Batman: Gotham by Gaslight – A Steampunk-Style Thrilling Take on the Ripper Murders (Spoiler-Free Review)
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is the latest installment in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies adapted from the iconic 1989 Elseworlds one-shot graphic novel of the same title by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola. Set in a re-imagined 19th century Gotham City, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight tells the story of the Caped Crusader going up against Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer whose mystery was never solved to this day. We are expecting a sort of Holmesian murder mystery, thrilling horror story, and a dash of steampunk style. This review is spoiler-free, but please be aware that this film is rated R for violence and slight nudity.
If you are a fan of the original graphic novel, this animated movie isn’t exactly what you can call a faithful adaptation. However, whether this different approach is for the better or for the worse may depend on your personal taste. Compared to the original graphic novel, the animated movie presents a larger cast of characters that we are already familiar with. It makes for a much more interesting story on two aspects: incorporating Batman’s mythos into Jack the Ripper’s and better shrouding the whodunit mystery. This, in my opinion, elevates the story in the original graphic novel which was strong on the art side but can be considered rather brief and straightforward for a murder mystery. However, while the story is significantly different, the movie was able to channel the Whitechapel-like Gotham the way the original graphic novel did. That, at least, enabled the movie to introduce the audience to the wonders of Elseworlds.
Let’s talk about women in Batman: Gotham by Gaslight because they are not significantly present in the original graphic novel. In real life, the victims of the Ripper murders were impoverished young women working as prostitutes to sustain themselves. Not only were women already looked down upon during that era, it was worse for those who were neglected and had to make a living in the slums. This movie put Selina Kyle (Jennifer Carpenter) as a standout character and she becomes the key in reflecting the struggling life of women in that setting. She is unafraid to act and she answers to no one – not even Batman. Although she still somewhat serves as a damsel in distress, she is determined to bring justice for the women who have been wronged by the Ripper, the ignorant police force, and the oppressive hierarchical system of Gotham.
Batman (Bruce Greenwood) himself is balanced enough as both vigilante and detective. It’s always more interesting to see Batman’s detective side going into action. He is portrayed as a man ahead of his time – which is imperative in a murder mystery – as he makes the most out of steampunk technology and knowledge in forensics. There are a lot of Holmesian references, understandably, but that is all they are: references. A lot of them shadow over Batman’s character (note that I am saying this as a massive Sherlock Holmes fan) and it may have actually distracted the movie from making Batman his own version of World’s Greatest Detective. Regardless, Batman makes for a fitting hero in this version of Gotham, which is more than I can say about Jack the Ripper being a fitting villain as his opposite.
I will resist saying too much about Jack the Ripper’s identity, but I will say that his reveal is not very much fleshed out. Seeing that this is a whodunit story, the building anticipation doesn’t pay off as much as I would have liked. It’s not about who Jack the Ripper is – there are many characters that, theoretically, can be suspected. It’s despite the gruesome murders, Jack the Ripper isn’t actually scary. Supposedly, he is meant to be scary because he stalks women at night wielding a knife to stab them multiple times. But that’s it. The reveal of his motivations is somewhat understandable but ultimately falls flat, so even after that his character doesn’t progress much. There is a lack of explanation of how this person can be cunning enough to have gotten away with so many murders, only facts that we are meant to swallow in the end instead of making us go, “How did I not see that before?” We also don’t dive into what spawned this murderous mentality, which is a wasted opportunity for an R-rated movie. So even though I admit his identity isn’t very obvious (unlike the original graphic novel), his reveal doesn’t make me gasp in awe either.
In the end, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is a decent Elseworlds movie with a strong foundation on building its own world. With a nice roster of characters and fantastic voice actors behind them (John DiMaggio, Grey Griffin, Anthony Head, Yuri Lowenthal, and Tara Strong among others) the movie improves on what was absent in the original source and develops its Victorian concepts further. However, it highly promised a juicy Ripper mystery and unfortunately doesn’t fully deliver. It’s less predictable than the original source, but it doesn’t feel clever, it only feels like it makes sense – not enough for mystery fans who like to be cleverly outsmarted. For all of that, I give Batman: Gotham by Gaslight a 7.5/10.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is available on digital and on Blu-Ray/DVD by February 6th.