and The Animatrix

AnimatrixThe collection could not have existed, at least in its present form, without inspiration from a similar collection five years earlier: The Animatrix (2003). It was a straight-to-DVD collection of nine animated shorts set in the universe of The Matrix (1999). Like Gotham Knight, The Animatrix was released just before Matrix Reloaded, the second film in the series. Also like Gotham Knight, the shorts of The Animatrix were produced by Japanese animation companies.

By the time of Gotham Knight’s release, DC had been producing occasional direct-to-video animated movies since 1998. While most had tied into existing or defunct animated TV shows, a new line of such movies, carrying the “DC Universe” logo, began in 2007 with Superman: Doomsday. Ostensibly, the series was established in order to occasionally adapt popular storylines from DC’s various comics into original animated movies. But a tie-in to The Dark Knight seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, and so that film got its own equivalent to The Animatrix.

There are, however, several conceptual differences between The Animatrix and Gotham Knight – besides the former’s more clever title. Superficially, Gotham Knight is shorter, with six stories totaling 76 minutes; The Animatrix had nine shorts (although one was a direct continuation of another) totaling about 89 minutes. On a deeper level, The Animatrix was more closely supervised by the Wachowski brothers (who creatored and directored the live-action Matrix movies) than Christopher Nolan supervised Gotham Knight. The Wachowskis even wrote four of the shorts in The Animatrix themselves – including material of more major importance to the franchise, including a prequel story and a lead-in to Matrix Reloaded. The Japanese animation companies were arguably of a higher caliber, with one segment directed by Koji Morimoto, animator of Akira (1988), the first anime film to achieve major recognition in the U.S.

Another difference between the two movies is that The Animatrix focused on the wider concept of the Matrix franchise, in which the world as we know it is a computer-generated simulation, rather than on the main characters from the films. While Gotham Knight reflects this approach in several shorts, telling some stories focused on auxiliary characters or previously unknown ones, Batman appears in every short.

It should also be noted that the use of various writers and styles arguably made more sense with Batman than with the Matrix. Official discussion of Gotham Knight explained that the different takes on Batman in Gotham Knight reflected how Batman had been refined by various writers and artists in the comics, and Batman certainly has proven a versatile character. He seemed perfectly suited to be lent out to other writers and directors because of his long history of being lent out to other creators – not only in the comics, but also in movies, on TV, in animation as well as live-action, and even on the radio and later in audio plays for records. While the animators of Gotham Knight were Japanese, the writers included some of comics’ top talent, further validating their different takes on Batman. The Matrix movies, in contrast, entirely reflected the vision of the Wachowski brothers. The brothers’ control over the vision of the franchise was so extreme that they even directed the intercut movie scenes in the video game Enter the Matrix, released the same year as The Matrix Reloaded and The Animatrix.

On the other hand, while the Batman character had such a history, Nolan’s Batman did not – and it was this Batman seen in Gotham Knight. In the comics, particularly respected and distinctive takes on Batman have generally been reserved for that version’s original creators, with fans traditionally being upset when this is not the case. For example, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns went without a sequel for 15 years, despite consistently being one of the best-selling U.S. graphic novels of all time, until Miller himself agreed to produce The Dark Knight Strikes Again. While Batman may be a corporate-owned character, accustomed to being passed around, letting someone else touch Miller’s revered version would be, for fans, tantamount to blasphemy. While everyone was fully aware that, should Nolan leave the franchise, another director would replace him, fans would hope that this replacement reflect Nolan’s realistic take to keep the version of Batman begun in Batman Begins consistent. This hope was not necessarily fulfilled with Gotham Knight.

Marketing and Public Perception

You would think that additional material set in the world of The Dark Knight would have sold itself, given the excitement over the sequel. You would think that Gotham Knight would have been marketed with lines like these: “before you see The Dark Knight, see the all-new stories that take place before it and are only available on DVD” and “six stories written by comics’ best writers and animated by Japan’s top talent.” You’d think that the DVD boxes would have such lines prominently emblazoned on their covers. This wasn’t, however, the case.

Given the stunning success of The Dark Knight, it’s not surprising that only a fraction of that film’s audience even knew about the existence of the animated DVD. While The Dark Knight got a massive marketing campaign, it was easy not to notice the release of Gotham Knight. It got few TV advertisements, and they didn’t seem to impress upon the viewer that this was exclusive new material set in Nolan’s world. Even those lucky enough to stumble into the DVD in a store didn’t necessarily know what it was: the package’s front cover didn’t make it the basics apparent. Fans excitedly searching the internet about The Dark Knight, or regular visitors to comics or Batman-related websites, certainly came across news about Gotham Knight. But the wider public, including reviewers of The Dark Knight, just didn’t seem to know about Gotham Knight. And, without wider involvement by Nolan, those who knew about it didn’t always get interested: it was Nolan’s Batman that they wanted to see.

