By Matthew Kresal
People come to alternate history in different ways. For some, it's through historical moments and scenarios, wondering how an election or battle might have changed the course of history. For some, it's an idea introduced through pop culture, as familiar franchises take the chance to re-imagine events or people in a different light. Comics, in particular, have made much use of the idea, with DC dedicating an entire range to it known as Elseworlds, which put its character such as Batman and Superman into new settings in the past or turned the characters fundamentally on their head. It's not surprising then that the DC Universe Animated Original Movies have dipped into such fare, including adapting the very first Elseworlds tale, with Gotham By Gaslight taking the Dark Knight into steampunk territory as he takes on Jack The Ripper.
At its essence, Gotham By Gaslight is a whodunit. In Victorian-era Gotham City, Jack The Ripper is loose on the streets murdering women of the night (unlike the comic, it isn't clear if this is quite the same serial killer from 1888 London) with the police unable to catch him. While Bruce Wayne plays young bachelor about the town, as Batman, he is pursuing the Ripper. He isn't alone as the actress and social advocate Selena Kyle is after the killer as well. Put together, Gotham by Gaslight feels like a cross between Batman and The Alienist, with an intriguing mix of elements.
What the movie does first and foremost is neatly adapt and expanded upon the original 1989 comic. The film takes the basic premise of Jack The Ripper on the loose in Gotham with Batman in pursuit as its foundation, yes, but screenwriter Jim Krieg and the filmmakers incorporate characters and elements not included originally. Selena Kyle, who didn't feature in the original comic, becomes the second lead in this screen version, while the movie draws further inspiration from the follow-up Master Of The Future to an extent as well. None of which is a bad thing, as it provides some nice twists that make it a fresh experience even for those familiar with the comic. Even more so with a whodunit as it takes the same approach Nicholas Meyer did in adapting his own Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Seven Percent Solution, for the screen by sticking to the mystery but playing around with its elements.
There's plenty of action, too. There are several expansive set pieces ranging from the first reveal of Batman stopping a mugging to encounters with the Ripper, including a chase that takes the viewer from Arkham Asylum to atop a Gotham police Zeppelin. Unlike some of the previous DC animated movies (particularly the New 52 adaptations) where action overshadowed the plot, that isn't the case here, with scenes naturally flowing from one to the other. That all of them are well animated is but the icing on the cake.
Elsewhere, the movie features the elements that have been the highlights of these DC animated movies. There's a strong voice cast led by Bruce Greenwood as Batman, whose performance suits this version of the Dark Knight and makes a welcome return after the earlier Under The Red Hood adaptation. Joining him is Jennifer Carpenter as Selena Kyle with a solid performance and chemistry with Greenwood, Scott Patterson as Jim Gordon, William Salyers as the alienist Hugo Strange, and Anthony Head is a welcome addition as Alfred. The movie's animation is likewise solidly done, from the strong steampunk influence to its backgrounds and action set-pieces. All of which come together to wonderfully bring this Victorian Gotham to life though in a visceral but most gratuitous way that gives the film an "R" rating.
While it may not as world-shaking in alterations to history as, say, Superman: Red Son, Gotham By Gaslight has plenty to recommend it. From its adaptation of the original comic, which neatly expands upon it, to its action sequences, voice actors, and production values, it stands as an example of bringing a fan-favorite story to the screen. It also stands as a strong example of pop culture using alternate history to tell a compelling story.