Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

2018 #105
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

I was all up for this adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight when it was first announced — I’m a fan of the original book, as well as the sequel (which they’ve also used parts of); and, I thought, even if they chose to deviate from it then I like the basic concept of “Batman meets steampunk”. But then the last few DC animations I’ve seen have been subpar, and the trailer for this one looked rather bland, so I decided to opt for a rental instead of purchase. Well, I never got round to doing that, and then Amazon slashed the price of the Blu-ray, so I ended up buying it — it still cost more than a rental, but if I liked it I’d save money in the long run. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case.

If you’re not familiar with Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s original tale, it involves Batman battling Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century Gotham City. It’s regarded as the first Elseworlds story, which is DC’s branding for stories that take place in different times, places, or “what if” scenarios — “what if Superman had landed in Russia?”, for example. This animation is a rather loose adaptation, which takes the basic concept from Augustyn and Mignola’s work but otherwise almost completely rebuilds it, mixing in a lot of ‘Easter egg’ stuff (like appearances from many more well-known Bat-characters) and some elements of the sequel comic, Master of the Future.

Fisticuffs!

So anyone expecting a straight-up adaptation may be disappointed, but taken as a film in its own right, for the most part it works. Having all the different familiar characters pop up makes it feel like a proper Batman tale, rather than a Ripper story that happens to have a costumed vigilante in it. Most prominent is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, although she isn’t really the latter here — Batman gets fully suited up, but the most Miss Kyle gets is a whip. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina is one of the film’s best aspects, in fact, with the Elseworld setting seeming to allow a different focus than the usual antagonism that pairing has in screen adaptations — as one of the filmmakers says in the audio commentary, “it’s not a movie about Batman and Catwoman, it’s about Bruce and Selina.” Jim Krieg’s screenplay is good across the board, with several nice passages and scenes, even if at times it rests too heavily on exposition and speachifying.

The one change that didn’t work for me is that it glosses over the bit about Bruce have recently returned from Europe, his return to Gotham coinciding with the Ripper’s arrival, thus making Bruce Wayne a suspect. Perhaps this isn’t a major point, but it’s a grace note that helps sell the whole concept for me. This wasn’t an oversight, however: they consciously decided to make Jack the Ripper a Gotham serial killer in this universe, so his London crimes never happened. But surely the point of using Jack the Ripper is the crimes he’s famous for? I think everyone knows he was a London serial killer, but the film does nothing to dispel this prior knowledge, nothing to establish that this version emerged for the first time in Gotham.

The idea behind the change was to widen the suspect pool for the “whodunnit” element — if the Ripper had just come from London, his identity has to be someone who’s just arrived in Gotham. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are other ways round the problem — for example, the Gotham Ripper could’ve turned out to be a copycat, which would’ve added to the twist. As it stands, the identity of the Ripper (which has been changed from the book) is a huge twist, and, fair play to them, they pull it off. I’ll say no more because of spoilers, but I’m surprised it didn’t seem to cause outcry online. Maybe after the furore around The Killing Joke people just stopped paying attention.

Miss Selina Kyle

As with most of these DC animations, the quality of the visual is more TV than feature film, but they make the most of what they’ve got. There’s a squareness to the character designs, using few and simple lines, that is almost appealing. Perhaps it was inspired by Mignola’s artwork, though it does still feel sanitised compared to his exaggerated style. Also, a lot of effort is put into establishing this version of Gotham, with plenty of wide shots and scenes set in many different locations. Those were both deliberate choices to help make the city a major part of the film, and to give it life and texture as a Victorian metropolis. It’s an admirable effort considering the new era was a bit of a production headache: on their other movies, things like generic background characters and props can be recycled from film to film, but here every single element had to be designed and created from scratch.

