By Kelly Gaines
Gotham by Gaslight is the feature-length ‘Elseworlds’ movie that nobody asked for. For anyone not familiar with DC’s Elseworlds, they’re similar to the Marvel ‘What If’ titles. The short non-canonical stories range from funny to disturbing and change time, place, and sometimes even species of classic DC characters. Gotham by Gaslight asks one question: what would it be like if Jack the Ripper killed in Gotham? Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, Commissioner Gordon, and a host of other well known Batman characters are transported to the 1880’s. Here, Bruce Wayne looks to fund the first Gotham’s World Fair in hopes of bringing some light to Gotham. Unfortunately, the killing spree of Jack the Ripper pulls Bruce’s attention in another direction. Despite the time warp and serial killer addition, the Gotham in Gaslight is familiar- grime, gore, darkness, and masked vigilante justice. Is the concept intriguing? Sure. Was the original comic a good read? Yes. Was the movie good? No.
Gaslight hits the ground running with an old-timey striptease from Poison Ivy, who is promptly killed off by Jack the Ripper. We then meet what would have transpired if you crossed Oliver Twist with all of the male Robins in the Batman universe. A gang of scrappy, oddly accented Robins meet Batman while attempting to rob an elderly couple. Ever the merciful Bat, Batman instructs the kids to go to a local church and ask for Sister Leslie. As a personal friend of Bruce Wayne, Sister Leslie takes in all of Gotham’s non-homicidal waywards and attempts to put them on the right track. She may be the only aspect of the movie that I enjoyed. From her sharp sense of humor to her misplaced Irish accent, Sister Leslie is a lot of fun. It’s unfortunate that she ends up murdered as unceremoniously as Ivy.
I don’t like to take reviews down serious roads. So many comic media outlets seem very dedicated to being sensational and divisive instead of just talking about the pros and cons of different pieces of fiction. I don’t like to add to that, but I have to point out an aspect of this movie that just doesn’t sit right with me. For a story with such a large female cast, the female characters are not very well written. Granted, any Jack the Ripper story is going to have violence and prostitutes- that’s the nature of the crime. Gotham by Gaslight manages to turn the horror into flashes of booty shaking and stabbing with very little attention paid to character or plot development. It goes from striptease to stabbing, attempting to throw the female characters a bone by making Selina Kyle appear capable and in control. The attempt doesn’t read. A majority of Selina’s screen time is spent singing about “taming wild women”, flirting with Bruce Wayne, or being belittled and degraded by the male characters.
I’m convinced whoever wrote the script wanted to see how many times you can get Commissioner Gordon to call someone a slut before it starts getting weird. Just about every female character with a line in the movie ends up dead, beaten up, or set on fire. I rooted for Selina through much of the first act of the movie, but by the dramatic climax, it became clear that Batman was the only one who would really get to be a hero. Again, typically that’s okay. It’s a fucking Batman story. Chances are, Batman is gonna save the day. Something about the mixture of the oversexing, constant violence, and verbal belittling of the female characters knocked this movie off its axis for me.
Jack the Ripper is a fascinating case, and Batman is a kickass character. Violence against the female characters is unavoidable in the combining of the two. However, I’m a fan of balance. I’m a fan of stories that figure out how to create depth in even the most brutal narratives. There is a way to tell these sorts of stories without having to play the female characters as plot devices or props. There’s a way to create a deeply disturbed male villain without having to call the lead female a slut. And in fact, there are also ways to write a story where calling a female character a slut doesn’t just come across as though it's being used for shock value. The way it was done here just feels cheap and lazy. That’s why I liked the Sister Leslie character so much. She was the only woman on screen that seemed to have some effort in her writing.
The big reveal of the Ripper’s identity does nothing to save this movie. In fact, for me, it was the final nail in the coffin. One of the upsides of making animated features out of comics is being able to hit subtleties that are only possible when watching movement and hearing tone of voice. Big spoiler: Commissioner Gordon is the Ripper. The movie does absolutely nothing to build up this revelation. Not just that it was a twist ending, it was a twist that does not make sense. Earlier in the movie we watch Gordon wake from a nightmare about the Ripper attacking his wife. He runs to her in the kitchen and tells her how afraid he is of the Ripper getting her, and how he can’t be without her. At no point in this scene is there any indication that something is off in this household.
The interaction seems genuine, and because we’ve just seen his dream and watched the honest panic, this scene 100% does not make sense when compared to the next time we see the Gordon home. Batman discovers Gordon’s secret by going to his home, noticing that the hall rug as slightly askew, and using that clue to discover Gordon’s secret ripper cave. At this point, his wife Barbara, who is clearly psychotic and badly burned, tries to ward off Batman (who of course, literally, throws her across the room). Barbara explains that Gordon is purging the sin from Gotham, and says that he’s “as gentle as a lamb” when he’s home- all while staring at Batman with full-blown crazy eyes. This isn’t the same character, mannerisms, or dynamic that the earlier scene lays out. Maybe if the Gordon’s were acting in front of guests the disconnect could be explainable, but they were alone in their kitchen! James genuinely woke up from a nightmare and ran to hug his completely normal and not at all psycho or battered wife. There is no inkling that anything is, or ever has been, off in this home; so when all hell breaks loose a few scenes later there’s no build up. There’s no subtlety.
A good plot twist makes the viewer go “Oh my god how did I miss that?” This plot twist is more of an “Oh my god how did they forget to put that in?” Animating a comic should compel the creative team to play with the extra subtlety by changing the tone of voice and body language. Somehow, this team managed to scrape out the clues and give us a rushed surface version of a fascinating book.
It’s been some years since I read the original Gotham by Gaslight, but I can say that it is a much more worthy story than this adaptation. For one, it doesn’t open to Poison Ivy’s about to be murdered ass shaking around covered in leaves. Second, there’s actual suspense and plot thickening- not just a bunch of barely touched on character connections and a completely nonsensical plot twist. DC’s animated films are always lovely to look at, but they need new talent in the writer’s room. They have a knack for gutting a story and giving us it’s animated corpse- all the face value, with none of the inner depth. I have to chalk this up to another miss on DC and Warner Bros. long line of hit or miss superhero animation.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight