It’s hardly a stretch to say that DC and their live-action slate aren’t exactly endearing critics or lighting up the box office. Considering that Marvel’s Black Panther earned the same as Justice League‘s entire theatrical run in less than three weeks, it’s safe to say that DC and Warner Brothers have a lot of hurdles to overcome in the near future.
But one aspect where DC are firing on all cylinders is that of their animated fare. Though they’ve never received the same attention as their live-action counterparts, even as far back as the 1990s DC were making some utterly groundbreaking pieces of animated storytelling. Classic tales such as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker are still talked about in nerd-circles today.
Indeed, from a certain point of view, DC are doing far better than Marvel in their embrace of older teenager / adult storylines and characterisation. Since 2007 DC have released dozens of animated films, all rated between PG-13 to R (around 12-18), and while they have varied in quality, they all embrace a more adult style of storytelling.
Gotham by Gaslight, the 30th entry in this “adult” film series, also holds the distinction of being adapted from the first “Elseworlds” comic (a story where DC heroes are taken out of their usual surroundings and put into new or unusual realities). Utterly groundbreaking on its release, it’s about time this revolutionary style of storytelling has been adapted to a visual medium.
Set in the Victorian-era, the citizens of Gotham City are terrified by a series of murders where the victims are exclusively poor young women. Police Commissioner James Gordon (Scott Patterson) is at his wits end, desperately trying to find the killer dubbed “Jack the Ripper” before more innocents are slaughtered.
Not helping is the additional pressure he receives from Selina Kyle (Jennifer Carpenter), a self-appointed protector of the downtrodden. Also complicating things is the appearance of The Batman (Bruce Greenwood), a masked vigilante that many believe is the one committing the Ripper murders.
With The Ripper determined to take life, and The Batman sworn to protect it, the stage is set for a brutal battle across the rooftops of Gotham City. And only one man can prevail.
Adapted from the 1989 comic of the same name, Gotham by Gaslight is an excellent example of just how timeless the Batman myth can be. Certain characters like Hugo Strange or Alfred Pennyworth slot so effortlessly into the world of the industrial age, that they almost seem purposely written for such an era. A little more liberty is taken with the more fantastical characters, such as Batman, Catwoman or Poison Ivy. But the fact their existence is not world-breaking just goes to show how well-structured and thoughtout James Krieg’s screenplay is.
It’s also a credit to the script, and director Sam Liu, that they don’t feel the need to populate their world with a string of secondary supervillians and knowing winks to the Batman canon. The faith they have in the basic building blocks of their story should be commended. Indeed, being essentially a murder-mystery, the plot of Gotham by Gaslight makes sure to always keep this aspect at its core. This results in quite a taut story; though with a running time of only 76 minutes there will probably be some who say it is a little too taut.
Of course, the nature of the film being a whodunit means that there needs to be a big reveal at the end. While said disclosure does go against the traditional arc of the character, it’s still an effective twist.
The hand-drawn animation, though hardly original, is used to great effect in bringing the grimy streets of Gotham City to life. Heavily reminiscent of 18th century London, the atmosphere helps imbue a strong sense of terror as we witness the Ripper stalk his victims. Add to that the excellent voice work done by Greenwood & Carpenter as Bruce Wayne/Batman & Catwoman respectively, and you get a spine-tingling story almost on par with the original comic.
A strong and effective mystery, with a great steampunk aesthetic to boot, Gotham by Gaslight is a welcome entry into the DC visual pantheon. It can only be hoped that other similar Elseworlds tales will soon get the big screen treatment. Superman: Red Son anyone?
Photo Source: IMDb