Saturday, February 24, 2018
Bat Watch: Gotham By Gaslight (2018)
Format: Amazon Streaming
Way, way back in - I think - early high school, the slim, prestige format comic Gotham By Gaslight arrived in comic shops, and as a good little comics-kid, I picked up my copy, read it, loved it, and it was probably in a longbox until the great purge a few years ago. I am 95% certain I have it in a collection somewhere amongst the Batbooks, but its been two decades since I've read the thing.
Like everyone else, I was batty for Gotham by Gaslight upon arrival. It featured art by Mike Mignola and a pretty decent story by Brian Augustyn, and I think it took off much better than DC figured. This put the idea of Elseworlds into DC's head, and for the next two decades we got endless versions of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and sometimes others, in various periods, geographies and genres. It took a concept like "but what if Superman emerged in conjunction with, say, War of the Worlds!?" or "Batman, but a pirate" and sold a couple of prestige-formatted issues. Or, you got some "what if?" sort of story, like "what if Krypton never exploded?"
Some of it was great, some of it serviceable or bad. Some of it got way overhyped (everyone needs to relax about @#$%ing Red Son. It's not that good.). But Gotham By Gaslight started it all, and - for my money - though I haven't actually re-read it in two decades - was among the very best.
The movie is okay.
WB Animation's Gotham by Gaslight (2018) uses Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola's comic as a template, but that was a fairly brief comic, and while written brilliantly, mostly concerned with mood and atmosphere more than blowing you away with plotting. Frankly, I don't remember much about the comic at this point, but if Catwoman appeared, it was a cameo, and the ending is greatly changed.*
The setting is Victorian Gotham, a period of horse and buggy and stiff white collars. A murderer stalks the streets, killing "whores" as the movie really enjoys saying. This is occurring at the same time The Bat-Man has been appearing. And The World's Fair has come to Gotham. All the players are represented in analog - Poison Ivy as showgirl and street walker, the three major Robins as a trio of street urchins, Harvey Dent still just a DA with mood swings, and Selina Kyle is another showgirl of higher class and a former circus performer.
If you get that, you kind of get the gag of the entire Elseworlds concept, and short of the novelty of "what if Batman but old timey?", which I am sure will make the Steampunk kids get all in a tizzy - the movie is pretty standard Batman faire. And it does feel a bit like Batman Bingo, including a reference to 1989's Batman in a bit of particular name-dropping.
There's some period-appropriate stuff that goes by, some of it with comment, some it without.
It's not bad, exactly, but it never moves beyond sub-Paul Dini/ Bruce Timm-era plotting and dialog in favor of the somewhat limp spectacle. And, while the animation is really pretty decent, it's not particularly inspired, either - which may just be me being spoiled as hell by how good animation has really become. But in comparison to Mignola's composition and design from the comic, everything feels flattened and too brightly lit. I know they can't quite remake Mignola's look - and it really only shows up in the design of the Bat-costume and the slouched, wide shoulders on some of the male characters, but I hope one day we get some Akira-level effort on one of these things, and maybe a theatrical release. I would rather get far fewer and far better animated films than "this is what we could do with the budget we had".
You can't complain about the voice acting - they still somehow do this a country mile better than Marvel (which I do not understand) despite the retirement of Andrea Romano. In particular, the actor taking on Selina Kyle was deeply talented. And, yeah, they got John DiMaggio in there to do some quality character work.
This is a movie that wants to do some light Jack the Ripper stuff (which... never, ever look up the photos of Jack's victims, because you can't unsee that stuff, and I am not remotely kidding) and as such, it wants to play in a certain milieu of adult language and gory violence, but it's also a DC Animated movie, so we get some after 8:00 PM swearing (I never thought I'd see the day when a Batman cartoon used the word "whore" every five minutes - which is more a note on the rating of the movie and less about me clutching pearls) and some geysers of blood. There's also at least the suggestion of sex I'm not sure Batman would be up for given the prior two or so hours of his life, but he is a superhero, so...
There's also the feeling that someone read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City and was counting on the fact that you didn't, which is probably right for the target demo, but that's a wildly popular book, and - frankly a real and terribly interesting/ ghastly story which is far different from anything to do with Jack the Ripper and more like Saw (and which was covered in comics form under The Beast of Chicago by Rick Geary). And, of course, Jack the Ripper, was also real - and covered in one of the finest comics I've ever read in Moore and Campbell's From Hell, which has also been translated to film, if a very mediocre film.
I guess - when you're working in the area of real, fascinating if horrible stuff, and working against some masterful comics, movies and books... that's a big old matzah ball to take on and may have been a bridge too far. If you're at all familiar with any of the referenced stuff, be it non-fiction, some web research you regret, fictional versions of real events, and/ or Batman analogs - it's a distraction rather than a benefit. I should not be thinking about the real first Ferris Wheel's troubled history during the last 1/3rd of a Batman movie.
So at this late date in my life, I'm not sure - after seeing a ton of Elseworlds, a ton of Batman, and having read some non-fiction in my time, that this movie was for me. If this is DC Animation pushing themselves, some swears and well worn killing Victorian hookers tropes isn't really much to go on. And when a physical description of the killer gives away the identity of the killer (if you know at all how these things work) it makes the shocker ending a bit of a dud.
I dunno. If you guys liked it, I guess I'd want to hear why. But at this late date, I want to see someone at DC Animation really pushing the boundaries, and this all feels like more of same on so many levels, I'm not feeling like I've missed anything by not watching much in the way of DC animated films lately.
*late edit: I flipped through it - it's significantly different