Batman: Gotham by Gaslight
Written by Jim Krieg
Based on the graphic novel Gotham by Gaslight written by Brian Augustyn
Directed by Sam Liu
Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of 1880s Gotham City. As the murders pile up, the police are helpless to stop them. But there is a Batman in this world…
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is based on one of the original alternate reality tales that would eventually become the Elseworlds brand at DC, though the story has been altered to better reflect the animated movie format and some modern sensibilities. Overall, we get something that feels closer to what would be produced from the 90s animated series than what some of the recent DC animated films have come out with. That’s a good thing, as the series is a high-water mark that all too often these films are unable to attain, despite some notable exceptions.
Gotham is easily transformed in style to a 19th century British city, it is sort of interesting how easily the pieces slide together. Bruce Wayne is still a rich playboy, but he also has connection to his orphan roots via Sister Leslie and her orphanage. This gives him another connection to the victims of the killer, as they are largely poorer women, some of which have gone through the same orphanage. Public outcry is muted because the victims are largely lower class women (mostly prostitutes), but actress Selina Kyle’s voice is one of the loudest to try to get the police to do anything. They are limited by the investigative tools of the time and by distractions of a World’s Fair preparation. An element not really used from historical accounts is the press whipping this up into a frenzy, besides deserted streets there is often nothing really indicating people are afraid (and the deserted streets might just be saving some animation budget!) The police presence is also lacking until it factors into the plot, at which point there are more police than grains of sand on the beach.
One of the slogans for the modern Batman is that he is the world’s greatest detective, so it is natural that this Batman has Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of that era, as a mentor. In fact, there are a great many Holmes references, and while Batman as Holmes would be fun, that isn’t what this movie is and doesn’t quite work. The World’s Fair inclusion seems like a reference to The Devil in the White City book which also features a serial killer from a century past in one of the cities that inspires Gotham.
The Jack the Ripper is depicted as largely silent killer with a medical bag, stalking women before killing them in a frenzy. He comes off far creepier that way than it would have been if they had made him an easily identifiable super villain. A good choice! They even have him kill off one of the most obvious suspects as a message about how this isn’t going to go the way you think. Throughout the course of the film the Ripper is shown to be very smart, methodical, and trained in fighting techniques much like Batman himself. This comes to a head in the plot as Batman is considered a major suspect in the murders and eventually Bruce Wayne is framed for the crimes.
The violence against women is balanced by the addition of Selena’s character as a stronger force that even tries to lure the killer into the open for a confrontation (which Batman interrupts, and they both save each other multiple times during this fight and later in the film) It’s not as equal footing as it could be, but it does partially counter one of the major problems with the original story. Other parts of the film become very disturbing, it may have some of the creepiest set pieces I’ve seen in a DC animated film (particularly the asylum setting), and parts of them aren’t even treated as that weird in universe, which makes them even more disturbing and creepy.
Overall, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight sets its own tone while borrowing some of the better elements from animated Batman history, ending up with a pretty good entry for those of use continually lapping up these features.
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