Gotham by Gaslight

 

Batman. He’s been around for almost 80 years, in comic books and movie serials, small screen series and multiple film incarnations. He’s been goofy and gritty and everything in between, and just when you think you’ve got a handle on what Batman can be, along comes something like “Gotham by Gaslight.” Its premise is simple: what if Batman was set in the 1880s? The answer, it turns out, is a delightful twist on both the superhero and detective story.

The plot, it goeth thusly: Gotham is a bustling, growing city struggling to control its seediness as it prepares for a World’s Fair style celebration hosting by late-20-something Bruce Wayne. Alas, the town has a serious problem in the form of Jack the Ripper, who has been killing and mutilating women. And there appears to be a man dressed like a bat who has also been seen at night …

This movie does a lot of stuff right. First, it doesn’t bother making this an origin story. There are lines noting that Bruce’s background explains why he is such a generous patron of the local orphanage, but we don’t get yet another trip through Batman’s childhood. We’re watching a high concept Batman movie — we don’t need his motivations explored in detail, and the movie doesn’t waste time telling us what we already know.

Second, it takes advantage of its setting to really make us believe in this world. Gotham appears to have been moved from its traditional East Coast setting to someplace more Midwestern, given the lack of docks and presence of farmland outskirts. The older men we meet — Mayor Hill and Commissioner Gordon — talk about their Civil War experience. The costumes have been reinterpreted to be period appropriate, and the foley artist do a great job of making all the layers of clothing sound like the characters are actually wearing them. The only real historical flaws are having Jack the Ripper in America and having one of Batman’s gadgets being about ten years too early.

Third, characters are reimagined to be appropriate for the period, and several less well-known Batman characters get parts. Dr. Leslie, a fellow medical student of Thomas Wayne, is now Sister Leslie, Mother Superior of the local orphanage. Barbara Gordon is now Commissioner Gordon’s wife, not his daughter, and is a key element in unraveling the plot. Pamela Eisley is a dancing girl with an ivy-themed costume, and Selina Kyle’s Catwoman bullwhip skills are now due to being a circus lion-tamer’s daughter. Harvey Bullock is now sporting an Irish accent, and Dr. Strange (Hugo, not the magic Marvel surgeon) is the superintendent of Arkham Asylum.

The weakest part is normally what is the strongest part of a Batman story — the villain. Batman’s villains have always rivaled Batman himself for being engaging and memorable, whether the tragic love story of Mr. Freeze, the schizophrenia of Two-Face, the mercurial chaos of the Joker. And certainly Jack the Ripper has plenty of potential to be a similar villain. The problem is two-fold — first, they choose to go with a “the villain was someone you knew all along” plot. To prevent the betrayal from being obvious, they don’t introduce a ringer who was always the hero’s friend that you never heard of (as done in the Bond film Goldeneye). At the same time, though, while the reveal of which of Bruce’s friends is really Jack the Ripper is shocking, the story doesn’t quite pull off giving us enough clues to make the reveal believable. Rather, it feels quite a bit like they wanted to make the reveal as shocking as possible and didn’t even want to set it up properly. (Sherlock Holmes stories do this quite a bit as well, so at least it’s in good company.)

The second problem is that Jack’s motivation and actions don’t really line up. We’re told that he’s killing and mutilating women (and we’re shown enough of this for this animated movie to get an R rating) because his experiences with ladies of the night spreading STDs that killed his friends.  That’s not a bad motivation, but the movie has five women with speaking parts. They are, in order of descending respectability: a nun, a housewife, a dancing hall owner, a dancing girl who turns tricks, and a homeless drunk. Jack attacks all five, which really muddles this supposed crusade to make the world safe from disease-spreading sluts. Also, if we are supposed to be horrified by Jack’s faulty perception of women as sluts, it might help if we weren’t shown a Gotham where 60% of the women are disreputable in one way or another.  All that being said, Gotham by Gaslight does an above average job of creating a memorable villain; it’s just not quite as good as it could have been.

I highly recommend this movie to folks who want a good mystery and thriller. It’s fun for Batman fans, but it also stands on its own as an engaging Victorian detective story

There are 20 comments.

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  1. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    I did like the comic.

    • #1
  2. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    It is true that the villain isn’t quite up to snuff but at least the reveal was great. 

