By the Grouch on the Couch
Gotham By Gaslight is a famous Elseworlds (alternate universe) Batman comic which takes place in a version of Victorian London that just happens to be called Gotham City. In fact, it’s the first “Elseworlds” comic and is still considered one of the best ones. Think about all of the fictional depictions of nights in London at that time, and that’s how this version of Gotham is depicted. Heavy fog. Dark alleys. Dark, ornate clothing. Serial killers, muggers, and some real-life supervillain-esque crimebosses. In other words, it’s the absolute perfect time for a Batman story to take place. It’s such a fitting setting that when someone suggested adapting it into a videogame a few years back, I thought it would be a perfect follow-up Batman game to the Arkham series. But, alas, some things are not to be.
It’s Gotham City. The year is… sometime in the Victorian Era, but we’re still in America, so let’s say it’s between Grover Cleveland’s administrations. You might ask why I didn’t say Benjamin Harrison’s time in office, but I think more of you probably would ask “Who the f*ck is Benjamin Harrison?” It’s that guy. —–>
There’s a serial killer stalking prostitutes in the night around the city. One might say he’s a ripper of women. Perhaps something less than a King Ripper. Yes, it’s Jack the Ripper. Yes, it’s actually Jack the f*cking Ripper, in America, in a setting with Batman. If you’re thinking “okay, that actually sounds kind of awesome,” go read the comic and don’t see this movie, because you will be disappointed. We start the movie off by having Jack kill Poison Ivy, who is apparently a prostitute and an exotic dancer in this universe, and has no other connection to her comic counterpart than a name and red hair.
In this universe, Batman is basically an urban legend at this point, but rumors about him scare everyone, since there aren’t any other vigilantes at this point. At the beginning, Batman stops three orphans from robbing a wealthy couple, and you learn that this is clearly an “adult” cartoon because one of the kids says “shit.” Batman then beats the crap out of the orphans’ boss, and sends them to an orphanage, because Victorian Batman ain’t got time for “wards.” Despite this, it’s obvious that the three orphans are this universe’s version of the first three Robins.
We get a weird expository sequence about the city, just to make sure that the audience sees all of the guns in Chekhov’s collection. There’s a bat-signal projector, and Hugo Strange is there, and there’s a world’s fair. We’re introduced to Sister Leslie, a nun that takes care of orphans around the city as well as young ladies who may or may not be prostitutes (they are), as well as Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock who apparently haven’t been successful in catching Saucy Jack.
Cut to night, and we follow a young woman through alleys as she’s being pursued by both Jack the Ripper and Batman. Batman apparently decides to wait until Jack gets inside of a literal slaughterhouse before taking him down, despite seeing him from the rooftops. The woman reveals herself to be skilled in self-defense, and also to be this world’s Selina Kyle, evident from her use of a whip and from a cat being in the shot with her. While she holds her own at the beginning, she eventually loses. As she’s about to be overpowered and die, Batman finally decides to intervene. Jack escapes after beating both of them.
Selina yells at Batman for interfering, despite the fact that she was clearly dying. We then see Commissioner Gordon dream of the Ripper killing his wife, only to have him wake up and lovingly console his wife in the middle of the night. Batman then appears to talk with Gordon, and ask for his assistance in taking down the Ripper. Gordon agrees to help him.
We’re then shown a cabaret sequence that lasts 60 seconds but feels like it lasts 30 minutes. It’s awkward and pointless and serves only to show what Selina does in her public life. Also, she’s apparently having an affair with Harvey Dent, whose “two-face” persona manifests as him being an adulterer and a drunk with a mean temper.
That night, Sister Leslie is killed by Jack, and Bruce Wayne (if you don’t know this is Batman, I would like to speak with you about your homeland), who is at the scene, gets blamed by a homeless woman. He finds a bloody pin from a gentlemen’s club, telling him that Jack is a rich man. At Leslie’s funeral, Hugo Strange, the local asylum administrator, asks Bruce to send him the Batman. The three orphans try to rob Alfred, who puts them into his employ. Apparently, sending them to the orphanage worked out great, 19th century guy who could have easily given them a home.
Later, Batman sees Jack kill Hugo Strange. Batman gives chase, but after a dramatic fight on a zeppelin, Jack escapes. Batman is pursued by the police, despite it being clear that he and the Ripper are different people, and Bruce hides with Selina Kyle, who he spends the night with. The homeless woman who accused Bruce is found dead, leading to his arrest. The next scene has Harvey Dent prosecuting Bruce at his bail hearing while angry over Bruce sleeping with Selina. Weirdly, one piece of evidence that’s used against Bruce is the pin which Bruce himself had found at the crime scene… which Harvey should never have known about. Oh, and literally no other evidence aside from a dead homeless woman for whose murder Bruce has an alibi.
