Overview: In an adaptation of the graphic novel, in late 19th Century Gotham City, Batman faces off with notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): The film opens at a burlesque show where a dancer, Ivy, performs for a crowd of men and then leaves for the night where she’s approached in the streets by a shadowy figure who Ivy mistakes for a client. The figure, Jack the Ripper, proceeds to produce a knife. In the meantime, a trio of street kids (Dick, Jason, and Tim) attempt to mug a couple on the streets which is interrupted by Batman, who makes quick work of the man who put the kids up to the crime and send the kids an orphanage run by Sister Leslie, a kind nun that looked after Bruce Wayne after his parents death. Batman hears a woman’s screams and swings off to discover Ivy in the street, stabbed to death.
The next day, the mayor makes a presentation of the new Gotham World’s Fair, introducing Police Commissioner James Gordon, Alienist Hugo Strange, Gotham County Prosecutor Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne, which is interrupted by a theatre performer, Selena Kyle, accusing the Mayor and Police of doing nothing to stop the murders of street women by Jack the Ripper.
The story then moves to Selena Kyle being stalked through the night streets by the Ripper, with Batman following from the rooftops. Selena makes her way to a slaughterhouse, where she confronts the Ripper, who tries to stab Selena. Selena uncoils a bullwhip and a fight ensues and as the Ripper gets the upper hand, Batman arrives. Batman and the Ripper fight and the Ripper escapes, leaving Batman to be scolded by Selena for interfering.
The mystery surrounding the murders continues, with Batman visiting Gordon and offering to help catch the Ripper, to which Gordon reluctantly agrees. Bruce examines the files before heading out for a night on the town with Harvey Dent, who introduces Bruce to Selena at her cabaret show. Bruce and Selena hit it off before Bruce realizes that Sister Leslie is a target for the Ripper and runs off to her convent, only to find her brutally murdered.
At Leslie’s funeral, Hugo Strange tells Bruce Wayne he would like to meet with Batman about the Ripper case at Arkham Asylum. Meanwhile, Alfred runs across Dick, Jason, and Tim after Jason unsuccessfully tries to steal Alfred’s wallet, and Alfred gives them his card, stating he can offer food in exchange for help with odd jobs. Bruce is then approached and then threatened by a drunken old woman who saw Bruce standing over Leslie body and makes a scene in front of the police when her attempts at blackmail are unsuccessful.
That evening, while he waits for Batman, Strange is attacked by the Ripper, who throws Strange to the Arkham inmates who tear him to pieces as Batman arrives. Batman chases the Ripper, who makes his escape on a zeppelin, and the two fight as the airship catches fire and crashes. Batman losses the Ripper and is chased through the streets by the police. Batman loses his cowl and cape and steals a coat from a tavern in an attempt to hide and is rescued when Selena pulls up in a horse-drawn cab, and after fooling the police, the two end up in bed together.
The next morning, Bruce is arrested on suspicion of being the Ripper after the woman who threatened him at Leslie’s funeral is found dead. Selena visits him at the jail to tell him that she plans on telling Gordon that Bruce is Batman to free Bruce and prevent further murders. Bruce proceeds to escape by causing a prison riot and after a change of clothes and the delivery of a steam-powered motorcycle by Dick, Jason, and Tim, Batman goes off to Gordon’s home to stop Selena. Batman arrives at Gordon’s home and discovers a secret room with evidence that Gordon is, in fact, the Ripper, and Gordon’s wife has been horribly scarred and driven mad by unspeakable abuse.
Meanwhile, Gordon meets Selena at the Gotham Fairgrounds and proceeds to drug and try to murder her. Batman arrives and the two fight as the grounds begin to burn. Batman manages to cuff Gordon to a railing, at which point Gordon walks backward and engulfs himself in flames. The movie ends with the World’s Fair burned to the ground and Batman leaving for home with Selena, Alfred, and the three street kids.
Analysis: The graphic novel “A Tale of the Batman: Gotham by Gaslight”, by writer Brian Augustyn and artist Mike Mignola was released in 1989 and has the distinction of being the first “Elseworlds” story, pulling Batman out of modern day and giving an alternate take on the character separate from the continuity of the monthly book, in this case putting Batman in a Victorian-era Gotham City and pitting him against one of history’s most notorious killers, Jack the Ripper. The book is considered a modern classic and comes to little surprise that Warner Bros. Animation would eventually get around to adapting the story into a film.
In looking at a film like this, I think it has to be judged on two different levels: First on how it adapts the source material and secondly on its own merits as a film.
This film isn’t really an adaptation so much as it is inspired by the original graphic novel. The film takes the general premise, a few plot points, and a few design elements and goes off in its own direction. While that might seem like a failure, I think that this has resulted in a stronger film then if the filmmakers had been a slave to the source material.
