Like The Animatrix which bought some time in between the Matrix movies, this is a project in the same vein having some top notch Japanese anime companies take on this American comic book icon, and give it their own visual spin on the mythos told by writers such as Brian Azzarello and David Goyer, amongst others. It reportedly addresses some of the gap between the timelines of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but after watching it, there's really nothing missed even if you haven't watched this.
But do so for the quality of the animation alone, where top notch production houses such as Studio 4°C and Madhouse were engaged to provide their renditions of Batman. And for all fans of the Batman's animated series over the years, having Kevin Conroy voice this is also something of a smart move to ensure proper continuity, given that after all he's been at it for some 15 years, and have proven to be the definitive voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the numerous animated films as well.
So what's there to expect? Here's the breakdown:
1. Have I Got a Story for You (Studio 4°C)
This is similar to an episode of the Batman Animated Series (which is also included here) where a bunch of teenage skateboarders recollect their various experiences with Batman, and naturally their interpretation of the icon range from frightening liquid oil-like being, to an expected winged beast, and even a suit of armour like Iron Man. This is by Studio 4°C , so you'd come to expect some really energetic visuals here.
2. Crossfire (Production I.G.)
The running theme here is how Batman is perceived by different quarters, and here's a story that's coming from the POV of 2 GCPD detectives, one of whom you'll also see carrying on to The Dark Knight movie. Being part of the Major Crimes Unit that Jim Gordon assembles, one's the skeptical cop questioning Gordon's alliance and tolerance for a vigilante, while the other's pretty much sitting on the fence. Their views will change of course when they're literally caught in the middle of a gang war, and there's a major action sequence here propagating the myth that he may not be totally human.
3. Field Test (Bee Train, Inc.)
I didn't like the Bruce Wayne depicted here as he looks a little too effeminate looking, so I had to focus really closely on the manly Kevin Conroy voice to convince me that he's the real deal. This is Lucius Fox's segment being the Q to Batman by designing some pretty nifty high tech tools that could be weaponized either for offensive or defensive purposes. Here a new device is crafted, and while it seemed like an extremely good idea, the field test highlighted certain moral dangers to using it, giving it a short life unfortunately. Would have been cool though, especially if brought over to The Dark Knight too.
4. In Darkness Dwells (Madhouse)
I am a fan of Madhouse's visual eye and flair, and this is one of my favourite segments visually, and also for its frenetic set action pieces. Written by David Goyer, we see the return of the two detectives from the earlier segment, and two familiar villains from the Rogues Gallery featured, with a very brutal looking Killer Croc, as well as the Scarecrow which looks a little more sinister. It's basically an action piece, and everything works here. Probably the tightest story that integrates the other stories subtly here.
5. Working Through Pain (Studio 4°C)
This is Studio 4°C's second contribution to the film, and it opens with quite a bloody start. We take a step back into Bruce Wayne's training which took him around the world, and here he journeys to India in the hope of getting the fakirs to teach him pain management, in a continuation from In Darkness Dwells. At first I thought it was going to be an introduction to Lady Shiva as well, but here it's somewhat of an essential training module that Bruce masters by the end of it. I cheer for the familiar looking Batmobile too, but more importantly, this reminded us of a very crucial role that Alfred plays in supporting Batman, one being there to address his wounds each time he gets banged up. Look out for the very cool metaphor at the end too.
6. Deadshot (Madhouse)
And Alfred's crucial role continues in this short as well, being the guiding voice from behind the consoles in the Batcave. Being Madhouse's second contribution to this last short, this is also a very gorgeous piece of animation that I've come to enjoy, and a very energetic action piece involving Deadshot (check out that character intro that looks straight out of Wanted) and a plot to take out Jim Gordon who puts his life on the line to flush out this villain. We also see Batman's glider used a lot here as well, which of course we'll also see it put to good use in The Dark Knight.
This Two-Disc Special Edition Code 3 DVD by Warner Home Video comes with a menu background in Disc 1 which randomly changes using stills from the film. Disc 1 autoplays with the trailers for 10,000 BC and Appleseed Ex Machina. The feature film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, with language tracks and subtitles available in English, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese and Thai. Scene selection is available over 6 logical chapters according to the shorts, and 1 end credits.
Disc 1 contains an Audio Commentary by Gregory Novak, Dennis O'Neil and Kevin Conroy who provides the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne. It isn't your standard commentary which specifically talks about the shorts per se, given that they're largely done by creative teams in Japan, but like a chat session where they share their various experiences working on the project, as well as talk about Batman in more general terms when the visuals on screen hit certain anecdotes which offer discussion points. Only Conroy was able to provide some direct input on the process, which was to voice act after the animation was done, compared to his experienced involvement in the other animation series spanning 15 years, where they do the story first like a radio play before the animation was done. Quite an informative track for the Bat fans, especially since the definitive voice of Conroy is involved here.
