Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight

Voice cast: Bruce Greenwood, Jennifer Carpenter, Grey DeLisle, Scott Paterson, and Anthony Head

Director: Sam Liu

75 minutes (15) 2018
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
DC / Warner DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by J.C. Hartley  

DC or Marvel? Back in the Silver Age, which was when this particular old-timer was introduced to the world of superheroes, there was no contest. Marvel just seemed more grown-up. Spider-Man challenged the comics code by considering drug abuse, correspondents to the various letters pages argued about Nixon, and Iron Man had an unfortunate tendency to beat up the Vietcong on his way back from tussling with the Mandarin, but you can’t have everything. Meanwhile, over at DC, Superman and The Flash were having a race to see who was the fastest man alive, ho hum. 

With the elevation to the screen, big and small, things seemed a little bit more evenly placed, and if anything, DC started with an advantage. To the public at large Superman and Batman were probably more familiar than any characters from the Marvel stable of heroes, although both Spider-Man and The Hulk had TV shows in the 1970s, and with Superman: The Movie (1978) DC got its universe up there where it counted. DC had another advantage, in its association with Warner Bros, who owned the rights to all the characters, there was an opportunity to present a consistent vision, a coherent DC universe across all media. However, DC seem to have been outpaced and outflanked.  While Marvel continues to negotiate to bring errant characters and teams back into the fold from Fox and Sony, the MCU has released a veritable blitzkrieg of movies, weaving a web of intertextuality between single-character films and team-ups, culminating in this year’s blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War and its inevitable aftermaths.

Despite the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, DC has released a sequence of frankly patchy versions of Superman, a Justice League film which disappointed the critics, a Suicide Squad movie which seems to have suffered in production, and Wonder Woman, which contained many good things promptly squandered by the aforesaid Justice League which followed it.

My teenage nephew feels that critics are biased against DC. Goaded by my brother-in-law, he even suggested as much in an email to the venerable team of Kermode and Mayo, the latter casually, and rather patronisingly, dismissing the accusation as a ‘conspiracy theory’. Despite my obvious affection for my nephew, and my own reservations about some of their output, I have to say that overall Marvel seem to be winning on the big screen. However, what about elsewhere? On TV, things seem more evenly balanced. Smallville, Arrow, The Flash, Constantine, Supergirl, and Legends Of Tomorrow, are or were successful shows for DC, while for their rivals Marvel, Agents Of SHIELD was patchy but watchable, Jessica Jones and Daredevil were outright hits, and with Luke Cage and Iron Fist went on to become The Defenders. Reaction to The Inhumans seems to have been predominantly negative. TV honours probably even then between the two franchises. If there is a medium in which DC seems to have overcome its rival it is in animated features.

I have to admit that prior to Batman: Gotham By Gaslight my only experience of superhero animation was Batman: The Animated Series, back in the 1990s when my kids were little. Consequently, I had no idea what to expect from this film. I have to say that MPAA ‘R’ rated (‘15’ in UK) bloody violence, and adult themes, in a cartoon feature rather wrong-footed me, as I found myself wondering who the film was aimed at. My daughter suggested it was aimed at people who buy the comics, that seems obvious but clearly there is a disconnect between the various audiences for all things super. There are people like me who read comics and know the characters and follow the films for that reason, and there are people who follow the films or TV shows who would never pick up a comic-book in their lives. I suspect that the animated features are unlikely to appeal to the same mass audience that the latest Avengers or Superman film would attract.

Based on a comic by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola, Gotham By Gaslight is set in a Victorian-era Gotham, and re-imagines many of the staple characters associated with the modern-day Batman. Given the Gothic ambience of much of the Batman mythos, transplanting a story to the age of sensation fiction isn’t such a wrench, and after all Spring-Heeled Jack, be he superhero or super-villain, made his first appearance in 1837.  This particular comic was a one-shot publication in 1989, retrospectively declared to be the first in DC’s Elseworlds imprint. Elseworlds uses the adverb to indicate stories outside of the official DC canon, although given the wibbly wobbly timey wimey nature of the comic-book multiverse who can honestly say what is canon and what isn’t. 

Millionaire Bruce Wayne has used his money to construct an ‘ideal city’ to host Gotham’s World’s Fair. At a preview of the site, Sister Leslie, who runs an orphanage and centre for the homeless, and Selina Kyle, a music-hall singer and self-proclaimed protector of the innocent and oppressed, clash with Mayor Tolliver, Inspector Gordon, Chief Bullock and public prosecutor Harvey Dent, over the Fair’s projection of Gotham’s image, while Jack the Ripper is stalking and killing women in the city. Later, Wayne as Batman rescues Kyle from the Ripper when she uses herself as bait in an attempt to trap him. Batman realises that the Ripper, whoever he is, is a trained fighter and easily a match for him. Visiting Gordon under the cover of darkness, Batman persuades him to share evidence relating to the case, and thus gets to read a letter from the Ripper pledging to clean up the city by his campaign of violence against women. Wayne goes out on the town with his friend Harvey Dent, and Kyle, with whom Dent is enamoured despite being married. When Dent drinks himself into oblivion, Wayne and Selina bond over their discovery that they were both orphans helped by Sister Leslie. Wayne realises that, as a protector of ‘fallen’ women Sister Leslie is a potential victim of the Ripper’s atrocities, he races to her but is too late to prevent her from becoming another casualty. 

At Sister Leslie’s funeral Wayne is approached by Dr Hugo Strange who is acting as the police department’s alienist in an attempt to profile the killer. Strange also seems to have worked out that Wayne is Batman as he asks to arrange a meeting at Arkham Asylum.  Wayne is also approached by Marlene, an homeless alcoholic, who saw him the night of Sister Leslie’s murder, and attempts to blackmail him for what she assumes was his involvement. Those attending the funeral overhear her accusations when Wayne rebuffs her demands. Batman keeps his appointment at Arkham but is too late to stop the Ripper silencing Strange. When Marlene is found murdered as well, Wayne is arrested as the Ripper. Selina visits Wayne in prison and urges him to reveal his secret identity to Gordon as it will provide him with an alibi, when he refuses Selina says she will go to Gordon and do it herself. Wayne then escapes from prison and assumes Batman’s cowl to try and solve the case first.

This Gotham By Gaslight is significantly different from the comic-book source, particularly in the revelation of the Ripper’s identity. If Elseworlds plots are non-canon, in order to tell stories which would be impossible in the authentic DC universe timeline, this feature goes all out to push that particular envelope till it splits. I genuinely didn’t see the denouement coming until just before it did. Familiar characters are used in ways which may amuse or intrigue fans familiar with the comics, and even those of us with only a tangential acquaintance to the world of Batman can pick up enough references to realise what is going on. I’m not entirely sure that the story of Jack the Ripper is a good choice for an animated superhero feature, but perhaps I’m just getting old.

There are three substantial featurettes on the DVD trailing future animated titles, and comprising footage and cast and crew interviews. These other films are Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay, done in the style of 1970s’ grindhouse, and promising all the gory violence we apparently expect from a Suicide Squad title, Justice League Dark featuring a team assembled to fight supernatural threats, and Batman: Bad Blood in which Batman goes missing and Batwoman, Dick Grayson, Luke Fox, and Batman’s biological son Damian have to fill-in fighting crime.

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