The original story tied the Jack the Ripper story and motivations closely into the murders of Batman’s parents. In the graphic novel, Jack the Ripper is revealed to be Jacob Parker, an old family friend of Bruce’s parents who had the Waynes killed after Bruce’s mother rejected his romantic advances, the guilt of which finds Parker seeing Bruce’s mother in the faces of prostitutes on the streets of London and Gotham, inspiring the Ripper murders. It’s a much smaller and more personal story about this version of Batman then what the film sets out to accomplish, and as a mystery, it’s fairly obvious from the beginning of the book that Parker is going to end up being the villain of the story.
The film is much broader and is more about an entire city then it is about Batman. The film eliminates the Jacob Parker character entirely and removes any links between Jack the Ripper and Batman’s origins and seems to be more focused on making Jack the Ripper more of a mystery, setting up several possible suspects before revealing James Gordon as Jack the Ripper. I was genuinely surprised by the reveal that Gordon was the Ripper, which is part of the fun of an “Elseworlds” story, in that it’s the only time that you can have a classic beloved character become a sadistic killer and the story takes advantage of that freedom with impressive results.
The film also has heavily changed the aesthetic of the story. As seen in Gotham by Gaslight and in supernatural stories like Hellboy, Mignola’s art is all about the use of heavy blacks and shadow and dark characters hanging from crumbling stone statues. In the book, so much of the atmosphere and tone come from the art. Batman is more of a wraith, living in the shadow, and the book capitalizes on using the art to tell the story, giving Batman very little dialogue in most of the in-costume sequences. Batman’s costume isn’t even clearly defined except for a few panels at the end of the book. It’s one of those books where the tone of the book just as informed by the art as it is the writing and to adapt the story, there has to be attention paid to both. A style like that doesn’t translate easily to animation, which is all about motion and color. While I understand how inherently difficult it would be to emulate Mignola’s art in the film, I do think there are moments in the film where Batman, in particular, could have been animated more in the shadows and perhaps given less dialogue to give Batman more of an air of mystery.
The film also adds a steampunk aspect to the story. Batman has a steam-powered grappling gun. Instead of a horse, Batman rides a steam-powered motorcycle. I don’t know if it was necessary to add these elements into the film but by the same token, Batman’s gadgets often tread the line of reality so I understand the decision to incorporate some steampunk sensibilities into the film.
While the film may not completely have succeeded in adapting the graphic novel, the film does stand fairly well on it own two feet, largely by its handling of the themes at the core of the story.
This is a film about men objectifying women, with Jack the Ripper being used as the most extreme example, with the Ripper dehumanizing his victims by brutally and savagely murdering them for their perceived sins. While Jack the Ripper/Gordon is definitely the villain of the film, its clear that the Ripper is a product of the world he lives in, as showcased in the attitudes of almost every male character in the film except Batman and Alfred. Harvey Dent is drunken womanizer that sees women as disposable possessions. The politicians in the film scoff at the importance of stopping a man killing prostitutes, suggesting that they are somehow deserving of their fates. These attitudes towards women are reflected in the female characters. The film opens with Ivy dancing in a burlesque show to catcalls with a very well animated bored expression on her face. We learn later on that this was a woman of limited means and substance abuse issues trying to survive in this world through the sex trade and finds herself a target of the Ripper, with Ivy mistaking him for a prospective client. The film gives us a counterpoint to the more misogynistic characters of the film by way of Selena Kyle, who is not only advocating for the victims of this story but is actively hunting the Ripper. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Selena in this story, being modern without feeling out of step with the era she’s supposed to be living in, and found her scenes to be a highlight of the film.
I do find on a thematic level, it’s a little problematic that Batman is the one to face off against the Ripper at the end of the book, as it pushed all the ideas the story has been playing with to the side and just has two men punching each other with Selena relegated to a damsel in distress. It would have made for a stronger end if Selena had been given more to do in the finale and drugging her at the end was a mistake. I’d also like to have seen a version of this film where Selena was more of the central character with a more shadowy and mysterious Batman as more of a supporting character.
The movie makes good use of the freedom provided by the R rating, using it primarily to showcase how horrifically brutality of the Ripper murders. Unlike some of the other R rated movies that Warner Animation has produced, there’s nothing that feels gratuitous or out of place, and the film handles the adult themes with a level of maturity that I found refreshing.
The film has taken great lengths to incorporate a large cross-section of Batman’s world into the film, adding in the various Robins, and other characters and even a few shout-outs to the 1989 Batman film. The voice cast does an admirable job. Bruce Greenwood is always welcome to voice Batman and I was especially impressed by Jennifer Carpenter’s Selena Kyle. Given her work here, I’d love for her to get a shot at the character in live action.
Final Thoughts: Adapting this story to a full length animated feature film could not have been an easy job for the filmmakers, and while I don’t think that they completely captured the tone of the source material, they succeeded in crafting a mature and entertaining Batman film.
Editor’s Note: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is now available on Digital HD, Blu-ray DVD, and 4K Ultra HD. You can order your copy and help support TBU by heading over to Amazon.