Originally a graphic novel written by Brian Augustyn and drawn by Mike Mignola, “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight” takes place in Gotham City during the 1800s and has Batman solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper. The graphic novel was the first of many DC Elseworlds stories and was highly praised for its original storytelling and unique integration of Batman in a historical setting. So it’s only natural that an animated movie be made.
The streets of Gotham are haunted by the presence of Jack the Ripper, who kills women at the dead of night, with his latest victim being a prostitute named Ivy. Bruce Wayne as Batman tries to find the culprit behind these murders, while some believe that the two are the same man. One night, the Ripper attacks a stage actress, Selina Kyle. She fights back against the Ripper, but is ultimately saved by Batman. After a fierce fight, the Ripper escapes. Batman visits Commissioner James Gordon to relay the information he gathered from the fight and asks for his help. The Ripper kills Sister Leslie, the head nun at Gotham’s Orphanage and frames Batman after killing a witness who suspected Bruce.
While the premise of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight may sound rather silly, it is actually one of the most interesting Batman films I’ve recently seen. The film is mostly a detective story featuring a steampunk Batman. How cool does that sound?! Batman’s costume is influenced by a double-breasted coat and duster-collared cape often seen in films taking place during the Victorian-era. In addition, he also has access to state-of-the-art 19th century technology, such as a gas-powered grapnel gun and even a steampunk motorcycle!
I have a love-hate relationship with the film’s art style. While the animation is very smooth, the art style of the characters appears very flat. However, the film makes up for it with its backgrounds, which are simplistic yet immersive. My favorite uses of the backgrounds have to be during the second and final fight between Batman and Jack the Ripper. The way the characters move over the sepia-colored night sky is very reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series and every blow has weight behind them. In addition to using hand-drawn animation for its characters and backgrounds, the film makes use of CGI when depicting certain elements of vehicles, for example, CGI wheels on a horse-drawn carriage and the balloon of a blimp.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of this movie is the portrayal of its characters. Gotham by Gaslight does what an Elseworlds story should do: have a fresh and smart take on popular characters. For example, Harvey Dent is not scarred, rather, he is a two-faced friend; someone who you can have fun with, but really doesn’t have your back when you need it. Another example is Selina Kyle, who is perhaps my favorite rendition of the character. I never really liked Catwoman from the comics, I always found her rather boring, only serving as a character for Bruce to fall in love with and question his unshaken morals. However, Selina Kyle here is not only a strong, independent woman who is a champion of feminist rights, she can also hold her own against the Ripper in a physical fight and doesn’t rely on Batman to save her.
Speaking of Batman, this is one of the few times we truly see Batman act as a detective, especially in a setting where he would not have access to advanced technology. Which shows just how truly ingenious The Bat really is. This is Bruce Greenwood’s second appearance as Batman, after Under the Red Hood, and he brings a more nuanced and sensitive nature to this version of Bruce compared to his portrayal in his first Batman film.
The most interesting character, however, is probably Jack the Ripper. Unlike in the source material, Jack actually has a believable motivation to kill women, as he sees them as filthy and the cause of corruption. What also surprised me is how much of a physical threat he is to Batman as much as he is a psychological threat to him. Jack can hold his own against The Bat and even overpower him in their confrontations, forcing Bruce to either seek assistance or outthink the Ripper. However, the best part regarding the Ripper that was done better than its source material is the big reveal on who he is, how he acquired his skills, and how he stayed hidden for so long. It’s a twist that I dare not give away in this review, you must check out the film for yourself. But I warn you, it’s the last person you’d possibly expect!
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is one of the most unique Elseworlds stories and one of the best Batman animated films. It’s a shame that it often goes overlooked and doesn’t get enough recognition due to being a direct-to-DVD animated feature film. However, judging from the recent trailers of Matt Reeves’s The Batman set to release this March, it appears that the legacy of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight lives on in the form of its darker tone and focus on Bruce’s title as the world’s greatest detective. Go check out Batman: Gotham by Gaslight before you see The Batman!