Fitting Gotham Knight into Nolan’s Vision – or Not

There are several problems associated with jibing Gotham Knight and Nolan’s films. The first is stylistic: Nolan’s films have been successful largely because of their unique vision of Batman, and it’s hard to duplicate that in animation, let alone animation produced by different studios. The second has to do with the voice actors used, whose voices do not always mesh with their live-action equivalents. The third has to do with continuity issues, both specific and thematic.

The very idea of animated material set in the continuity of Nolan’s Batman is intrinsically problematic. Nolan’s vision is so strongly realistic that it has required significant reworking of the characters, and he consistently resisted computer-generated work in favor of live stunts. Live-action cinema is certainly suited to that realism. Any animated material set in the same universe would probably work best when done in a very realistic style, with characters and environments rendered with a photographic eye for detail. Use of effects such as distortion of color wouldn’t necessarily be jarring, so long as the characters felt real and physically present, as in Nolan’s films. While some of the styles chosen for the shorts of Gotham Knight are realistic, others are less so – and the contrast with Nolan’s films is jarring.

still from Batman: Gotham KnightBesides the style of animation, the voice actors used created a problem. None of the voices for the characters are done by the actors who play those characters in the films, reportedly because of scheduling conflicts but just as likely due to disinterest or lack of sufficient pay. Their replacements hardly seem intent on slavishly imitating their cinematic counterparts. To make matters worse, the voice actors often had vocal roles in past DC animated projects, which can help make the resulting shorts feel more like just more animated Batman material rather than something special that fits into Nolan’s vision.

Take, for example, Kevin Conroy, who voices Batman. Conroy voiced Batman in almost all DC’s animated series projects from 1992 to 2006, which were largely set in the same universe, as well as various projects since. Sometimes known as “the voice of the Batman,” Conroy has even done non-animation work in which he voiced the character, such as video games and an amusement park ride. Whether consciously recognized or not, Conroy’s voice sounds like Batman’s animated voice, and this makes Gotham Knight feel like just another animated Batman project. Conroy does attempt to lower his voice, but the result doesn’t approximate the gravely sound that is such a trademark of Christian Bale’s portrayal. Thus, as soon as Batman speaks, one often instinctively feels that he’s not Nolan’s version. For fans of Conroy and past animated Batman projects, his voice may be reassuring or just sound right. But for fans of Nolan’s movies (who may or may not be familiar with Batman’s animated history), casting Conroy may not have been the best choice.

Another problem with jibing Gotham Knight with Nolan’s films involves continuity. Gotham Knight features characters and locations from the live-action movies – not only Bruce Wayne / Batman, Alfred, Gordon, and Lucius Fox, but also the Scarecrow, the Narrows (the area left ravaged by fear toxin in Batman Begins), and Anna Ramirez (the crooked female African-American cop in The Dark Knight). But these are largely superficial connections, and one doesn’t have to know the live-actions films to appreciate Gotham Knight – and vice-versa. There are also outright continuity problems, such as the appearance of the Batmobile – which is a far more normal car when seen in Gotham Knight than the Tumbler of the live-action movies.

There’s also the general thematic continuity to consider. According to Nolan’s films, Batman spent the year or so between the two films fighting crime. It’s implied that the Joker has been active during that year, committing (probably occasional) crimes similar to his bank job at the start of The Dark Knight. There’s no indication in The Dark Knight that Batman has faced any other eccentric villains during this year – though nothing explicitly says that he hasn’t. The Batman of Gotham Knight does face a few such villains, and there’s no reference to the Joker’s continuing crimes.

Another thematic continuity issue has to do with Bruce Wayne’s psyche. Bruce struggles with his pain over his parents’ deaths in Batman Begins, but that pain is effectively gone from The Dark Knight. In the comics, Bruce has clearly never overcome this pain, which continues to drive him as Batman. Some of the shorts of Gotham Knight take a similar tact, arguably contradicting the emotional arc that Nolan established for the character. A couple of the shorts suggest that Batman has been collecting guns almost compulsively, which is an interesting idea but one more clearly at odds with Nolan’s depiction.

still from Batman: Gotham KnightUltimately, Gotham Knight can exist within Nolan’s timeline, but not without problems. Some fans enjoy the fact that there’s additional material set in that timeline – and that material is certainly of good quality, as is the case with Gotham Knight. Other fans aren’t interested in animated work, especially when it has continuity problems or isn’t essential, or see Gotham Knight as diluting Nolan’s singular vision.

Fortunately, both can have their way. Such ancillary creative material accompanying film franchises often occupies a “semi-canonical” status – indicating “optional” material for fans that the movies’ creators can reference, steal, or contradict at will. Consider the many TV shows, non-theatrical movies, comic books, and novels set in the Star Wars universe. Other franchises (Robocop, Alien, Terminator, Predator, Indiana Jones, etc.) have similar, if less extensive, relationships with their ancillary material. Fortunately, the many other versions of Batman in various media preclude material set in Nolan’s universe from similarly spinning out of control: there are other ways to generate Batman stories without clogging Nolan’s timeline. Few people are bothered by the existence of novelizations and comic book adaptations, which typically contradict the cinematic originals to some degree but which remain “official.” Gotham Knight can occupy a similar (though more exalted) status, remaining a special and official extension of Nolan’s films while simultaneously remaining optional – something fans of the films can ignore without feeling guilty.

