Alternate universe stories are a staple of superhero comics, but Batman: Gotham by Gaslight gained notoriety for both its stunning style and for launching the DC “Elseworlds” imprint dedicated to alternate visions of the company’s iconic characters. I remember the fuss when the book was initially released along with the mild disappointment at the final product, which was definitely moody and stylish visually but which didn’t manage to make much of an impact in terms of the story, which didn’t manage more than changing the time frame to pit a Victorian-era Batman against Jack the Ripper and adding an unnecessary plot twist that has been adopted wholesale by the superhero comics genre since. However, the animated movie adaptation manages to do much better in fleshing out the story into a much more satisfactory narrative while exploiting the moving medium of animation for more elaborate and impressive set pieces.
Just short of the turn of the 20th Century, Gotham City is plagued by a series of murders of underclass women, all savagely slashed with medical precision in the trademark method of Jack the Ripper. At the same time, a new figure dressed as a bat is cutting a swath through the criminal elements of Gotham. Of course, we the viewers are fully aware that the Batman is not Jack the Ripper, but the police do not have the benefit of media awareness or Batman’s status as a cash cow for the company that owns him, so they suspect that the mysterious Batman and Jack the Ripper must be one and the same. This simple setup leads to an extended game of cat-and-mouse, as Batman tries to find Jack while the police are trying to lasso them both.
The original Gotham by Gaslight graphic novel probably suffered a bit from the limited options available to comics at the time. It has a bit more story than would comfortably fit in the prestige-format sized comic it was published as, but the market wasn’t quite ready for graphic novels of arbitrary size quite yet. There were a limited number of formats that superhero comics were published in, but even if the prestige-format was the best option available, the story is a bit cramped and can barely build up momentum before it has to wrap everything up for its big finish. The comic also opted for an “everything is connected” plot twist, tying Jack’s crimes with the origin story of Batman — a genre trope that superhero stories have wholly embraced, and which I find infinitely irritating. However, the needs of a feature-length film forced the producers of this animated Gotham by Gaslight to expand the story quite a bit, and the additions and changes all make for a much more satisfying experience. The movie is able to stretch out and set up its story properly, so the big climactic set piece at the end feels much more earned and has much more at stake. The identity of the Ripper is also much better hidden, offering several potential suspects to keep us guessing all the way to the end, when the Ripper’s true identity is a total surprise while being perfectly logical on repeated viewings. As much as possible, Gotham by Gaslight turns out to be a “play fair” mystery. The movie also borrows neatly from the original graphic novel’s sequel Master of the Future by adding in the setting of the Gotham World’s Fair and in adding a female foil to Batman/Bruce Wayne with the assertive and devastatingly sexy Selina Kyle, here recast as a stage singer and actor with a past and a deep-seated concern for the Ripper’s victims.
One of the great strengths of the Gotham by Gaslight graphic novel was its visual style, courtesy of a young Mike Mignola. I’ve never understood why The Amazing Screw-On Head pilot was the only time animation mimicked Mignola’s style (quite successfully, in my view), although I suspect his distinctive peculiarities add far too much pencil mileage to animate in a cost-effective way. This animated Gotham by Gaslight feels like a nice mixture of Mignola’s style with Batman: The Animated Series and the more recent animated films with character designs by Phil Bourassa. Everything feels covered in an appropriately soot-covered sheen, and the steam-era designs all work wonderfully well, especially in the Victorian-era Batman costume with its exposed eyes and dashing overcoat. Like many of DC’s animated adaptations, the movie fully exploits the inherent movement of its medium to add and expand on action set pieces to impressive results. Director Sam Liu has been behind several of the grittiest, street-level action pieces in these animated films, and this Gotham by Gaslight ramps the level of difficulty by doing them all with a fighting style that’s period appropriate. Everyone, including Batman, are boxers and brawlers, and the battles between Batman and Jack the Ripper are always impressively staged nail-biters that consistently give the sense that the two are evenly matched physically. This also reinforces the sense that the two are mirror-images of each other, a point which the movie brings up subtly without hammering us over the head with it.
Bruce Greenwood reprises his role as Batman from Under the Red Hood and Young Justice, and his understated gravel fits perfectly with this more grounded and less omnipotent Batman. He is beautifully partnered with Jennifer Carpenter as Selina Kyle, who is the Abigail Adams to Bruce Wayne’s John: every bit his equal in a world that simply did not accept that men and women could be equals. The two get some of the best scenes together, which is an even more impressive achievement when the commentary reveals that the two never met in the recording booth. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, with Scott Patterson providing a stolid Jim Gordon, Yuri Lowenthal turning in an unctuous Harvey Dent, William Salyers doing a bizarre turn as Hugo Strange, and Anthony Head stealing his few scenes as a very dry Alfred.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is being distributed in a number of combo packs for home video, in both Blu-ray/DVD and Ultra 4K/Blu-ray formats. The Blu-ray version of the movie is as good as we’ve come to expect from these presentations, which is worthy of note since the movie spends so much time in the dark. Some of the earlier Batman animated films felt almost too dark, but Gotham by Gaslight manages to communicate the smoggy murkiness without losing details. New bonus features include the obligatory look at the next film, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay; a retrospective on the Elseworlds line in general and Gotham by Gaslight/Master of the Future in particular (lacking only by the absence of Mike Mignola); a fun commentary track with producer Bruce Timm, writer Jim Krieg, and director Sam Liu; and a pair of perfectly selected episodes from the DC Vault of Batman: The Brave and the Bold‘s “Trials of the Demon!” and Batman: The Animated Series‘ “Showdown.”
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is a perfectly satisfactory stand-alone movie, and while it doesn’t really set itself up for a sequel, I’m hoping for one more than I have for a lot of these direct-to-video animated films. That is a testament to both the characters and the world that has been created. It’s an extremely satisfying success.