This movie seems to get a lot of mixed reactions by reviewers. Some love the anthological take and the variety of segments, while others would have preferred a more coherent tale. Some loved the artwork, while others found it unfitting for the Dark Knight. Some watched the film without thinking about the Nolan-verse, whereas others viewed it with the expectations that it be everything the producers said it would be. This is my personal take; in it I will try to address why I enjoyed it and why I can't accept many of the flaws people find with it.
'Have I Got A Story For You'
This seems to be the segment that people hated the most. They point out many things, like the irritating dialogue of the skaters, the oddly proportioned character designs, and the fact that the story had been done before in a sense. Before I get into what I loved about this segment, I will address each of these points. First of all, I agree about the dialogue of the skater kids. It was definitely overdone in its attempt to come across as a ghetto dialect, and it was really quite distracting. However, that was the one thing about this story that I disliked. Secondly, the character designs are simply the way the artist chose to visually tell the story; it's his personal style. You may not like his personal style, but it's hardly a valid objective criticism. Additionally, as odd as the designs were, the allowed for very fluid and sleek animation. Finally, the story is not a rip-off of any sort of 'Legends of the Dark Knight'. I have read that the writer had not even seen that episode when he penned this, taking more of his inspiration from a comic done in the '70s. Even without that taken into consideration, it's worth noting that there are some very fundamental differences between this story and the story told in 'The New Batman Adventures'. The most important is that 'Legends of the Dark Knight' is supposed to be an homage to different comic book eras, meant to convey how different writers and artists have portrayed him throughout the years and why no interpretation is any better or worse than another. 'Have I Got A Story For You' was more in tune with the 'Batman: the Animated Series' episode 'P.O.V.' (but better in what it aimed to do), in that it shows how Batman's entire being is subject to how others see him, very much a story of perspective.
Personally, I felt this was a very strong segment. It wasn't meant to be taken seriously, rather as lighthearted fun. It starts off the film perfectly, as it begins an evolution of sorts, as the Batman in each segment progresses from mythical, to distant, to ultimately up-close and introspective by the end of the movie. While this segment lacked much depth or profundity, it was still a visual feast. The fight scenes were beautiful, as was the background art, and even if I agreed with every criticism I refuted earlier, the incredible animation would have been enough compensation for me. The detail is staggering and there are so many instances of distortion and excellent timing that I add so much to the excitement of this segment. For those who are used to the dark seriousness of prior Batman incarnations, 'Have I Got A Story For You' is definitely a bit hard to swallow at first, but for anyone who loves good fun and amazing animated action, this story is a definite winner.
A nice contrast to 'Have I Got A Story For You', this segment takes a more cinematic approach. It's a lot more low-key, a lot more tense, and a lot more focused on character interplay than on visual excitement. This is one of my least favorite stories in the film, but I still enjoy it. I find myself agreeing with a lot of the criticisms that others have pointed out. One is that the dialogue isn't particularly strong between Allen and Ramirez. While, I think there are some sharp lines here and there, it's mostly a rehash of platitudes concerning Batman's role as either a well-intentioned protector or an outlaw vigilante. However, the cinematography, loose shreds of continuity from the first segment (Jacob Feeley being the man in black we saw Batman fight in 'Have I Got A Story For You'), and most notably the eerie music, keep it entertaining. Additionally, the mention of the Narrows and the fact that the entire island has become sanctioned off for all of the lunatics we saw running around at the end of 'Batman Begins' is a notable tie-in to the first Nolan film. Hopefully, most people know as well that Crispus Allen and Anna Ramirez are scheduled to appear in 'The Dark Knight'.
The story picks up when the two detectives get caught up in a gun fight between two mob bosses, Sal Maroni and the Russian. While the gun fight is rather poorly executed, it's neat to see Maroni in action (yet another thread that connects to 'The Dark Knight'). The segment really gets good when Batman intervenes. While the animation in this segment is a lot stiffer, the moment in which Allen flies up, his leg bound by Batman's grapple, is very well directed and animated, a sequence that works very effectively in the context of the story. The Batman in this segment is the dark mysterious Batman that most of us love. From his very presence emanates darkness, fear, and a great badass quality. His quickness in taking down the thugs juxtaposed with the awe in the eyes of Ramirez does a great job of showing just how epic Batman is as he works. Finally, the image of Batman standing, fire all around him is beautiful. While there are some nit-picks that Batman's suit shouldn't withstand the flames, I don't take issue with it in the least. Bruce Timm has stated many times that he produced this film with the intention that the Japanese directors do their own interpretations. If the man who directed this segment felt the need to sacrifice a little bit of realism for a stunning visual, I'm certainly not one to argue.
As Batman apprehends Maroni, who has just threatened Ramirez's life, we are treated with a glorious instance of everything that makes Batman an awesome hero: his almost demonic quickness in stopping Maroni, his powerful voice as delivered by Kevin Conroy in the words 'No, you won't', and his sheer dark visual look as he stares down Maroni, now cowering in fear. The segment definitely starts out slow, but it builds to a beautiful climax that serves to show us a perfect embodiment of what we all love about the Dark Knight.
