Review – Gotham by Gaslight
As a fan of the Marvel Noir series that recast Marvel heroes as 1930’s noir and pulp adventurers and heroes, I was very excited to see Batman in a Victorian era tale that pitches him against the 19th century’s most infamous killer, Jack the Ripper. The short version is I was not disappointed, the long version will be tough to do without spoilers, I’ll do my best but I’ll save the biggest for last… the identity of Gotham’s own Ripper!
Batman And Robins
Bruce Wayne (Bruce Greenwood), philanthropist gentleman about town, rich enough to afford his own automobile and handsome cab, well dressed and well known for funding a variety of community projects and furthering the endeavours of the natural sciences and engineering. Also Batman (spoilers).
Equipped with some seriously toned-down tech but still sporting the basics of grappling hook, bladed batarangs, smokebombs, and a variety of lesser theatrical devices. To sell the period he’s also in cowl fashioned in the style of aviator goggles and a high-collared travelling cloak. He’s introduced defending a pair of Gotham’s high society from a gang of street urchin’s conspicuously named Dickie, Jason, and Timmy, whom he chastises after beating their thuggish boss half to death.
Anthony Stewart-Head is the possibly the most perfect Alfred Pennyworth we never had, how he’s never taken the role in animation or live-action I may never know, but he simply does not get the time he deserves… anyway, mini-rant over. In short he takes up the duty of managing the activities of the Robins, and it’s a dynamic I’d like to have seen more of, and perhaps we will if we extend into the Master of the Future sequel from the DC Elseworlds, but I’m afraid we’ve already broken original story here to keep some sense of twist.
Allies and Enemies
Joining the cast, aside from the obvious Jim Gordon, Selina Kyle is an actress and activist with a whip which she once used to train lions like some kind of big-cat-woman, Harvey Dent starts out as a friend and turns when Wayne is accused of being the Ripper, and Dr Hugo Strange is your typical 19th century psychologist and therefore needs nothing to make him inherently villainous. Poison Ivy makes a brief appearance as the Ripper’s first on-screen victim, which should be no surprise as she is one of the most inherently sexual characters in Batman’s rogue gallery. Bullock, one of GCPD’s blandest cops is played by John DiMaggio which seems like a waste of talent, but considering that every cop needed an irish accent then he brought his best.
Anyone with half a mind to basic narrative rules knows that the Ripper falls within this cast of characters somewhere. The thing that binds all of our suspects is the Dionysus Club, a spin on the Diogenes Club from Sherlock Holmes mythos, in this case a simple gentleman’s leisure club but it’s a clever reference.
A few moments of excellent characterisation; I sincerely thought we may finally have a Batman/Catwoman combo who had nothing to disagree about, as Kyle in this case was no morally ambiguous jewel thief, I stood firmly corrected when she insisted he reveal his identity to exonerate himself and go on protecting the women of the city. Her character as a whole, especially brought to life by Jennifer Carpenter may be my favourite variation. I also particularly like a scene in which The Bat Man appears in Gordon’s back garden, and once the two have given their usual terse exchange of information, the Commissioner stares down the crusader and tells him never to set foot on his property again. It would have been far more empowering had Batman not pulled a vanishing act.
The Art of Subtlty
Kudos to the writers and art directors, there were a few references that might slip by a few of the less observant viewers. Ok, so when Selina says that Harvey Dent is a “different man when he drinks” that’s a bit on the nose, but a night out at the Monarch Theatre might evade those who don’t know where the Wayne family spent their last night together.
Cyrus Gold, the bareknuckle brawler in Blackgate is the name for the man who would be Solomon Grundy, the immortal monster, a rather clever addition. Sister Leslie, the nun who cares for the down and destitute of Gotham could very easily be a nod to Leslie Thomkins, once a friend and colleague to Thomas Wayne and additional caregiver to the orphaned Bruce. Here she is a nun with a wont for aiding the downtrodden and taking in the lost, including Bruce, and later his collection of urchins.
You can also find some rather subtle hints towards the identity of the Ripper, glaringly obvious when you watch a second time. And on the subject…
The Grand Reveal
And yes, here be spoilers you might as well stop reading because the handbrake is coming off.
It would have been such a soft move to make the Ripper some new Joker incarnation, nonsensical and pointless. There were a few other characters eluded to, Hugo Strange was rather unsubtly hinted at as a possible culprit but again, too out of character even for an alternate universe, and he lacks the physique. The shrouded face and natural duplicity of Dent would have made him an easy sell, especially as he becomes so keen to sell Bruce Wayne as the Ripper.
There are other villains that would have fit the bill, Hush perhaps, Victor Zsasz, or Riddler given the cryptic notes simply begging Gotham’s best and brightest to catch him. But instead we have a twisted facsimile of Jim Gordon! This Gordon plays the part perfectly, but below the stern-but-honest copper routine there’s a hatred for women so deep he’s even left a grotesque mark upon his own wife and -as implied – daughter.
They build a rather well constructed Ripper, basing him on the facts of the man himself, able-bodied, surgical knowledge, they even work in the left-handedness and the letters designed to read like they were written by a common fool. It’s truly diabolical. After all, who amongst the vast cast of Batman’s characters is unnassailably trustworthy, above and beyond reproach but James Gordon? And yet here he is, the perfect embodiment of one of history’s most vicious and voracious killers. Scott Patterson balances both sides of the character elegantly.
Long story short, this may be one of the best DC animated entries, taking a necessary detour from the source material in order to make for a more original story leaving the viewer guessing until the very end. We close on a traditionally bittersweet ending with the culprit escaping justice by diving into the jaws of death.
I was looking forward to Gotham by Gaslight, and I was not disappointed. So far disappointments in the DC animated Universe have been few in number, so here’s to a Suicide Squad film we can all enjoy, Hell to Pay, due later this year… and Batman Ninja… which looks amazing.