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Batman: Gotham Knight & DCU Animated Movies DVDs

By Mark Clapham on 12 July 2008

As mathematicians realised a few years back, ‘ageing fanbase’ plus ‘larger disposable incomes’ equals ‘easy money’. Not content with selling replica Green Lantern batteries, action figures of parallel universe communist supermen, and elaborate hardcover collections of comics fans have already bought at least twice, lately DC (backed by parent company Warner Brothers) has been getting into the straight-to-DVD movie market, with animated movies designed to appeal more to older, hardcore fans rather than kids or casual moviegoers. These movies are standalones unrelated to previous animated series, using different styles of animation.

First out of the gate was ‘Superman/Doomsday’, a loose adaptation of the ‘Death of Superman’ story arc from the 1990s. Now, this makes a kind of sense as a first project: the story made more headlines than any comic book narrative before or since, was adapted as a novel and a radio series, was the basis for Kevin Smith’s pass at the Tim Burton/Nic Cage ‘Superman Lives’ live action movie, and indeed the shadow of the story can be seen in some of the later bits of Bryan Singer’s ‘Superman Returns’. All sound marketing reasons, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a brilliant idea – the ‘Death’/'Reign’/'Return’ sequence of stories took in four regular monthly comics along with numerous other DCU books, had a sprawling plot and hundreds of supporting characters – the essence of an unwieldy superhero soap, written around the twists and cliffhangers and with endless dead ends and distractions. Writer Duane Capizzi boils down the story in a way that feels like the script for a live-action movie, getting rid of all the other heroes and subplots and focussing in on Superman, Lois, and Lex Luthor. Arguably Capizzi strips too much away and, smashed buildings aside, the end result doesn’t feel like it needs to be animation at all – it feels like a mainstream superhero movie, but in cartoon form, with all the simplifications that entails. The character designs and voice work are fine, but no better or worse than those in the ‘Superman’ animated series. All very OK, but kind of uninspiring.

Thankfully, the follow-up took greater advantage of the medium and the format by faithfully adapting a self-contained mini-series, and bringing all the qualities that made it a successful comic to fully animated life. ‘Justice League: The New Frontier’ is a tight, focussed adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant 2004 mini-series, a retelling ot the silver age of DC Comics woven into the political realities of late 50s America. The central plot of ‘New Frontier’ is sufficiently straightforward that fitting it into a 70 minute movie isn’t a problem, and there’s some neat bits of nipping and tucking so that memorable moments from the comic are moved around so that they appear somewhere even when the original scenes they appeared in have been trimmed. With hindsight, its hard to see how the DC Universe Animated Movie division will ever find such perfect source material again – as an artist who has worked in animation, Cooke’s designs work as well in one medium as the other, with minimal streamlining. The voice work is exemplary, and best of all combines with the character designs to just disappear behind the characters – David Boreanaz and Neil Patrick Harris are in the voice cast, but I completely forgot I was listening to Angel and Doogie Howser, I was just watching Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. The wistful period detail extends from the Saul Bass inspired title sequence to the semi-animated montage at the end. Like the comic book that inspired it, ‘Justice League: The New Frontier’ is a very precious thing, and I’m very glad it exists.

Which brings us to ‘Batman: Gotham Knight’, which has a slightly different pedigree, as it also fits into a separate trend, stalled of late, for animated prequels to big live action movies (‘The Animatrix’, ‘Van Helsing: The London Assignment’). Slotting in between ‘Batman Begins’ and this summer’s ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’, ‘Gotham Knight’ also has to make itself distinctive in a crowded marketplace of ‘Batman’ animated interpretation which include the recent ‘The Batman’ (also set early in the character’s career) and the forthcoming ‘The Brave and the Bold’. The solution they’ve come up with is ingenious if slightly perverse, borrowing from ‘The Animatrix’ to present six separate but loosely linked stories set between the two cinematic releases, each written by a different screenwriter and animated by different talent from the world of Japanese anime. The result is highly enjoyable and surprisingly coherent. Character designs and styles of animation may vary, from different takes on Batman’s costume to Bruce Wayne’s apparent age to whether Alfred has a moustache or not, but the central tone and aesthetic from ‘Begins’ of a young Batman in a crime-ridden, decaying Gotham knits the whole thing together.

These are short stories – about ten minutes each – but the end result feels substantial, with most segments feeling more like a compressed animated episode than an extended short. Aside from the different styles on offer here, there are plenty of other pleasing variations, from the different aspects of Batman they highlight (disturbed psyche, hi-tech crime fighter, etc) to the reinterpretation of familiar characters such as Crispus Allen and Deadshot. It’s also a supreme pleasure to have Kevin Conroy, the definitive voice of Batman, back in action. Conroy even gets to present a new version of the character, playing younger for the installments where Bruce Wayne has been drawn as a typical anime youth.

‘Gotham Knight’ is a great little project, which has left me eager to see ‘The Dark Knight’ as well as whatever DC Universe animated movies come next – which must surely count as a definite double success.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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