There is only one thing that hurts this segment: the animation. It is stiff, there is limited movement, and the action lacks much impact. This is the one criticism about this segment that I agree with. I don't agree with the attacks on this segment's character designs or Batman's choice to use the bullet-deflecting device. As for the former complaint, even though this is the most generically anime of all the pieces, it is still very fitting. The pretty-boy Bruce Wayne design is perfect for the suave young Bruce of this story and the rest of the character designs, lighting, and backgrounds, are all beautiful. Now, in regards to the bullet-deflecting device, people complain that it makes Batman too powerful and not vulnerable like he should be. Now even though saying that there is any way that Batman 'should be' is completely foolish, this criticism doesn't hold any water anyway. It's worth noting that Bruce Wayne is young in this segment; he obviously doesn't have the moral fortitude of his later more experience self, and anything that could help him better fight crime would surely be welcomed. Secondly, by the end of the segment, Bruce quits using the device, which should appease everyone who didn't like it. It's a rather nice message and I'll go into it a bit more later.
This segment is great for its abundance of continuity references. The mob fight subplot continues, the satellite mentioned in 'Crossfire' is seen again, Lucius Fox's and Bruce Wayne's relationship continues to progress along the same lines as it began in 'Batman Begins', and Marshall's introduction is a great setup to what we find out in 'Deadshot' later on. The episode builds slowly to a climactic payoff, just like 'Crossfire', although it is better executed here. Instead of cramming the entire first half with repetitive back-and-forths, we get a bit more variety here. It starts off with some good scenes between Lucius and Bruce, and then goes on to show us Bruce's conversation with Roger Marshall, a corrupt businessman, at a golf game. All throughout these conversational scenes, the dialogue is a lot crisper and more natural than it was in the first two segments, which is a huge plus. As the segment progresses, it arrives at the big action-packed finale. The reason 'Crossfire' doesn't work as well is that it was more of a two-act structure, whereas 'Field Test' flows much better in adopting the three-act structure of most stories.
The segment ends as one of the thugs he is fighting in his takedown of Maroni and the Russian ends up getting shot by one of the bullets that reflected off of Batman's magnetically generated field. Batman feels guilty and as a result takes the man to the hospital. This is great because it shows a more flawed side of the character, an aspect I personally felt was missing a lot in 'Batman Begins'. It shows Batman undergoing a moral dilemma. In saving himself, he endangered another life. The story ends beautifully as Bruce returns the device with a very poignant line.
'In Darkness Dwells'
This segment really didn't have much of a point outside of being a dark old-fashioned Batman adventure. It's one of my favorite segments in the entire movie for many reasons. The first is that it was written with the Nolan films very much in mind. There is a more emphasis on the established realism of 'Batman Begins'. We see what happened to Scarecrow after the events at the end of the first film, and while not everyone liked what happened to the Scarecrow and complained that he didn't feel like the same character that we saw in 'Begins', I thought it was fitting. Having been a pawn of Ras Al Ghul in that movie, it seems natural that he would take his chance to be a controller, especially given all of the escaped criminals that were exposed to his fear toxin. Secondly, I loved seeing Batman and Gordon together. Their conversation flowed very well, and it really did feel like the relationship from the comics. The ending in which Batman refuses to be helped by Gordon is an excellent counterpoint to the trust they seem to have in each other earlier in the story.
All this is well and good, but what I really loved about this segment is the visuals and the animation. No segment looks as beautiful as this one does. The opening shot of this is too good to be put into words. I'll just say that it is the best that I have ever seen Gotham City look in all my years as a Batman fan. The rain and the shadows are animated flawlessly and they add a perfect visual atmosphere to the piece. People who hated the look of this film I find hard to take seriously as there is absolutely nothing anyone can find fault in at a visual level here. I suppose that the lip-synching was pretty rough here, but that's not really the fault of the animation so much as it is the fault of the voice actors. The high animation quality continues as Batman enters the sewers. The fight with Killer Croc, however brief, is stunning. The camera shaking, the model consistency throughout, the attention to detail in the setting that surrounds them; it all looks amazing. The real highlights come as Batman descends into the Scarecrow's lair to save the kidnapped cardinal. The color scheme is rich and the animation utilizes all sorts of timing and distortion techniques. I especially love the bent foreshortening of the pipe that Batman scrapes his gauntlets against just before knocking out Scarecrow. It's all excellent and I have yet to see anyone constructively criticize anything about the look of this segment.
While the plot may be a little thin, I think the sharp dialogue compensates for it. There is a plethora of good one-liners to be found throughout and there's not one line that feels out of place. It really seems to carry on in the same vein of 'Field Test' in regard to the writing. It's not the most profound story (that one is yet to come), but visually, I'm not sure that there is a single segment that tops it, even 'Deadshot'.
