Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Director: Sam Liu
Writer: Jim Krieg
Producer: Sam Liu
Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Jennifer Carpenter, Scott Patterson, Anthony Head, John DiMaggio, Yuri Lowenthal, William Salyers, Grey Griffin, Lincoln Melcher, Tara Strong, Kari Wuhrer
In an alternate timeline, Batman teams with Selina Kyle to save 1880s Gotham City from Jack the Ripper.
I might lose a pinch of credibility as a hardcore comic book fan by confessing I’ve never read, or don’t really remember, the 1989 one-shot “Gotham by Gaslight” from writer Brian Augustyn and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Batman fans not only consider it a seminal story in the Caped Crusader’s history, but “Gotham by Gaslight” earns additional noteworthiness for being the first of many ‘Elseworlds’ stories, in which DC Comics heroes are re-imagined in alternate timelines or other “what if?” scenarios.
The good news though, is that familiarity with the comic is unnecessary for enjoying the R-rated animated adaptation. In fact, peeking at a summary of the source material tells me that other than the broad setup, the storyline in the film most certainly does not mirror the one from the graphic novel, either in events or included characters.
But the real reason why I mention being late to the “Gotham by Gaslight” game is to caveat my observation that until I watched the movie, it never occurred to me how Batman’s mythology pairs perfectly with a Victorian Era story. Batman essentially supplants Sherlock Holmes here, investigating the crimes of Jack the Ripper across an 1880s Gotham City that suspiciously resembles 19th-century London. With loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth at the ready, three different Robins playing Oliver Twist-inspired street urchins, and Batman’s rogues gallery of femme fatales filling in for Ripper bait, Bruce Wayne’s world effortlessly plugs into this tailor-made template.
While Gotham prepares for a World’s Fair, which conspicuously features an electrical spotlight and a 250-foot Ferris wheel you just know are coming back in the climax, the city struggles to reconcile the bat-masked vigilante in their midst as well as a string of murders targeting women. Commissioner Gordon and Chief Bullock are on the case. So is Bruce Wayne’s alter ego.
Fed up with how little the men seem to be doing about this ‘Jack the Ripper,’ showgirl Selina Kyle uses her circus skills to lay traps of her own. Selina’s path eventually crosses with both Bruce’s and Batman’s, complicating two new relationships almost as soon as they start. In the meantime, it’s a race among authorities and parlor chair detectives alike to uncover the madman’s true identity before any more ladies are murdered.
Kevin Conroy may never relinquish his title as Batman/Bruce Wayne’s premier voiceover performer, but Bruce Greenwood’s third tour under the cowl sees the accomplished actor cementing himself as a serious contender. Greenwood funnels the same mix of no-nonsense authority and congressman charm flashed in roles from “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” to “Gerald’s Game” (review here) into pure audio form. The range required by the dual role suits Greenwood’s skill set, and the actor’s comfort with both sides of Bruce Wayne comes through with audible confidence.
Greenwood fits in part because this is a different sort of Batman than many audiences may be used to. Gone are the gadgets, flashy vehicles, and theatrics that can come when Bats fights a colorful villain in a spectacular setting. “Gotham by Gaslight” strips down ‘The Bat-Man’ to before he became weighted with so much pomp and circumstance. The simplicity works so well, I was mildly bummed when Batman finally did resort to a grappling hook and his batarang made an appearance.
This Batman otherwise leaves his utility belt unbuckled in favor of doling out bare-knuckled beatings. Batman engages in donnybrooks, fisticuffs, and old-fashioned boxing given any opportunity for a physical confrontation. If you’ve ever wished to see Batman’s brain take a brief break to prove his power purely through punching, “Gotham by Gaslight” has his hands knocking heads at regular intervals. It’s almost too macho. At the same time, portraying Batman as a skilled brawler plays well when pitted against the burly bruisers of this movie. Hitting Penguin or Joker often seems unfair to me.
Always a fantastic actress in any live-action role, Jennifer Carpenter surprisingly struggles to be believable as Selina Kyle. Whether Wes Gleason’s voice direction doesn’t demand enough authenticity or Carpenter’s sound booth experience takes a toll, Carpenter sounds like she is reading rather than performing. You can virtually picture her with a script in one hand, focusing more on projecting a haughty Kathleen Turner attitude than vocally embodying an organic personality.
Jack the Ripper has a different issue as a character. Namely, he isn’t much of one. Keeping his identity secret requires Jack to stay silent. A few letters and some later words promote his sinner punishment agenda, though for much of the movie, Jack is a sentient knife either sticking a woman or fleeing from Batman.
The red herrings are never fully convincing either. Still, “Gotham by Gaslight” loads up on a number of secondary players who are welcome additions to the to-do, even if their involvement ends up being peripheral. In addition to those already mentioned, Harvey Dent and Hugo Strange transfer their regular roles to similar functions here. Leslie Thompkins transforms into a stern yet kindly nun. Even Solomon Grundy appears in pre-monster form. Plenty of fun exists in these cameos to counterbalance their occasional fluff.
Handling some better than others, “Gotham by Gaslight” also threads in several feminist themes throughout its tale. Concerned characters openly chastise police for protecting rich socialites while destitute women remain in danger. A ‘men only’ cocktail club hammers home not-so-subtle subtext about Gotham’s gender hierarchy, as does a scene of wayward orphan Pamela Isley slumming it as a burlesque dancer. Another moment even paints Selina with a more heroic brush than Batman when she berates Bruce Wayne for putting women at risk to selfishly protect his secret identity.
“Gotham by Gaslight” doesn’t necessarily make any firm statements so much as it merely stirs a small pot of social politics. Batman can’t save the day or himself without Selina’s assistance in the end. Yet while she proves to be capable of holding her own in a fight, Selina stills serves as a damsel in distress, somewhat diminishing her strength as a suffragette. Although the film could have more conviction in its commentary, having material with even this minimum amount of maturity can be appreciated over resorting to straightforward pulp fiction.
Where the R-rating is concerned, I wouldn’t have guessed “Gotham by Gaslight” deserves one. I recall one use of “sh*t” and plenty of references to whores, but not so much that a PG-13 couldn’t have been possible. It would have taken tinkering to be sure, but could have been done without dulling the adult edge to the film’s sharpness. Maybe the tone of misogyny motivating murder is too hot to handle as a premise regardless.
Hiccups hardly harm overall entertainment value. As an animated adventure, “Gotham by Gaslight” taps into classic cartoon style while offering more than enough unique flair. It feels like Batman. It feels in step with “The Animated Series.” And yet, “Gotham by Gaslight” is literally in a world all its own. Minor missteps can’t keep the immersive fantasy from engaging as one of the most robustly imagined DC Animation movies to date.
Review Score: 75