DC's largest heroes are the Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. While the first two have made their jump to the big screen, Wonder Woman however has only made her foray to the goggle box, and a big screen translation is still very much in development hell. No mater, because we have a Wonder Women Sneak Peek (10:29, matted letterbox) into the animated film coming up (Spring 2009), which is an origin story, and introduced by the likes of Paul Levitz, Dan Didio and Bruce Timm who talk us through the evolution of the character since its 1941 creation, and discussed by the voice casting of Keri Russell in the title role, supported by Nathan Fillion, Rosario Dawson, Alfred Mollina and Virginia Madsen. I'm sold already!
Rounding up the extras on Disc 1 are some Trailers for The Dark Knight "Coming To Theatres" (2:08, matted letterbox), Journey to the Center of the Earth (2:07), Lego Batman the Videogame (1:14, matted letterbox) which is really cute, and Popeye the Sailor 1938-1940 Vol 2 (1:39, matted letterbox, black and white).
Disc 2 is the Special Features disc which is presented in anamorphic widescreen, with subtitles available only in Japanese and Thai.
A Mirror for the Bat: The Evil Denizens of Gotham City (35:45) is an excellent examination into the enemies of the Batman. To have a hero, you must begin with something required, which is the villain. For those who are curious about the immense popularity of Batman, who is without super powers but yet being able to endure through the ages, for some 70 years already. The secret of that appeal no doubt lies in his rogues gallery, which to me is the best ever out there for a comic book character. They draw from the darkest human emotions, and constantly thread the grey and dark areas.
This documentary ropes in the expert opinions of those who have been involved with Batman in one form or another, such as Brian Azzarello, Greg Rucka, Paul Levitz, Dan Didio, Michael Uslan, Dennis O'Neil, Paul Dini, Andy Mangels etc, to talk about a slew of villains such as Killer Croc, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Clayface, Mr Freeze, and the more recognizable A-listers such as The Riddler, Scarecrow, Ra's Al Ghul, The Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face and of course, The Joker.
Fused with clips from the animated series, this film and countless of panels from classic comic books, they collectively trace the history and inspiration for these memorable villainous characters, and how they shift and evolve over the years under a constant stream of new writers, while yet keeping true to their core. Definitely not to be missed for those who are new to the Batman mythos and want to learn more about what makes the Dark Knight tick.
For those who wish to know more about the creator of Batman, then look no further than Batman and Me, A Devotion to Destiny: The Bob Kane Story (38:25), which to my surprise didn't shy away from painting some of the negative aspects to Kane and his debonair lifestyle, which similar to Ian Fleming's, he too inspired to lead a life like his creation. While he can't be Batman, he certainly could try to live it up a little like Bruce Wayne, given that unlike the creators of Superman, Kane's dad did get a lawyer for him during the early days for legal representation for his deal with DC, so he did get better than expected returns on his creation.
Based on old interviews, we get to hear how Bob Kane created the pop culture icon which lifted him from poverty, and what I thought was a surprise to have learnt that Vicki Vale was fashioned after Marilyn Monroe. Some have talked about his super ego and being a ladies man which served him well, and these are also documented here alongside interviews with his biographer Tom Andrae (Batman and Me), collaborator Jerry Robinson, Mark Hamill, Kane's wife Elizabeth, as well as industry players like Paul Levitz, Michael Uslan and Stan Lee who recounted their friendly rivalry.
Wrapping up this disc is Bruce Timm Presents: Bonus Episodes from Batman The Animated Series presented in 4x3 fullscreen with an option to play all the 4 episodes chosen. I'm sure fans of the series would already recall the details of these episodes, and these were chosen from hundreds because of their depth of representation. We have 1. Legends of the Dark Knight (20:17) which sums up the spirit of Gotham Knight, and having to bring us through the different tellings and interpretations of Batman, from the 50s Dick Sprang style of character art, storyline and dialogues, to Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns treatment, and a sly reference to Joel Schumacher's Batmobile from Batman Forever. 2. Heart of Ice (22:24) is an introduction to Mr Freeze, and an example of how much pathos an episode from this acclaimed series could contain, as well as a showcase of the richness and depth of characters from Batman's Rogues Gallery. 3. Over the Edge (21:33) shows the expanded Batman family with Tim Drake's Robin, Nightwing and Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, and the villain Bane, in what was an alternate what-if like tale. 4. I Am The Night (22:15) features Leslie Thompson, and is an emotional piece dwelling on Batman's constant battle with guilt, and the weight he shoulders every night when out there battling criminals.
All in all, this collection would be keeping every Bat-fan engaged for at least half a day. I know I was.