    What I really enjoyed was the dynamic between Bruce and Selina. Firstly, Batman is rarely Batman in this movie which is actually kind of fresh. It’s mostly Bruce Wayne trying to figure out the murderer and interacting with Gotham as an intelligent and compassion .01 percenter. Bruce Wayne is one of the few superheroes whose public persona is almost as interesting as his secret identity so it makes sense to explore a different side of him now and then.

    Most unexpectedly the romance between Selina and Bruce (while quick and simple) is much more believable than most romantic comedies.

    I would recommend this movie to all fans of Batman because Batman is based on being a great detective. 

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Nice I may check it out. Thanks for the review, Amy.

     

    • #3
  4. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    It is true that the villain isn’t quite up to snuff but at least the reveal was great. 

    And in fairness, part of that disappointment is due to how fascinating Batman’s rogues gallery is. 

    The Joker is chaos embodied. Harley Quinn is the psychiatrist who feel in love with her patient and is now the stereotype of the battered woman. Catwoman makes Bruce choose between love and justice. Mr. Freeze has his marriage end in tragedy. Two Face has his split personality give him an obsession with duality and fate; Scarface has his split personality express itself with a ventriloquist terrified of his own puppet. That’s some heady and challenging company to join. 

    But compare that to other rogue galleries, and even a villain disappointing by Batman standards is seen as great. Superman gets Lex Luthor and rocks to fight. The X Men get Magneto and bureaucrats. The MCU? Sixteen movies, twenty heroes, and two memorable villains. 

    • #4
  5. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Nice I may check it out. Thanks for the review, Amy.

     

     It is definitely better than another recent R rated Batman animated movie: The Killing Joke. Granted, that isn’t a high bar to clear. 

    • #5
  6. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Nice I may check it out. Thanks for the review, Amy.

     

    It is definitely better than another recent R rated Batman animated movie: The Killing Joke. Granted, that isn’t a high bar to clear.

    No kidding.

    • #6
  7. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Sound very interesting, wonderful to read a review here.

    • #7
  8. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne


    Amy Schley (View Comment)
    :
    The MCU? Sixteen movies, twenty heroes, and two memorable villains.

    Killmonger and … Thanos or Loki? I haven’t seen the last Avengers but I feel like Loki is more of a trickster figure than a villain. I had to count in my head how many movies there were.

    3 Iron Man

    2 Captain America

    4 Avengers

    2 Antman+Wasp

    1 Dr Strange

    1 Spiderman

    3 Thor

     

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Sound very interesting, wonderful to read a review here.

    I think I’ll be writing a T.V. review of Luke Cage soon.

    • #8
  9. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):


    Amy Schley (View Comment)
    :
    The MCU? Sixteen movies, twenty heroes, and two memorable villains.

    Killmonger and … Thanos or Loki? I haven’t seen the last Avengers but I feel like Loki is more of a trickster figure than a villain. I had to count in my head how many movies there were.

    3 Iron Man

    2 Captain America

    4 Avengers

    2 Antman+Wasp

    1 Dr Strange

    1 Spiderman

    3 Thor

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf

    Sound very interesting, wonderful to read a review here.

    I think I’ll be writing a T.V. review of Luke Cage soon.

    I was counting Loki and Thanos. Granted, I haven’t worked my way through every MCU movie yet, but the villains I’ve seen are generic evil businessmen, generic evil Nazis (though at least Hugo Weaving looks like he’s having fun with the role), generic evil politicians, generic evil general, and generic evil aliens.  Loki is interesting and complex, and Thanos gets enough build up through the hints of the other movies that you look forward to seeing him. The rest? Surprisingly interchangeable. 

    • #9
  10. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf

    Sound very interesting, wonderful to read a review here.

    I think I’ll be writing a T.V. review of Luke Cage soon.

    First season of Luke Cage was awesome on several levels even though were story problems with the villain in the end and how he “fed” off of hate.  But there was a lot good there.  I can’t wait to have a chance at season two though I steal myself for disappointment I hope for the best!  I will read your review with interest.

    • #10
  11. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):


    Amy Schley (View Comment)
    :
    The MCU? Sixteen movies, twenty heroes, and two memorable villains.

