The DC Animated legacy is burdened by a foundation built on the greatest animated superhero sagas of all time, the 1990s’ Batman: The Animated Series. It’s not just nostalgia talking; the craftsmanship of that series remains unmatched, as well as its keen understanding of serialized superhero storytelling.
OK. I’ve gotten that out of the way. No, their latest effort is not as good as that series, but is it good?
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is the latest in the DC Universe animated original-movie series to adapt a classic graphic-novel or comic-book storyline, this time the alternate-universe Batman-if-he-lived-in-Victorian-England classic from Brian Augustyn (The Flash) and Mike Mignola (Hellboy). Like the comic, the movie follows Batman hunting down Jack the Ripper. It’s the kind of matchup that makes the committed comic geek squee with curiosity. How would Batman act a century ago? What would his villains be like? Which Batman foe –— or friend — is secretly the Ripper?
Naturally, the movie changes the comic; it’s the cost of adapting a 60-page graphic novel into a 70-minute movie. Some classic Batman characters are added so that we can see their Victorian take. That’s fun. Batman’s costume is also exciting. Sam Liu has worked on both Marvel and DC Animated projects and is a talented animation director. The action sequences emphasize the weight of the characters rather than acrobatics, in keeping with some discernible amount of “historical” accuracy.
That’s about the only attempt at historical accuracy, which is OK except that the only other reasons to set a story 100 years ago are to either have fun with those historical bits or engage with the different fashions of a bygone age. And while the characters wear different clothes, the actual animation makes the world look and feel like most of DC Animated’s “modern day” slate. The original graphic novel is renowned for the artwork — naturally … it’s Mignola, for christ’s sake — and it’s too bad the team here wasn’t able to bring a similar level of distinction.
The book Gotham by Gaslight is one of DC Comics’ crowning “Elseworlds” stories. The story is older than I am by about nine months, and when I think about it now it kind of makes me laugh. Writing alternate-universe versions of classic heroes has always been a common practice — it sells, sometimes — and a fun exercise for writers. The comics industry has always had an under-appreciated wealth of very, very smart writers whose interests are much broader than the soap-opera lives of four-color superheroes, and these kinds of stories have been effective conduits for examining their characters in a new way.
Fast-forward about a decade-and-a-half, and the pastime of writing alternate-universe fan fiction about these characters became a bedrock of many online communities. Not only is it one of the most entertaining ways of engaging with friends about mutually adored stories, but it has kind of defined the way many people my age look at popular culture and storytelling. I’m not surprised DC has made a Gotham by Gaslight animated movie; I’m a little surprised it took this long and that it only engages in the most superficial elements of the Victorian Batman premise.
Probably the most disappointing element of Gotham by Gaslight is that it doesn’t do much to fix the odd “this is for the boys” attitude of this animated franchise. There was major controversy when the 2016 version of The Killing Joke added an extended storyline for Batgirl that only made her character more sexualized and ill-served. While that kind of mistake is avoided here, it’s a shame that they introduce a popular female Batman villain early on only to have her immediately killed by Jack the Ripper.
I’m not saying this is misogynistic, just that it feels odd in the context of their past movies. There had to be a victim to introduce the ripper, but making it a popular female character who fans would be excited to see in the movie? It doesn’t create a sense of loss like it should; rather, it just feels kind of thoughtlessly executed. This, coupled with the movie’s pride in its R-rating, creates a Batman cartoon that doesn’t feel built to appeal to anyone but the most narrow subset of fans. Given that it’s an animated film in a line of them that all share a similar visual style, with many aimed at younger audiences … well, it feels off, too, very poorly conceived.
I am generally unimpressed by the idea that an R-rating is appropriate for stories about superheroes. In fact, I think it lessens them to a degree. The more down to Earth you make a superhero concept, the less narrative space it has to breathe — particularly in this case, where Batman is a character who doesn’t really change when transplanted into a Victorian Gothic story because his modern day is basically just a Victorian Gothic story. Orphan boys, hidden social horrors under high society, women of the night, avenging crusaders, corrupt policemen, Gothic architecture. Jack the Ripper has all the modus operandi of a Batman villain. The movie tries to make some reference to a psychosexual mania that speaks to traditional Victorian characters but doesn’t have the time to really dig into it in any interesting way.
It’s possible that I’m being a little too hard on Gotham by Gaslight. I guess I just wanted more: more style, more distinctness, more insightful commentary about the role Batman plays in our society versus a century ago. I guess if you don’t push play looking for those elements of the concept, it is otherwise everything you could want … if your list of must-sees are “Batman characters dressed in Victorian garb” and “R-level violence and implied sexuality in an animated Batman movie.” It plugs along, visually functional, a mystery story with a decent if predictable twist and another DVD with a pack-in graphic novel that puts it to shame.
Gotham by Gaslight is now available for digital download, and will be available on Feb. 6 on Blu-ray and DVD.