This past weekend's inaugural DC in D.C. event kicked off on Friday night with the premiere of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, the brand-new animated feature from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (available January 23 on digital and February 6 on Blu-ray and DVD).
The original graphic novel by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola has become one of the classic, must-read Batman stories, so it casts a long, intimidating shadow. The one-shot book, first published in 1989, was one of the first times Batman (or any of the DC characters) had been "reimagined" into a different time or world. The book was billed as "an alternative history of the Batman," and it kicked off years of imaginative storytelling with the Elseworlds label.
As the book is now almost 30 years old, I'm not sure if it requires a spoiler alert, but the new film adaptation absolutely does. Fear not, readers. I won't spoil it for you here.
Though the movie follows the same basic conceit of the book—Batman hunts down Jack the Ripper in Gotham and must clear Bruce Wayne's name, since he has been framed for the murders—that's really where the similarities end.
Jim Krieg, screenwriter for the film, explains that in the book there was really just one suspect. "As soon as he shows up, you're like, 'Oh yeah, that's the Ripper.'" As he, executive producer Bruce Timm, and others sat down to plan out the story, they knew they wanted to increase the number of potential suspects.
They wanted the film to be a true whodunit where the audience would be guessing Jack's identity right up until the last minute. (They succeeded, by the way.)
To that end, the film is chockablock with familiar characters from the Batverse. On top of Batman/Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and James Gordon (all of whom appear in the original graphic novel), we encounter Selina Kyle, Poison Ivy, Harvey Dent, Harvey Bullock, Leslie Tompkins, Hugo Strange, Solomon Grundy, and not one … not two … but three Robins!
It should be noted that almost none of these characters appear in their familiar superhero (or supervillain) forms. This isn't Batman: The Animated Series set in Victorian times. Many of those appearances aren't much more than cameos.
But the size of the supporting cast isn't the only thing that grew. Krieg, who grew up on a steady diet of Sherlock Holmes, sees Batman as a literary descendent of Holmes. "We've all read that graphic novel, and what draws you in about it is that look. That mood and that tone and that feeling really make you feel like you can step into that world. But it's very short, and this felt like a great opportunity to expand all the ideas that Brian and Mike explored in that book."
And expand they do.
The film, which is rated R (mostly for violence, though there are a few choice words and some "revealing" adult situations), is very much steeped in the Victorian era of its setting, but it also deals—head on—with issues that are incredibly relevant to 2018.
At its core, the overarching theme of the film is the destructive nature of misogyny, and it portrays a frightening progression. Bruce Wayne is our hero, but he inhabits a world filled with casual (and not-so-casual) sexism. As he digs deeper into the Ripper case, it becomes clear that the killer he's hunting is defined and deranged by toxic masculinity. He's targeting women for very specific reasons. And once the killer is unmasked, his villainous monologues are weighted down with pure, blind hatred for not only women but also "unclean" people from all walks of life.
The killer is an extremist and zealot the likes of which we almost never see in animation.
In the film, Selina Kyle is one of the few (really, two) female characters granted agency and given license to strike back. She's not a damsel in distress and doesn't need Batman to save her. She has more than a few tricks (and a whip) up her sleeve.
Selina's emboldened and fearless personality might be anachronistic to the setting, but so is Batman driving a steam-powered motorcycle, so let's keep things in perspective. Without Selina, this would be a film about misogyny from a strictly male point of view. Hardly what we need in 2018. In the end, Selina is what makes this movie.
"For good or ill, it appears Gotham has found its own guardian angel…and, god help us—I suspect we're going to need him."
—Brian Augustyn (Gotham by Gaslight)
With that in mind, then, it was a bit disheartening to see a panel of five men discuss the film after its premiere screening at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum. Krieg and Bruce Timm were joined on stage by cast members Bruce Greenwood (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Yuri Lowenthal (Harvey Dent), and Scott Patterson (James Gordon). The female members of the cast, including Jennifer Carpenter, Tara Strong, Grey DeLisle, and Kari Wuhrer, were briefly mentioned, but due to conflicting schedules, none of them was there.
And with a film that doesn't pull a lot of punches and a climax that made me squirm in my seat a few times, their absence was noticeable.
Aesthetically, the film is covered with Bruce Timm's fingerprints. The animation style recalls Batman: The Animated Series more than it does Mike Mignola's distinctive pencils. There's an action set piece set on a blimp, the Victorian era is filled with steampunk sensibility, and the Gotham World's Fair plays a major role in the story. (Mask of the Phantasm, anyone?)
On the creative license they had with their storytelling, Timm says, "Fortunately, we didn't have to stick to the actual details of the Jack the Ripper murders. Listen, if Star Wars fans thought The Last Jedi was divisive, hardcore Ripper-ologists are going to have a field day with this."
The good news is that the dueling characters of Bruce and Batman are given more consideration than in the graphic novel. Whereas the book spends its first few pages rehashing Batman's origin story, the film chooses not to tread this familiar ground. Instead, we get to spend more time with the character, his psyche, and his motivations (more than just vengeance for his parents).
Bruce Greenwood, the legendary actor who also brought Batman to life in Under the Red Hood and the Young Justice series, delivers an amazing performance here. Though he admits to initially being "blissfully ignorant" of the other actors who had done the character before, particularly Kevin Conroy, he tries not to worry too much about comparisons. He sees all of his Batmen as related to one another—but not the same character. And the more time he spends in Gotham, the more comfortable he is in the cape and cowl.
And we're all the richer for it.