After Selina says she’s going to tell the Commissioner that Bruce is Batman to clear his name, Bruce escapes from Prison and picks up a steampunk motorcycle, because at least something in this movie should look kinda cool. Batman goes to Gordon’s house looking for Selina, and finds photos of Gordon as a surgeon during the Civil War, as well as a number of tools and organs in jars, indicating that Gordon himself is the Ripper (more on that in a second). Gordon’s wife tries to stop Batman, believing that Gordon is doing “Holy Work,” and showing Batman that Gordon burns her face with acid to “purify” her.
Selina tells Gordon about Bruce’s secret, and Gordon reveals himself as the Ripper, attacking her. He injects her with a “7 per cent” solution, but she manages to escape and create a bat signal from the electric spotlight we were shown at the beginning. Gordon starts to monologue about how he’s killing not just whores, but also the poor, the illiterate, immigrants, anarchists, and pretty much everything else on the “what can I say to make myself seem like an asshole” list. It’s also revealed that Gordon is right handed, but Jack is a southpaw, because the nuns made him use his right hand. Yeah, that’s why he does this, because he was forced to use the wrong hand. I’m not a neurologist, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make you a serial killer. Also, he apparently decided that humanity sucked because of the civil war, which, I’ll grant you, isn’t the worst motivation, but he apparently just hates anyone who isn’t a white male (despite that being most of the people fighting in the Civil War).
Batman and Gordon fight atop a Ferris wheel, because Gotham is hosting the 1889 World’s Fair instead of Chicago, I guess. After the wheel catches on fire and Batman wins the fight, Gordon sets himself on fire and dies. Batman saves Selina with the help of Alfred and the orphans, and the World’s Fair burns down, but the movie ends with the orphans asserting that they’ll make something better.
So, this movie doesn’t exactly follow the comic. That wouldn’t be so bad, since adaptations need to be, you know, ADAPTED, except that the omissions and alterations both destroy some of the beauty of the setting and aspects of the Batman mythos itself. The former is more important, honestly, because the latter could have been used well to add levels of surprise to the movie if any of it felt real.
The art style is great, but it’s wrong. This is a movie taking place in what is supposed to basically be Victorian London. Look at the cover for this comic. See how shadowy and dirty everything looks? Yeah, the movie doesn’t look like that. That isn’t to say the layout and character designs are bad, they’re actually pretty good, they’re just wrong for the setting of this film. And the city is too clean. In the day sequences, everything looks like a gleaming city of marble, which is cleaner and nicer than Gotham City looks even in the 1990s depictions, let alone when it’s supposed to be a substitute for Industrial Age London.
Because of the cleanliness of the art style, Batman’s design somehow is both taken from the comic and still sucks. He looks like he’s cosplaying steampunk Batman, rather than, you know, BEING steampunk Batman. The problem is he doesn’t look like he’s wearing time-period appropriate material, it looks like he’s wearing the same stuff he wears in Batman: The Animated Series, but with a different cut. The comic was drawn by Mike Mignola, the guy who did Hellboy, and that really worked better than this.
Having Batman meet up with Jack so many times also really reduces Batman’s credibility, rather than boosting the effectiveness of Jack the Ripper as a villain. Jack is, presumably, a normal human with a knife, and yet Batman basically loses three fights with him before the end of the movie. Nothing Jack does really suggests that he should be skillful enough to do this, since Selina almost defeats him at one point. When it’s revealed to be Gordon, they attribute it to him being a boxer, which… doesn’t really explain how he’s good at wielding a knife in combat, or why he’s able to run long distances easily, or disappear like Batman when no one’s looking. Which brings us to the part of the movie I hated the most.
Gordon is the Ripper. Now, this could have been a great twist, especially for fans of the comic who weren’t expecting it. Instead, my first reaction was “bullshit.” My second reaction was “Bull. Shit.” My third through fifth reactions were similar. It just doesn’t make any sense within what we’re shown in the movie.
First, they deliberately give Gordon 0 traits to indicate that he’s the Ripper. They even show that the Ripper is left-handed, while Gordon is not. This serves less to throw the viewer off of the trail, and more to emphasize what an ass-pull this ending was. We’re shown his wife several times, but she doesn’t display any of her crazy until the end, even though no one is around except the audience. Gordon dreams of the Ripper killing his wife, but seems to wake up genuinely concerned about the dream… which makes no sense with the reveal. And Batman never seems to suspect him, despite him being BATMAN. The world’s greatest detective didn’t do any background research on the highest-ranking local police authority?