While Gotham Knight is obviously not as important as Nolan’s live-action films, it’s important to study this collection of animated shorts, at least in some depth, for the sake of completeness. Gotham Knight might be optional, but it isn’t irrelevant by any means: you can ignore it in terms of Nolan’s continuity, but it does provide an interesting take on the characters and settings of Nolan’s films. Finally, Gotham Knight is of substantial artistic merit: while the quality of the shorts varies, none are bad and some are quite good indeed.

In other words, anyone trying to understand the universe Nolan inaugurated should know Gotham Knight – a worthwhile work in its own right, even if it represents others’ somewhat contradictory takes on Nolan’s vision.

Fitting Gotham Knight into Other Animated DC Projects

Those involved in the production often pointed out how much Gotham Knight differed from past DC animated efforts. A general viewer, one unfamiliar with DC’s animated offerings, may not notice how different the collection is from past animated Batman stories – and thus mistake the collection for just another animated Batman effort. So it’s important to look at Gotham Knight in the context of DC’s other animation of the time. The similarities and the contrasts inform our understanding of Gotham Knight and how it represented a special and different project, even if it didn’t entirely feel at home with Nolan’s vision.

still from Batman: Gotham KnightThe most obvious way Gotham Knight differs from past animated Batman work is in the artwork, produced by Japanese companies and lacking the minimalistic style that has dominated DC’s animated projects since 1992. This animation differs in style and quality. Then again, DC’s animated shows had taken on an anime-influenced style subsequently, particularly for Teen Titans (2003-2006) and The Batman (2004-2008). The styles used in Gotham Knight vary from the stereotypical anime style seen in those past animated efforts, but a Japanese influence was not completely out-of-synch with past DC animation. In fact, some Japanese animators had previously worked on Batman: The Animated Series.

Gotham Knight was also co-produced and co-helmed by Bruce Timm, who created the distinctly minimal look for Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted in 1992. That style would become the house style for most of DC’s animated offerings, which all took place in a shared universe, through 2006. While Timm didn’t exercise control over the artistic styles used in Gotham Knight, he represented the project at comic-book conventions and was identified with it in the minds of fans. This may have further helped viewers identify the project with past animated efforts instead of Nolan’s work. Timm can’t really be blamed for this, although Nolan or someone else might have made different choices, from pacing to the casting of voice actors, that would have made Gotham Knight feel more different.

Another way that Gotham Knight differed from past animated efforts is that it was rated PG-13 for stylized violence, including a few bloody images – a rarity for Batman animated work. But a few, slightly more graphic scenes was not enough to make Gotham Knight feel as dark as Nolan’s vision. And while some stories feel adequately dark, others feel much lighter.

Gotham Knight also differed from past DC animated efforts in a more obvious way: it was set in the universe of live-action films, the first time a DC original animated movie could make such a claim. DC previously released two original animated movies timed to the release of major motion pictures: The Batman vs. Dracula (2005) was released soonafter Batman Begins and Superman: Brainiac Attacks (2006) was released in time for Superman Returns. Neither took place in the live-action movie’s continuity. Nonetheless, before Gotham Knight, there was a history of DC offering original animated movies in synch with major live-action ones. Gotham Knight saw the opportunity to do something different: not only to tie into its live-action movie’s continuity, but to offer a series of Japanese-animated shorts rather than a single movie-length story.

In sum, Gotham Knight might not be in synch with Nolan’s vision, but it’s also not typical of DC animation at the time. It was a hybrid: something partaking of DC’s animated history but also of Nolan’s universe, with Japanese animators thrown in for good measure.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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1 Comment

  1. Julian,

    I’m really glad to see some attention being shed upon the animated side of Batman. I saw one or two of the shorts, and simply need to make some time to finish watching them. As I was reading your article, I felt like something needed to be said but wasn’t. One of the conclusions you suggest for a lack of more open acceptance of this collection of animated shorts is:

    “Other fans aren’t interested in animated work, especially when it has continuity problems or isn’t essential, or see Gotham Knight as diluting Nolan’s singular vision.”

    I’m not arguing with this per se; however, I think in some cases it has far more to do with the simple fact that many fans are interested or willing to accept a cartoon on the same playing field as Nolan’s work. I’ve heard a handful of Batman scholars come right out and lay claim that Bruce Timm’s Batman from BTAS is arguably *the* best interpretation of the character on the small and big screen, and I couldn’t help but notice the number of shocked reaction to these statements. You could almost hear people murmur: “How can a cartoon even come close to stand up against Nolan’s grim and realistic portrayal of Batman?” It comes down to the same sort of snobbery that was levied against comics in comparison to the traditional written text.

    Overall, I am very much in agreement with the issues you lay out here as to why many fans (diehards and more mainstream) have not be open to being more accepting of these contributions. But I am of the opinion that a certain amount of hesitation and/or flat out unwillingness to consider a “lesser” medium is at work here as well.

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