The live-action DC Comics films may not be to everyone’s liking, but the animated DC films continue to be strong. They have now made 30 animated features. Their latest release is an adaptation of one of the great Batman Elseworlds tales. In fact, “Gotham by Gaslight” is the first official Elseworlds tale.
For the uninitiated, Elseworlds are non-continuity comics, often with a “what if” element. This one combines two delicious what ifs: What if Batman were set in the Victorian era? What if Batman had the opportunity to go up against Jack the Ripper? The results were fantastic.
The film version is significantly better than the original excellent oneshot, because it’s not really an adaptation as much as it is a new interpretation of this Elseworld premise. There are so many good changes that this is the rare case of taking full advantage of an opportunity. It combines some of the best elements from the GbG sequel, “Master of the Future,” making this unequivocally a steampunk story as well. If Steampunk Batman can’t get your nerdy juices flowing, then nothing will.
Including Selina Kyle over the original love interest of Julie Madison was particularly interesting and inspired. Julie was an excellent companion for Bruce, and her moments in “Master of the Future” are some of my favorites. But Selina is to Batman what Lois is to Superman. And if they were thinking of doing a sequel to this film, then Selina gives them all kinds of options that Julie didn’t. I hope they are working on a sequel, because this is one of my favorite DC animated films. The setting is robust and revisiting it should be relatively easy.
The Plusses and Minuses of Bruce Greenwood’s Batman
The voice acting is remarkable, as usual. This is the second time Bruce Greenwood has portrayed the Dark Knight. He’s a truly underrated actor, whether he’s behind a mic or in front of a camera, but his Batman doesn’t really feel like Batman. I enjoy almost every actor who has ever donned the cowl, but the amazing Kevin Conroy is Batman’s voice to me and millions of others. Everyone else is merely interpreting the character.
Even so, I like Greenwood’s version very much, although his unmistakable voice is almost too rich and emotionally complex to be the borderline-sociopathic caped crusader. Conroy simultaneously infused the obsessive crime fighter with a heroic lightness and grim gravitas that made him universally compelling.
But Batman is never going to be one thing to everyone. He is many things to many people. And Greenwood’s performance is also many things, but bad is not one of them. Each line is tinged with his trademark gravel and melancholy. He isn’t given the same emotional opportunities in this film as he had in the excellent “Batman: Under the Red Hood.” That story was much more focused on the inherent tragedy of being Batman, whereas this one is essentially just stop the serial killer.
Jennifer Carpenter’s turn as Selina Kyle is probably the standout performance. She’s always an excellent actress, but I think this is the first time I’ve encountered her voiceover work. Selina is always challenging because she needs to be principled, playful, sexy, and dangerous all at the same time. Good writing makes that tightrope walk much easier, but the final product is up to the director and ultimately the actor. Carpenter was very much up to the task.
Selina was particularly interesting as a character in this film because there’s not really any hint of her alter ego, Catwoman. She’s good with a whip, and we find out that’s because she worked with lions in the circus. So they give Catwoman a nod. But the rest of the time she’s just Selina. All these characters are ultimately judged by how interesting they are without their costumes, and Selina is very strong on her own.
What WB and DC Need to Compete with Marvel
Overall this solid Batman film is continued proof that the problem with the DC live-action universe is more complex than simply blaming Zack Snyder or saying the films are too dark, etc. The truth is the live-action films have a weird burden to bear. Their key properties have been successfully done in various forms more than once already. So they don’t want to reinvent the wheel. But they also want to do something different from Marvel, and what they are already doing with The CW television universe or their various animated films and series.
The Warner Brothers DC films are better than most critics are giving them credit for, but they certainly aren’t as good as they could be. With the exception of “Wonder Woman,” which was amazing, they have all been lower than expectations. But that actually proves my point. The best WBDC film so far has involved their most untouched major property.
Doing an excellent origin film isn’t easy, by any stretch. But it’s almost impossible to do a second good origin film after there’s already been a really great one. Marvel learned this the hard way with Sony’s second attempt at “Spider-Man.” So the third time around Disney didn’t do an origin film. They just dropped Peter Parker into the superhero civil war.
Part of this complex problem is that WB wants to compete with Marvel. They feel like they need to play catch-up. They should have been true to themselves and their intellectual property, and simply focused on telling good stories. The animated films and the TV shows are fantastic because they have embraced the characters. “Gotham by Gaslight” is set in another universe from Batman’s usual trappings, but the basic elements are still there, and ultimately it’s just a really good story.
Standouts In DC’s Direct-to-Video Line
If you’re a DC fan who hates the WB films, you have other options. These direct-to-video releases have been consistently excellent and usually a new one comes out every six months. I’m such a big fan of them that I just preorder the next one on Amazon, and the day it comes out it’s sitting there on my doorstep.
The real standouts in the line so far are, ranked by quality:
- “Justice League: Gods and Monsters”
- Almost any of the Batman films, but especially “Under the Red Hood,” “Year One,” “The Dark Knight Returns,” part one and two, and the two Adam West/Batman 66 films.
- “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox”
- “Wonder Woman”
- “Justice League Dark”
- “Teen Titans: The Judas Contract”
- The two Green Lantern films
The Blu-Rays almost always come with wonderful extras. They include classic animated episodes from any of the various “Timverse” shows. Usually there’s an obvious thematic connection that expands your knowledge of the DC Universe. Here I didn’t really see one because the episodes were Ra’s al Ghul-themed, and he has nothing to do with this story. But the commentary is great and the brief documentary on the making of the film was awesome.
GbG is a very strong entry in the DC animated line. It’s a lot of fun, and despite being rated R this is no “Deadpool.” It’s not suitable for all children, obviously, but it’s closer to family-friendly than most superhero fare these days.
If you like Batman and have never heard of “Gotham by Gaslight,” you should certainly check out the original at some point, but this film is an excellent version of that setting and very much worth your time. If you’re a DC fan who has lost faith in the live-action films, then you probably need this. Batman and the DC Universe are alive and well, just maybe not so much in the cinemas these days.