Second, it seems almost physically impossible that Gordon did this, given that, immediately after one murder, we’re shown that Gordon has been asleep and dreaming while Batman made the way to his house. At another point, he apparently fights Batman, murders a prostitute, then appears as himself in a matter of minutes.
Third, killing Hugo Strange made no sense. Gordon clearly didn’t think Strange actually knew his identity, didn’t know Batman’s identity, and Strange isn’t any part of the groups Gordon claims to be “punishing” at the end. Strange is a rich white male, the ONLY group Gordon isn’t attacking, so… why? I mean, Gordon’s weird rant where he basically says that he’s killing everyone except for WASPs is already kind of reducing any interesting aspects of the character by replacing a hatred for women with a hatred for “them.” He’s no longer an interesting psychopath, just an agent of blind rage.
Last, this means that Jack the Ripper literally never was in England. He’s only in America in this universe, which kind of defeats the point of having Batman face a historical serial killer, when you remove one of the most famously concrete facts about an unknown figure.
Also, small note, if you’re going to set a Batman story at the 1889 World’s fair, why wouldn’t you change his enemy to H.H. Holmes? You know, the serial killer who BUILT A REAL-LIFE MURDER PALACE? A murder palace with gas chambers, moving hallways, trap doors, fake rooms, etc., all of which seem to be out of a comic book? How is that not your first f*cking thought there? I WILL WRITE IT FOR YOU IN 10 DAYS, DC.
Most of the time-period references also suck, btw. There are 3 references to Sherlock Holmes, including Bruce calling him “one of [his] mentors.” There’s a reference to Houdini, a reference to the Ferris wheel, and a reference to… shit, I think that’s actually it. Also, if Sherlock Holmes is real in this world, he clearly didn’t teach Batman most of the “good” detecting. Or how to fight. Selina is a proto-feminist, which, while nothing she says is inaccurate, comes off awkward since she’s supposed to be playing a con-woman who ingratiates herself with men while investigating. She even is shown dressing like a man to get into a men’s club, but she provokes fights over gender inequality. I’m fine with her being a feminist, but the context in which she does it is counterproductive to her current mission. Which is especially dumb because there are multiple contexts where it would absolutely have made sense.
Apparently, however, I’m alone in thinking this movie was a waste of potential. Critics and audiences seem to be loving this movie. It’s at like 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. But, not this Batman fan. It’s not just because I love the comic, it’s because it just felt wrong the whole time. I didn’t want them to adapt the comic word for word, I just wanted it to feel like it was in the same world. The twist didn’t feel clever, it felt like someone just said “Crap, we’ve only introduced like 7 characters,” and had to pick one. I am glad that it wasn’t the Joker, because that would have been a cheaper cop-out, but it still felt hollow. Even all the violence to justify the “R” rating felt gratuitous, although, admittedly, it made some of the sequences a lot more intense than the average animated movie.
Mediocre plot, good but ill-suited animation style, references seem thrown in awkwardly, and an ending that just made me feel cheated. Please, DC, give this another shot.
Art complaints and plotting issues aside,
- This movie managed to not try to inundate the audience by throwing in a thousand Batman references just for the sake of having them there. That’s a huge temptation in doing alternate adaptations of properties, so I’m pretty happy about that decision. Because of this, the story feels mostly self-contained. You could know nothing about Batman, really, and you’d be able to watch this movie.
- The voice acting is perfect. Batman is voiced by Bruce Greenwood, who played Batman in Under the Red Hood. Alfred is voiced by Anthony Stewart Head from Buffy and Repo!, which is just f*cking perfect. Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter voices Selina. Scott Peterson (Luke from Gilmore Girls) voices Gordon. These are all really great casting choices, and they come off that way.
- At least they were trying to alter the plot of the movie, rather than making it completely uninteresting for people who are fans of the comic. When they adapted The Killing Joke, they managed to both change it too much to the point where it defeated the merit of the movie, then kept other parts too strictly in line with the comic which made those parts less interesting to everyone who had already read the book. Granted, Gotham by Gaslight is a lot less famous than The Killing Joke, so there would have been fewer people upset about sticking with the comic, but still, at least they were trying to be original.
Ultimately, if you’re a Batman fan, you can probably enjoy this, even if you don’t love it.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews. If you want to check out more by the Grouch, wait two weeks or so.
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