'Gotham By Gaslight' a Moody Victorian Spin on Batman

Directed by: Sam Liu; Runtime: 78 minutes
Grade: B-

"Gotham by Gaslight" marked a unique turning point for Detective Comics' writers, proving that their established popular characters could be taken out of their "canon" narrative environments and placed elsewhere in an entirely standalone story, echoing similarities while also diverging from what's known. While it doesn't carry the branding, this Batman book marked the first unofficial installment in the Elseworlds line from DC, which later guided the Caped Crusader through the mythos of vampires, pirates, even that of King Arthur. One of the key strengths of "Gotham by Gaslight" in particular comes in how the familiar entities of the Batman universe exist within the constraints of the 19th century, where most of them are nearly the same versions of themselves tweaked and limited by the antiquated environment. That's why one of the chief frustrations with DC's animated Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, despite capturing the gothic atmosphere of the era and the intensity of battle, can be found in tweaks made from the print version that more deliberately alter the personalities of certain main characters.

Galloping into the atmosphere of hazy streetlamps, horse-drawn carriages, opium dens and ladies of the night, this Elseworlds tale reimagines Gotham City as a Victorian landscape, including familiar faces in law enforcement department: Detective James Gordon (Scott Patterson), attorney Harvey Dent (Yuri Lowenthal), and others. Gotham's still corrupt throughout its police force, which demands the intervention of a masked peacekeeper and investigator who dresses himself in a bat-themed suit, an enigmatic presence feared by criminals and do-gooders alike. Filling the dustier, bulkier and more weathered version of the suit is, of course, Bruce Wayne (Bruce Greenwood), a wealthy playboy and socialite by day who exhibits a fondness for the orphaned children of the city. This version of Gotham plays host to the legendary killer Jack the Ripper, who has been murdering Gotham's more lascivious women in the dead of night. With the help of Selina Kyle (Jennifer Carpenter), Batman doubles-down on his pursuit of the killer after someone close to him is found dead, while coping with the city's uncertainty over his often-violent vigilantism.

It'd be tough to duplicate the iconic style of artist Mike Mignola in motion, so perhaps it's a good thing that Gotham by Gaslight doesn't really attempt to do so. Sticking with the spare and sharp-angled aesthetic of prior DC animated films, The Killing Joke and Batman and Harley Quinn director Sam Liu creates a Victorian-era version of Gotham City that's in the ballpark of similarity to the comic with its dusty, warm haze at night. Yet, one could argue that maybe it isn't distinctive enough to stand out as an Elseworlds animated creation. A noteworthy component of these DC stories comes in how those familiar characters are transported to radically different environments: swashbuckling on pirate ships, a far-future Orwellian dystopia, the distorted reality of becoming a vampire. Beyond the absence of technology and the haziness of streets and alleyways at night, this first true animated iteration of the brand comes across as if Sam Liu and the creative team wanted to play it safe by camouflaging status-quo Gotham with period adornments instead of transforming the setting into a truly unique haven for Batman.

This insecurity drips over into how Gotham by Gaslight emphasizes which characters tie to their modern counterparts, ensuring that audiences know that's Selina Kyle as she appears in the Victorian era, that's how Harvey Dent's presence and profession differs in this period, and those are the orphaned boys who may or may not transform into Robins one day. It's on-the-nose, especially upon the introduction of this period's Batman, whose open-eyed cowl and heavy leather tactical garments have become an urban legend feared by citizens and criminals alike. Bruce Greenwood, whose vocal performance in Under the Red Hood often goes overlooked, delivers a slightly more gruff and earthy performance as "The Batman", one that lacks charisma yet embraces the weatherworn gothic essence of the period. The same goes for Jennifer Carpenter's Selina Kyle: while she still exudes sultriness, it's been restrained to reflect the attitude of a physically and intellectually capable woman tamped down by the era's patriarchal obligations. All of this is plainly, bluntly explained in the film, as to not create confusion.

There's a reason for the obvious exposition in Gotham by Gaslight, in that the script from Jim Krieg, who also penned Batman and Harley Quinn as well as several other LEGO DC animated features, deviates in significant ways from the original Elseworlds narrative and incorporates new, different components. Those who've read the book will have picked up on that after seeing Selena Kyle mentioned in the previous paragraph, who doesn't appear at all in its original iteration. The intentions behind this can be assumed and justifiable: Krieg and director Sam Liu wanted to adapt the 19th-century Batman concept, while also crafting the atmosphere and mystery around the murders of Jack the Ripper in a way that'll be fresh for both new viewers and seasoned readers alike. As the killings claim the lives of prostitutes and other "women of the night", an air of suspense does sweep through the landscape of this early Gotham, elevated by the numerous suspects -- and red herrings -- put in motion by new and tweaked characterizations, staying outside of the reach of the Dark Knight due to his limited forensic tools.

With tweaks to the storytelling and the suspects in play, Gotham by Gaslight hits comparable, recognizable beats to those of the one-shot comic, yet arrives at different destinations that undercut -- and, in ways, overplay -- the intentions of this kind of Elseworlds story. While a few of the stories under that brand relish how perversely they twist the characters in strange directions, the enjoyment found in most of ‘em comes in seeing how familiar characters conduct themselves normally under different circumstances and limitations inherent in the setting. A substantial twist occurs here involving the identity of Jack the Ripper, bigger than that of the original comic, and it challenges that notion by warping established character temperaments and rules by which they abide, in service of novel shock value. While indeed shocking, the revelation also calls into question whether it fits with their pre-established presence in the books … and whether that matters. The Elseworlds label grants some freedom to the creative process, but this ends up being an outlandish alteration to a pillar of the Bat-verse.

Luckily, Gotham by Gaslight executes the follow-through with heaps of intense energy, telegraphing firm hand-to-hand brawls between a more stripped-down Batman and comparably trained and sized foes, as well as volatile explosions and a little slasher-film brutality that inch closer to that R-rating. Regardless of how one feels about whether characters both old and new to the "Gaslight" narrative should've been incorporated as they have been, it's tough to dispute the execution of how the pieces all fall into place, engaging in hard-hitting sequences that don't lack for thematic strength. Fueling both the protagonist's motivations and Bruce's personal drive to end their streak of violence, the momentum gradually builds into a chaotic final act full of nods to the standard Batman universe, in which head-scratcher lapses in common sense and unanswered questions about future complications are overcome by the boldness of the action within the novelty of the Victorian era. Alas, those broad deviations from the source ultimately diminish Gotham by Gaslight to a moody curiosity instead of making it something better.

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