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Gotham Knight

Everything seems right. The cityscape looms darkly and through the gloom a familiar yellow light shines on the underside of a cloud. It's the Bat-signal, and that means that somewhere in Gotham City, the Dark Knight is needed.

And so he appears, but not always the way you've envisioned him. Sometimes you see a shaggy-haired, dewy eyed Bruce Wayne with a recognizable but strange costume. Look again and it's a variation on the classic costume from the 1940's, then again the heavily armored look from the movies. At one point, Batman even morphs into a robot after being perceived as a wispy demon. Even faithful manservant Alfred changes his appearance.

That's what happens when a studio takes a risk and allows five different anime directors to apply their style to an icon. The result, in Batman: Gotham Knight, works as both artistic experiment and satisfying storytelling in one very commercial product.

Serving as a bridge between Batman Begins and the upcoming The Dark Knight, the DVD lays out five tales that explore different aspects of the legend of Batman. It sets the tone right off the bat (sorry) with "Have I Got a Story To Tell You…", as a group of skateboarders tell each other about a sighting they've had of the Batman.

In each recounting, he takes on different forms, and in a clever twist, the stories are also in reverse chronological order - until Batman and his enemy actually crash into the abandoned pool site where the kids sit and spin their stories. And then, my friends, Kevin Conroy speaks, and you realize this is still the Batman many of us have come to love over the past two decades.

Except it's also a much harder-core Batman than we've seen in animated form before. As each segment spotlights a different element of Batman's life, it's clear that this movie earns its PG-13 rating. In particular, "In Darkness Dwells" pushes the violence to a new level, working with a Batman design that's disturbingly Michael Keaton-like.

But the violence is necessary for the story being told. Though this is animated, it's still playing more off of the live-action films, even when it introduces characters like Detective Crispus Allen from the comics.

We see what happened to the Scarecrow in between movies, and we get a deepening of the working relationship between Lucius Fox and Wayne. ER's Parminder Nagra voices a character from Wayne's past named Cassandra, who helped him focus past physical pain.

Oddly, the least impressive segment is the last one, that you might think would most directly lead into The Dark Knight. "Deadshot" features, obviously, Deadshot, but though the visuals are cool, the characterization feels a little light, and the main action of it got beaten to the punch by the (admittedly inferior) Wanted. Of course, Wesley Gibson was loosely based on Deadshot in the first place, so the resemblance makes sense.

The production also brings in a little of the old-school for commentary on the movie. Gregory Noveck, DC's liaison and the one of the real powers behind this DC Universe line of movies, sits in with Conroy and long-time Batman writer and editor Dennis O'Neill. At times, the commentary feels like fan reaction as they go along. Though it's clear they've all seen the movie at least once before, there's a nice impromptu feel to their insights.

Sure, we've also known how great an actor Conroy is because of his nuanced voice work, but it was really surprising to hear both him and O'Neill make connections to Hamlet. (That doesn't necessarily prove Conroy's talent, except that that comparison actually landed him the job in the first place.)

Batman: Gotham Knight comes in both a single and two-disc special edition. Of course, most fans will spring for the two-disc, which has pretty cool packaging. But whether or not that second disc is worth it - well, it's certainly on the right track.

These DC Universe movies have done consistently great jobs of including interesting documentaries on slices of history. The second disc features a look at Batman's villains, mostly through the eyes of the writers on Gotham Knight. Since most of those writers have also spent time working on the comics, it's a well-informed, interesting take.

Of more historical note, the disc includes a look at Bob Kane. Culling interviews from a variety of sources, this documentary takes about as even-handed a look at Kane's legacy as a DC product could possibly be expected to do. There's been a lot of controversy about the flamboyant self-promoting Kane since his death, and the documentary at least nods toward that.

Perhaps you can put it in perspective when the documentary interviews Stan Lee, another who has had some controversy surrounding his creative powers. When dealing with modern myths, maybe the biggest one is the one you create about yourself.

Also on the second disc are four of Bruce Timm's favorite episodes from Batman: The Animated Series. Again, longtime fans probably have these on disc already, but it makes for a good comparison to sit and watch "Legends of the Dark Knight," when it's obvious that the opener of Gotham Knight owes a debt to this episode.

Hopefully, this is a melding between anime fans and long-time Timm fans. I admit that not all of the styles work for me, but Batman: Gotham Knight ended up being more exciting and compelling than I thought it would, and it's absolutely a must-see for fans.

Derek McCaw

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