"Hey Bat—when you're flyin'... what the city look like from up on high?" a grungy homeless guy asks when he sees Batman lurking through Gotham City's cavernous, tortuous sewers. After a pause, Batman growls back: "It looks dirty."
That is, of course, a lie. Despite being comics' most infamously wretched tower of cracked concrete, rusting steel, and cowardly villains, Gotham often looks nothing short of gorgeous on film, whether it's imagined via Tim Burton's romantic gothic spires or Christopher Nolan's sleek modern forms. (For the sake of everyone's sanity, let's forget about Joel Schumacher's attempts to remodel the joint as a neon-glittered gay disco.)
The grimy, captivating architectural fantasy of Gotham takes center stage in Batman: Gotham Knight, a series of six animated shorts that serve as a lead-in for The Dark Knight, Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins, which hits theaters next week. Call it Batmanime: Like 2003's The Animatrix, Gotham Knight utilizes some of anime's best creators (together, the artists assembled here have worked on such nerd-revered stuff as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Tekkon Kinkreet) and some of comics' favorite writers, from Josh Olson (A History of Violence) to Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets). The results are pretty cool: a dark, violent series of meticulously animated films that portray Batman and his city in ways at once familiar and new. Unfettered by live action's rules, Batman dissolves into smoke and liquid, serenely glides alongside hurtling trains, and speaks with the melodramatic rumble of Kevin Conroy, the same actor who provided the character's voice for 1992's Emmy Award-winning Batman: The Animated Series. (The Animated Series' executive producer, Bruce Timm, likewise produces things here, and it shows.) Gotham itself, too, is similarly captivating: The city is, by turns, baroque, filthy, mysterious, vicious, and tranquil. Sure, with its lethal muggings and mob bosses and crazed supervillains, Gotham would probably be the shittiest place to live, like, ever. But, as the cliché goes, it's a hell of a place to visit. ERIK HENRIKSEN