'Working Through Pain'
This is my favorite segment. I have yet to read any real criticisms of this segment aside from the confusion that the same wound that Batman is tending here is the same one he received in 'In Darkness Dwells', when in reality he had gotten shot at the beginning of the story, and that of the ending, which some people didn't understand. One review I read criticized some of the dialogue, but I really thought that this was the best written story. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it really did a lot to explore Batman's tortured self. I haven't read much of Brian Azarello's works, but I found his interview very interesting, in which he said that he doesn't consider Batman a hero, more a messed up guy trying to compensate for his past. Azarello's vision really comes through in 'Working Through Pain', which is perhaps the most profound and most emotionally affecting segment of the film.
The episode more or less spends its majority constructing a parallel between Bruce's striving to overcome physical pain and his ultimate inability to control his emotional pain. As revealed in flashback, in seeking spiritual guidance on pain, Bruce had sought Cassandra, an Indian mystic. She taught him everything he needed to know about fighting pain on a physical level, but as she found out herself at the end of their training, he could not control the pain rooted deep inside of his persona, as that is what drives him and motivates him to do what he does. This is a great point made in the flashback, but it gets complemented perfectly by the ending of the segment. As Batman wanders through the sewers, he stumbles on an area covered in abandoned guns. Knowing full well that anyone could use these to hurt others and also undergoing certain mental anguish, Batman begins picking them up one by one, until he is holding a good pile. This scene hits home because it immediately follows Cassandra's speech about how Batman is driven by pain, and therefore this pile of guns not only makes sense as something Batman would do, but also as a visual metaphor for his being weighted down by the pain of his past.
The really enjoy the artwork in this segment. It's a lot less stylistic than the rest of the segments. The designs are very ordinary with very pale color schemes, but they animate beautifully. There aren't many effects in the animation, rather the fight scenes are solely dependent on its fluidity, and it work wonderfully. Unlike the rest of the segments, the visuals and the story are equally great, and this is the only segment that doesn't have a single flaw.
This segment seems to be everyone's favorite and for good reason. It's a more traditional story: a simple Batman vs bad guy action-fest with nice underlying character themes relating to Batman's past. It sort of follows 'Working Through the Pain' in the sense that it deals primarily with Batman and his relationship to guns. However, while Batman in the last segment was very vulnerable and weak, here he has authority and everything about him feels firmly established. The main point of the segment is that Batman's quest is rooted in the death of his parents and that every villain he fights bears semblance to the man who took their life. In setting up Deadshot as a mirror image to Batman, the story sets up this idea perfectly and it concludes on an almost touching note.
It begins with Batman pondering the death of his parents, which directly precedes a soliloquy he gives on the attraction of guns. It's surprising, yet it makes perfect sense and feels natural. Batman in his abstinence from using guns surely must know what makes them appealing to those he fights. This is juxtaposed perfectly with the gun-wielding and flamboyantly dressed Deadshot, who skillfully assassinates an unknown target, offering the perfect contrast to Batman. From there the episode ties a lot of continuity together from prior segments. We see that Crispus Allen now trusts Batman, that Deadshot is under the Russian's employ, and that Roger Marshall had hired him to kill the activist from 'Field Test'. This gives the segment a lot more weight than most. We are also treated to perhaps Batman's most familiar design in the film, the costume he dons very reminiscent of his usual comic book attire.
The main crux of the episode, however, is the action as Batman confronts Deadshot. The animation, by Madhouse (the same studio that animated 'In Darkness Dwells'), is great although I personally found some scenes rather stiff. Anyway, each time I have watched this particular story, I have found myself blown away by the staging and direction and how seamlessly the action flows. Most directors would no doubt find it tough to stage a scene in which an assassin is preparing to shoot a target from a moving elevated train, only to get thwarted by a gliding Batman, who finds his way on top of the train to engage in the climactic fight. Here, it's pulled off effortlessly. The actual fight is great, consisting of gunshots, batarangs, and skillful maneuvers. The impact of the final blow is deafening, concluding one the best, if not the best, confrontations in the entire movie.
This final fight is given more depth, however, in that Bruce tells Alfred, ever the paternal figure in Bruce's life, about how similar the fight felt to the night of his parents' murder, everything from the closeness of the walls to the gunshots. As Bruce finishes by stating that his mission is inherently futile, Alfred ends the film on a provocative note with the curious notion that perhaps Bruce has a greater purpose than what he currently strives for. Before things get too deep, the movie closes with the Bat-Signal, visible through the window of Wayne Manor.
Overall, I loved this movie. Anything that shows alternate interpretations of Batman is great, and this movie offered six unique versions of my favorite comic book character. I know that a lot of people didn't like that there wasn't more to bridge the gap between the two Nolan films, but looking at it as its own film, it really is great stuff and very worthy of Batman.
Final Grade: A