A Bat in the Fog
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight
DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. has found success in taking their characters and placing them in alternate worlds for very different, and often very interesting, stories. Many of these "Elseworlds" tales have become beloved by the fans, and it's easy to see why: the stories take the characters fans love and place them in new contexts while still keeping the core concept of the characters alive. Batman: Holy Terror, Superman: Red Son, and JLA: The Nail all became well regarded alternate takes on DC Continuity.
Of course, part of what makes these kinds of stories great is that they don't require a lot of buy-in from the readers. By grace of sitting in a side continuity, the tales can reinvent the continuity any way they want. Readers don't have to know the whole of the DC continuity dating back to 1939 to be able to enjoy a tale of BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. in Victorian times, fighting Jack the Ripper; they can just marvel at the art style, laugh at some winking nods, and then get wrapped up in a good caper. It's a fun way to give fans a new story, one with broad appeal to everyone.
The "Elseworlds" imprint officially started with Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, in which the hero did chase after a version of Jack the Ripper. That book, released in 1989, effectively launched the brand and showed the true potential for alternate takes on continuity. Nearly thirty years later, DC Entertainment adapted it into a pretty decent animated film. The film is only loosely based on the original comic, changing much of the details and just keeping the idea of Batman fighting Jack the Ripper. If you're a fan of the original tale then this adaptation probably wouldn't have worked for you. But for others, the sight of Batman working in the fog of Gotham around the turn of the 20th Century was probably enough to sate their Batman needs.
The turn of the century is approaching, and the elite of Gotham plan to celebrate the occasion with a great Gotham Fair, funded in no small part by Bruce Wayne (Bruce Greenwood). However, while the elite celebrate this grand time to be alive, the working class of Gotham suffers. A masked killer stalks the night, hunting the women of Gotham, killing the street walkers and other ladies of the night. Their killings are brutal and savage, and it all seems to be the work of one Jack the Ripper.
Bruce, under the guise of Batman, goes to investigate the killings, but he's not the only one on the case. Selina Kyle (Jennifer Carpenter), a woman of some repute (and ill repute) is also staking her own investigation into the matter. She wants the killer to be brought to justice so that women, like her, don't have to fear the night anymore. Working with Batman, the two try to find the killer, but Jack is two steps ahead, framing Bruce for the crimes and pinning all blame on Gotham's richest man. Can Bruce clear his name, and find the real killer, before he's sent to Arkham... or the gallows?
In basic concept, 2018's Gotham by Gaslight does appear to adapt the core of the story. "It's Batman fighting Jack the Ripper!" is the selling point and that's exactly what the film gives. If that's the story you're looking for then, sure, this film does deliver that. Except, everything about the comic was changed, in some cases not for the better, and that leaves this film feeling like a weird adaptation. It's not a bad one, on its own merits, but the changes do seem questionable, to be sure.
The first big change (and spoilers for a seven year old film) is the identity of Jack. In the comics, Jack is revealed to be a family friend to the Waynes, an Uncle for Bruce who has always been there for the boy, even after his parents died. But, then, it's revealed that he had the parents killed, and that he's been killing the other women because they remind him of Martha (whom he loved, and who rejected him). That gave the story a kind of personal connection between Bruce and Jack (even if, by grace of the uncle being a new character created just for the story, it was obvious who the killer was in the end). All of this story is ditched for the film adaptation, though.
Instead of a family friend, the kill (and, again, spoilers) is revealed to be Commissioner Gordon (Scott Patterson). He once trained in the military as a medical doctor, but the horrors of war (or just his own upbringing) twisted him. Now he takes out women because, well, he just hates women. This version of the killer, for obvious reasons, isn't anywhere near as interesting or effective. For one, Gordon is always depicted as the one good cop on the force, the man above all the crime and villainy that corrupts Gotham. When crafting an Elseworlds tale, its important to keep the basic ideals of each character the same. If you take Batman and put him into a story where he's the villain, he's not really Batman anymore, and the same holds true for Gordon in this case. Plus, by removing the personal connection between Batman and Jack the story also loses much of its deeper impact.
Now, there are obvious reasons to change parts of this story. The book has Bruce in Arkham for a while, doing a slow investigation into Jack from Gordon's own files. That's interesting in a written medium, but could seem rather dull (in the wrong hands) when done on screen. Viewers of these superhero movies aren't usually looking for slow burn cerebral films. I mean, I would, but I could see others being less interested. Plus, there may have been a thought that adding in new characters and trying to sell audiences on an uncle no one had ever heard before might have been a bridge too far.
Even if that were the case, though, there were other characters already in the story that could have worked better as Jack. An obvious one is Harvey Dent (Yuri Lowenthal), the district attorney who could have been "Two-Face" as well (there is a different "Two-Face" in the film, but their reveal makes even less sense in context). Had Dent been the killer, he could have been split in his mind between Dent and Jack, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story that actually would work in the period setting. It's actually a more obvious choice than Gordon, and considering Dent and Bruce are friends in this film, it's a choice that would have maintained some of that personal connection. I actually have to wonder why the creators didn't go that route.
Flaws to the story aside, the production is very handsome. The designers really nailed the period aesthetic, and the artwork is lovely to look at. Even as I gripe about the story itself, as depicted here, I realize I would willingly watch an adaptation of the sequel tale, Batman: Master of the Future, if it were adapted by the same creative team. Sure, details of that story would change as well (just from obvious setup) but I'm sure it would be another handsome production with lively animation that was fun to watch.
I'm split on my opinion of the film version of Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. On the one hand I think the changes to the story do weaken the killer, and thereby hurt the mystery at the core of the story. But at the same time, the film does a lot of things right. Great artwork, good vocal performances, and a script that (around that killer) is pretty decent. I've watched this film a couple of times, despite its flaws, and it carries itself well. It's not perfect, and I know fans of the original comic would hate this version, but for what it is... it's okay. It's a fine little Batman tale, more or less.