‘Batman: Gotham by Gaslight’ Review: DC’s Most Visually Unique Movie in Years
Before the “Elseworlds” imprint ever came to DC Comics, there was Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola‘s comic one-shot, Gotham by Gaslight. The success of that one-off, which saw Batman in Victorian-era Gotham hunting Jack the Ripper, inspired the “Elseworlds” line of comics which allowed DC’s most famous heroes and infamous villains to go on adventures outside of canon. “Gotham by Gaslight” also inspired a follow-up story in Augustyn and artist Eduardo Barreto‘s tale “Master of the Future.” Now, in the latest DC Comics Animated Original Movies installment, both of the famous “Elseworlds” stories come to life in a unique way while also giving fans a new spin on the tale.
Sam Liu directs Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, a briskly paced 78-minute movie written by Jim Krieg and adapted from Augustyn’s pair of Victorian-era tales. The film succeeds in faithfully adapting the look, tone, and heart of the stories, but also in adding new flourishes that should delight longtime Batman fans. Visually, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to replicate Mignola’s incredible use of shadow–along with liters of black ink–and German Expressionism influence, while also playing up a steampunk aesthetic in order to show off a Gotham poised to embrace turn-of-the-century technology. It’s the most unique-looking animated DC tale in years, and its killer reveal will make you want to watch it again immediately. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is available now on Digital HD, Blu-ray/DVD and 4K. (The following review deals only with the Blu-ray.)
Let’s get a couple of general things out of the way before dipping into some more specifics of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Fans of the “Elseworlds” tales who are looking for a direct translation instead of an adaptation may be disappointed. Krieg & Co. have provided the core of the “Gotham by Gaslight / Master of the Future” stories while also adding original plot points, DC Comics cameos, and stunning action sequences that heighten the source material. (Oh and including Gotham’s World’s Fair and a tie-in to H.H. Holmes was particularly fun.) The eventual reveal of Jack the Ripper’s identity is different from that of the comics and I was pleasantly surprised by the bold choice this movie took; it provided an opportunity for something I’ve never seen in the history of DC Comics or their live-action/animated adaptations. It’s sure to evoke some divisive reactions.
More specifically, DC has corrected a lot of the missteps they’ve made in recent years. When the female characters are scantily clad or appear in a sexualized manner, those decisions actually serve the story; they’re either ladies of the night who find themselves the targeted victims of the Ripper, or empowered, progressive heroines who are using their sexuality as a means to an end. The women also have agency and aren’t simply damsels in distress, which is pretty refreshing for the DC brand.
There’s a lot more going for this movie. The opportunity to put Poison Ivy, Bruce Wayne, Alfred, the various Robins, Bullock, Jim Gordon and more in the Victorian era was well-served by this tale. The humor is, thankfully, spot-on and both period and character-appropriate. It’s also appropriate for the story itself in that it’s not over the top or overused, rather it serves to highlight some awkward moments or character beats. And when it comes to action, Gotham by Gaslight features some of my favorite Batman fight-or-flight sequences ever. This version of Batman still has gadgets, but they’re steampunk by design and not nearly the Swiss Army Knife his utility belt is in modern times. In other words, he has to resort to his wits and his fists more often than not. And believe me when I say that Batman gets his ass handed to him on more than one occasion. That’s not to say this Batman is less capable than other versions; we get to see his combat ability when he squares off against the massive Big Bill and Cyrus Gold and handles them with ease. But against the Ripper, Batman struggles mightily and it’s fantastic.
But not everything worked in Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Those of you expecting a Sherlock Holmes level of detective skills will be disappointed. In fact, a great display of Batman’s sleuthing skills as “The World’s Greatest Detective” has yet to make its way onto the big screen or home video, in my humble opinion. In the related comic, Bruce Wayne has to put those skills to use in both clearing his name and determining the true identity of Jack the Ripper, but in the adaptation, Bruce’s deductive abilities are dumbed down so far that it feels like it’s just checking a box. There’s the occasional nod to Sherlock Holmes’ stories, but that’s as far as it goes. So if it’s a detective tale you’re looking for, you’ll have to hold on a little longer.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t work as a mystery for the viewers themselves. Even though Batman couldn’t quite figure things out on his own, perhaps a sharp-eyed audience member could have sussed out the killer’s identity–be sure to let me know if you figured it out before the end–but it’s a very fun and original reveal. It’s the rare bit of storytelling that actually makes you want to watch it again immediately after your first time viewing it. The clues are there all along the way, but they’re subtle, and that’s what makes a mystery like this so engaging.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is a visually unique, action-packed, and satisfying mystery tale that’s worth adding to your collection and revisiting whenever you need an “Elseworlds” fix.
Caped Fear: The First Elseworld
- Go behind-the-scenes of DC Comics’ first “Elseworlds” title from Augustyn himself, along with other DC Comics mainstays offering their own insight.
A Sneak Peek at DC Universe’s Next Animated Movie, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay
- An extensive look at Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, a roll-call of both the antiheroes and villains of the piece, and the 70s grindhouse style of films that inspired it. Expect a lot of blood, violence, and villainy!
Audio Commentary by Bruce Tim, Jim Krieg, Sam Liu
- Definitely worth listening to as you watch the tale a second time since the creative team offers a lot of behind-the-scenes content and insight into their decision-making process.
- Discussion of how to properly adapt the 50-page comic while adding familiar characters, expanding the story, and giving the audience more of the same.
- The trio talks about a ton of sources of inspiration from cinema history, directors, artists, and real-world Victorian architecture, medicine, and technology.
- They also tease a potential sequel idea that may involve the Joker …
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold - “Trials of the Demon!”
- Batman: The Animated Series – “Showdown”
Sneak Peeks (at films that have already been released)
- Justice League Dark
- Batman: Bad Blood