Voice casting is mostly spot on. Again, effort was put into evoking the period without wanting to go overboard — they didn’t want the voices to sound modern, but they didn’t want everyone doing English accents or something either. Bruce Greenwood makes for a dependable Batman and Anthony Head is perfectly dry as Alfred, but the foremost performance is perhaps Jennifer Carpenter as Selina. She’s most famous for Dexter, where she’s such a tomboy, but here she conveys a kind of Victorian elegance, with a hefty dash of feminism, very well. Inspired casting. Just as good is Scott Patterson as Commissioner Gordon. Best known for his modern, working-class character in Gilmore Girls, I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Well, partly this is a problem with billing — only Greenwood and Carpenter get it. They’re the leads, so of course they’d get top billing, but Head and Patterson have sizeable roles and are surely just as famous? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was a bit of a surprise to hear a recognisable voice crop up when they hadn’t been announced (as it were) by the opening credits.

The Ripper approaches...

In other merits, there are some surprisingly decent action sequences — a mid-way one atop an airship is the highlight — plus a nice music score by Frederik Wiedmann, which was partly influenced by Hans Zimmer’s work on the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, but I swear I heard some overtones of Danny Elfman’s Batman in there also. In all the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a quickie — there’s enough incident here to fuel a ‘proper’ movie. I mean that in a positive way.

As I said at the start, I expected very little of Gotham by Gaslight, for various reasons. I came away pleasantly surprised. In the commentary they talk about how much they enjoyed making it — how everyone involved, from the executives down to the storyboarders, all thought it was a particularly special project — and how they’d like to make a sequel, and they’ve got an idea for one involving the Joker. I’ve no idea how this has performed commercially, but I hope they get the chance.

4 out of 5

Another Elseworlds-y Batman animation, Batman Ninja, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week, and will be reviewed in due course.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

2016 #129
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: The Killing JokeAlan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the seminal works of superhero comic books’ move into seriousness in the ’80s, sitting just behind the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One in terms of significance. It’s also seen by many as the definitive story about Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, and has influenced the live-action interpretations of both Jack Nicholson & Tim Burton and Heath Ledger & Christopher Nolan. It is not without controversy, however, thanks in large part to its treatment of Barbara Gordon / Batgirl; and Moore has since semi-disowned it, saying it has no intrinsic value because it has nothing to say about real human beings, only commenting on the comic-book-y relationship between Batman and the Joker.

Now, it finally makes its way to our screens in animated form. What took so long? Well, it’s dark, and to do it justice the makers needed the potential to make it R-rated. Given permission to do so by Warner, they’ve done just that. So here we have a very faithful adaptation of the graphic novel… but it’s a bit short, so there’s a 28-minute prologue stuck on the front. Designed to ameliorate some of the issues people have with the original book, it’s actually only made things worse, containing brand-new controversial elements all of its own. Oh dear.

In this new segment, Batgirl (Tara Strong) and Batman (Kevin Conroy) find themselves on the trail of Paris Franz (say it aloud… or don’t), a young upstart who wants to take control of his uncle’s organised crime operation. Once that business is dealt with, we get to the familiar meat of the story, where the Joker (Mark Hamill) decides to prove a point — in a violent and twisted fashion, naturally.

To really discuss where this adaptation of The Killing Joke goes awry, I’m going to have to stop being coy about spoiling a 28-year-old comic book that had lasting ramifications for Barbara Gordon’s place in the DC universe. Also, spoilers for this new film, too. You have been warned.

So, for those not in the know or who would like a recap, the Joker’s plan is to prove we’re all just one bad day away from going insane like him. The target of his experiment is Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), and he begins by shooting his daughter Barbara in the spine, paralysing her, then taking photos of her naked to torment the Commissioner with later. (The actual photo-taking isn’t depicted in the comic or this film, but the images are hinted at later on.) This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least Barbara’s lack of presence in the story as anything more than a pawn to torture her father.