    Killmonger and … Thanos or Loki? I haven’t seen the last Avengers but I feel like Loki is more of a trickster figure than a villain. I had to count in my head how many movies there were.

    3 Iron Man

    2 Captain America

    4 Avengers

    2 Antman+Wasp

    1 Dr Strange

    1 Spiderman

    3 Thor

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf

    Sound very interesting, wonderful to read a review here.

    I think I’ll be writing a T.V. review of Luke Cage soon.

    I was counting Loki and Thanos. Granted, I haven’t worked my way through every MCU movie yet, but the villains I’ve seen are generic evil businessmen, generic evil Nazis (though at least Hugo Weaving looks like he’s having fun with the role), generic evil politicians, generic evil general, and generic evil aliens. Loki is interesting and complex, and Thanos gets enough build up through the hints of the other movies that you look forward to seeing him. The rest? Surprisingly interchangeable.

    I think Killmonger will stick with you.  Then you will have three good villains.

    • #11
  12. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Amy Schley (View Comment):
    Granted, I haven’t worked my way through every MCU movie yet, but the villains I’ve seen are generic evil businessmen, generic evil Nazis (though at least Hugo Weaving looks like he’s having fun with the role), generic evil politicians, generic evil general, and generic evil aliens.

    Great point. The Joker and Bane were pretty interesting in the Nolan movies. I still think Killmonger was an interesting character in the Black Panther movies. 

    • #12
  13. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Nice I may check it out. Thanks for the review, Amy.

     

    It is definitely better than another recent R rated Batman animated movie: The Killing Joke. Granted, that isn’t a high bar to clear.

    No kidding.

    I really wanted to like it. As possibly Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil’s last outting together as Batman and the Joker, I wanted the epic clash of justice and chaos. 

    Instead, we got Alan Moore torture porn, a Batman/ Batgirl one night stand doubling down on one of the few missteps of the DCAU, and Batman embracing the conceit that he’s just as crazy as the Joker. Batman Beyond Return of the Joker is a much more satisfying conclusion to the Batman/ Joker relationship.  

    • #13
  14. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Nice I may check it out. Thanks for the review, Amy.

     

    It is definitely better than another recent R rated Batman animated movie: The Killing Joke. Granted, that isn’t a high bar to clear.

    No kidding.

    I really wanted to like it. As possibly Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil’s last outting together as Batman and the Joker, I wanted the epic clash of justice and chaos.

    Instead, we got Alan Moore torture porn, a Batman/ Batgirl one night stand doubling down on one of the few missteps of the DCAU, and Batman embracing the conceit that he’s just as crazy as the Joker. Batman Beyond Return of the Joker is a much more satisfying conclusion to the Batman/ Joker relationship.

    Agree on all counts! 

    “Oh Look! The beam’s coming here!”

    • #14
  15. CarolJoy Coolidge
    CarolJoy
    @CarolJoy

    Your writing “goeth” so smoothly I hope to always notice what you write here.

    And I wish I could “like” this twice.

    • #15
  16. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    CarolJoy (View Comment):

    Your writing “goeth” so smoothly I hope to always notice what you write here.

    And I wish I could “like” this twice.

    That’s a phrase I’ve picked up from Jill Bearup’s show “Stuff You Like”

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRrvZqCL1YsqRA8IpXrhYQQ

    • #16
  17. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):
    First season of Luke Cage was awesome on several levels even though were story problems with the villain in the end and how he “fed” off of hate. But there was a lot good there. I can’t wait to have a chance at season two though I steal myself for disappointment I hope for the best! I will read your review with interest.

    My review is up.

    • #17
  18. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Just made it my next Netflix delivery. Is this a direct-to-dvd thing?

    I recommend Batman and Bill, a documentary about the creation of Batman, which is exclusive to Hulu.

    • #18
  19. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    kylez (View Comment):

    Just made it my next Netflix delivery. Is this a direct-to-dvd thing?

    I recommend Batman and Bill, a documentary about the creation of Batman, which is exclusive to Hulu.

    Yes, it didn’t get a theatrical release.

    • #19
  20. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Just saw this, thought it was pretty good. I would have liked a more concrete setting. I was thinking instead of The Ripper how about HH Holmes at the ’93 Chicago World’s Fair (which I think they were basically alluding to with their fair). 

    • #20

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