Lightning illuminates a dark night. Cue hardboiled voice-over:

Arkham Asylum. July 3. The inmate known only as the Joker has escaped, proving once again that the system is broken.

The voice belongs, of course, to Batman, who wanders through the sewers, retracing his archenemy's escape route. Before he had time to flee, the Clown Prince of Crime painted the following bloody message on a wall:

The Zebra has Escaped from the Zoo to feast on the blood of the Lion. Happy 4th of July, Batz.

We're deep in cliché from the start, but we're also deeply immersed in the world of DC Comics' most famous brooding detective. On a budget of $26,000.00, two brothers have captured the comic book, from its gothic Gotham rooftops to the medium's most common flaws. Aaron and Sean Shoenke created their visually stunning mise-en-scène by carefully framing appropriate, suitably dressed real-world environments. You don't need an overpriced, overdesigned set to make Gotham City; you just need to find the right locations in the modern places that inspired it. The effects and fight scenes serve the story, and have been staged professionally. And, while the cast includes a significant number of DC characters, they don't clutter the film. The focus remains on protagonist, antagonist-- and a very young victim.

The escaped Joker kidnaps a ten-year-old boy and murders his parents. Batman finds the case cutting a little too close and, as lives hang on his efforts, he begins to question his methods.

The story that unfolds has been captured cleverly, but it isn't particularly original. "City of Scars" borrows heavily from the Dark Knight's long history, and most especially, Batman: The Killing Joke. Of course, since about 1970, every gritty criminal investigation in a motion picture requires that the detective visit a strip bar. The official Batman films have somehow missed this convention; the Shoenkes make amends. The result is a little weird, and serves to emphasize just how fetishistic Batman's outfit is.

The film also suffers from the heavy-handedness that has characterized Batman for much of his history. The derivative noir narration has been done to death, and here it verges on parody. While some of it serves an important purpose in this pop-psychologically-heavy film, it just as frequently distracts. We don't need Batman to tell us he put a tracking device on the Joker when we see it a moment later.

The acting varies. There's an artificiality here that can be hard to avoid in faithful comic-book adaptations, and does not consistently work. However, the film boasts some standout performances. Paul Molnar, who played the Joker before in the Shoenkes' earlier film. "Patient J.," understands the character as well as Heath Ledger, even if he cannot command the audience's attention so entirely. Madelynn Rae, who sings the theme song, turns in an excellent depiction of Harley Quinn. Jay Caputo gives (so far as I can determine) the first live-action depiction of Arnold Wesker/Scarface, DC's turn on the disturbed ventriloquist. His interaction with Batman proves memorable, darkly humorous, and disturbingly touching. Batman gets Wesker to talk by threatening to decapitate his dummy, Scarface.

I enjoyed the story, though I found it predictable. The Shoenkes rank among the latest fans to demonstrate that low-budget films can be effective. Even the soundtrack matches the calibre of Hollywood. Why do people with access to licenses and millions of dollars so often fall short of the efforts of dedicated fans? The film, for better and worse, captures the feel of the darker Batman comics. If you're a fan, see "City of Scars" now, before DC's lawyers stop it.

Directed by Aaron Shoenke
Written and produced by Aaron and Sean Shoenke
Music by Sean Shoenke

Kevin Porter as Batman/Bruce Wayne
Paul Molnar as the Joker
Madelynn Rae as Harley Quinn
Jay Caputo as Arnold Wesker/Scarface
Dylan Vorhees and Hunter Gordon as boy
Katie Joy Horwitch as Renee Montoya
Christopher Parker as Crispus Allen
Guy Grundy as Victor Zsasz
Joe Allen Price as Councilman Johnson
David Chan as Drug Hustler
Tess Kielhamer as Black Canary
Nicole Klepper as Arkham Nurse
Carlos Baca as Arkham Guard
Jason Koesema as Arkham Doctor
A.C. Carter as Henchman

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