The film’s solution is to begin with a standalone Batgirl adventure. Not an inherently bad idea — it could make her a more rounded character; someone we care about for herself, not just a minor victim in some other game. However, screenwriter Brian Azzarello (and, presumably, director Sam Liu and executive producer Bruce Timm) have tried to do this by making her horny for Batman, and have that infatuation actually consummated in an al fresco rooftop sex scene (not graphically shown, but the film is unequivocal about what happened). To say the least, this doesn’t seem like the best way to go about making her an independent, rounded human being — it comes off like fan service. No, worse: fan fiction. A scene earlier on where she explains her Bat-infatuation to her gay best friend is presumably meant to suggest a genuine motivation for the eventual sexy times, but it all comes across as a great big excuse.

To top it off, it in no way informs the adaptation of The Killing Joke that follows. It makes nods towards some of the thematic concerns of the main story, but, structurally, it’s not part of the same film at all — there’s a fade to black & fade back in that really signals the end of one production and the start of a new one; the end of an opening short film and the start of the feature presentation. Only the ‘feature’ is far too short (44 minutes before credits), so that ‘short’ is clearly there to bulk up the running time.

The titular adaptation that follows is arguably faithful to a fault. If you’re seeking to make it feature-length, would it not have been better to expand the story out and examine some of its points more fully, even if the points you illuminated were about plot logic rather than themes — the original comic is very short and arguably a little rushed in places, so I think there’s definite room for expansion. In fact, while it might make sense to expand the role of Barbara Gordon for reasons of taste and social mores that have (not wrongly) since been projected onto the comic, from a purely narrative point of view the character who needs expanding is Commissioner Gordon. In the comics he’s a regular cast member, so it can afford to take as read his status as an “ordinary man” — or perhaps even a paragon of virtue, which brings its own problems to the story. But while he is a familiar figure in the Batman mythology, and so by extension to anyone who’s likely to watch this film, it’s also a standalone movie, not part of a series, and so it would be beneficial to establish his character somewhat before the Joker’s plan for him gets underway.

Heck, the film’s own special features even feature a psychologist talking about how it’s Jim Gordon’s story! While the Joker and Batman are the same characters at the beginning and the end, it’s Gordon who goes through a terrible ordeal and then has a choice to make. Yet in spite of that he’s treated as the fourth lead, at best, with the Joker and Batman taking precedence in the main adaptation and Barbara gaining masses of focus thanks to her half-hour preamble. It’s probably the twin desires to put the graphic novel on screen as-is and to in some way justify Barbara Gordon’s role in it that have led to this point. A less literal adaptation — one prepared to expand and elucidate the story, rather than just tack on an extra part at the start — could have found room to deepen both the Gordons.

Still, I suppose the literal faithfulness of the story adaptation will please purists. And reuniting the key voice acting cast from Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the all-time definitive screen interpretations of Batman and the Joker, is always fan-pleasing. Hamill, in particular, is fantastic, even when having to deliver Alan Moore’s typically verbose dialogue. However, one of the reasons the graphic novel is so beloved is Brian Bolland’s detailed, realistic, dynamic artwork. His draftsmanship transcends the actual narrative of Moore’s writing so that, however distasteful the tale being told, it looks incredible. Naturally, this animated adaptation loses that entirely, employing the standard “Saturday morning cartoon +” aesthetic of these DC direct-to-video movies. There are sound budgetary reasons for that, but it means the focus falls even more squarely on the narrative rather than the images. (It’s somewhat ironic, then, that (as ever) Alan Moore doesn’t receive an onscreen credit while Bolland does.) There are a handful of effective visuals here (the Joker’s gleeful face as he turns on the amusement park, its lights twinkling in his eyes), but they’re the exception to work which is adequate — good for what it is, even — but unremarkable.

For such a long-awaited adaptation, it’s difficult to conclude The Killing Joke is anything other than a disappointment. It didn’t have to be that way: I thought Warner made a good hash of adapting Year One, and an even better one of The Dark Knight Returns. While this adaptation does allow some of the book’s inherent quality to carry through, The Killing Joke was always going to be more problematic due to its content, and the filmmakers’ clumsy attempts to fix that have only made it worse. Shame.

3 out of 5

Batman: The Killing Joke is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.