Wait, it was him?!
Okay, I’ll admit I’ve been staying away from the DC universe animated movies of late. They seem to have lost something recently, I keep seeing clips and sneak peeks and my interest just isn’t there. There’s either an overabundance of darkness and violence where it isn’t needed (Batman: Bad Blood, I did not need to see a guy’s head explode thank you very much) or they just get terrible reviews (Batman and Harley Quinn). Gotham by Gaslight though, that had my attention and yes I know I just complained about excessive darkness, and this film gets incredibly dark, but if there’s any place that that kind of thing feels appropriate it’s a story about Batman taking on Jack the Ripper. Batman can fit into almost any setting, but a Victorian one feels more appropriate than most. It adds to his gothic appeal, those smog covered streets, that architecture against a moonlit night, I don’t know why this sort of thing doesn’t turn up more.
Now, this movie is based on a comic, which I have never read. So speaking to this film’s adaptation is kind of out of the window (I will get round to the comic eventually it’s on a very, very long list of comics, books, films and TV shows that I must own at some point). However, this film gives me pretty much everything I’d ask for from the concept. A host of characters reimagined in this new period? Check. Steampunk gadgets for our caped crusader? Check. Rooftop chases, contests of strength and intelligence as well as some detective work (i.e. the stuff Batman is really good at)? Check. Mystery and drama as our hero hunts through the back alleys of Gotham all leading to an epic final confrontation? Check. Could there have been more characters and namedrops, more gadgets and such? Sure, but I think they would have probably cluttered up the film too much if you tried to cram absolutely everything in. This is a pretty simple film with a simple story, it’s really an introduction to a world similar to the one we’re all familiar with, but not entirely (I’ll come back to this).
Characterwise Batman is Batman, obviously. Bruce Greenwood puts in a really good performance as a dark knight who’s just starting out. He’s guarded and clinically minded, but still makes mistakes and has a ways to go in the brawling department, which I appreciate. I like a Batman that hasn’t evolved into the Bat-God yet. Also the film makes use of his detective and observation skills, which I always appreciate. The other characters all feel like themselves too, even if on the outside they’re wildly different. Such as the street urchins that are Dick, Jason and Tim (the robins to those that don’t know) and the two-faced Harvey who shows his ugly side without the need of getting half his face burnt off among others. Though if I can take a moment, and please excuse the language, but…you bastards! Not only do you give my Ivy precious little screen time, but you let the Butcher have her! How dare you! I’ll…(Sound effect: being restrained and sedated.)
I’m back. Sorry, I…I…have a thing. I’m better now. Anyway, my favourite character has to be Selina. She’s smart, intelligent and won’t take any nonsense off of anyone; you feel the chemistry between her and Batman. She’s his equal and that’s the way Catwoman should be.
I suppose that brings me to Jack himself and while I’ll try not to spoil it I do want to talk about it. So, if you want to go in completely blank about the Ripper, skip this paragraph. So, Jack, I can see the reveal upsetting a fair few people. Like I said before I’ve never read the comic, so I don’t know if it was the same there, but damn you’ve got some balls. It takes one of the fundamental pillars of the Batman mythos, a character that should be unshakable, and twisted them into a completely new direction. It’s just…It’s…I don’t have the words. My jaw hit the floor when they did the reveal. “You can’t do that!” I cried and yet it made perfect sense. It fit this version of the character and that’s the thing. These are not the characters we all know and love, they may be similar, so very similar, but this is not the canon DC Universe. This is a different world and here there are no rules. There are no characters that are untouchable and I admire this film so much for taking something I thought to be fundamental and smashing my expectations into pieces with it. If the rest of this film was as daring as this reveal I think we’d have a classic on our hands.
On the animation front I like the style they’ve gone for. It’s clean and simple and allows the focus to be on the action and the performances. I also really like the designs of all the characters, simple, but effective. The action is great with lots of fast motion and heavy blows, I especially like the fight between Batman and Jack on the blimp. Though this film isn’t entirely action, it also does a good job of building tension, giving a real feel for this gas lit world.
When it comes down to it Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is a short and sweet story, giving us a glimpse of a world very similar to the one we know, but not quite. It’s driven by good performances, good writing and good animation, and while I don’t think it’s going to change anybody’s world, I’m glad I saw it. I’d love to spend more time in this world with these characters. I’m hopeful for the DC Universe movies again and, strangely, that’s the note the film leaves on too. Despite the horror that came before, there is hope for the future, a chance to build something better.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.