There has only been a handful of actors who’ve played Batman on the big screen over the decades (unless you want to be a stickler and include the 1940s serials), a role that seems like it’s been passed around more from actor to actor than it has. Within that elite club of cinematic Caped Crusaders, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how to interpret the character. Ben Affleck & Christian Bale play him as a gloomy Gus; Adam West & George Clooney lean into his Saturday morning cartoon camp potential; Michael Keaton turned the Bat into a Horned-up weirdo; Val Kilmer played him comatose. It’s a range of variation that’s befitting of Batman’s journey in the comic books, which has taken many different tonal directions over a near-century of different writers & illustrators tasked to continue his legacy as The World’s Greatest Detective. Oddly, that freedom of interpretation is largely missing from the animated versions of Batman, despite their proximity in medium to his comic book form. Kevin Conroy, who voiced the titular vigilante through 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, has become the defining standard of what Batman sounds like as an animated cartoon character. He’s a universally beloved fan-favorite, a status any one of the more divisive live-action performers have yet to achieve. As a result, almost all subsequent interpretations of animated Batmen, no matter who’s writing the text, have felt like faithful imitations of Conroy’s voice work for the character, leaving little room for creative variation. Bruce Greenwood, who voiced Batman in our current Movie of the Month, is just one of these many dutiful imitators, even if a competent one.
Less than halfway into 2018, there have already been three entirely new animated Batman films released, each with a wildly different tone and a different actor voicing the Caped Crusader. As there are now dozens of animated DC movies exploring the usual dynamics of the comic book brand’s more well-known characters, this year’s offerings each rely heavily on a high-concept gimmick to keep their interpretations of Batman relatively fresh. One film explores the possibilities of Batman’s ninja training by translating the character through the anime medium. Another teams up the fearless goth detective with Scooby-Doo in the classic Hanna-Berbera crossover tradition. The gimmick in Bruce Greenwood’s latest Batman project isn’t nearly as interesting as either of those movies sound; it sticks much closer to the Kevin Conroy template than the deviations in either premise. Greenwood reprises his role as Batman for the first time since he played the character in 2010’s Under the Red Hood, our current Movie of the Month, in an animated feature titled Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Like Batman Ninja and Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to keep Batman fresh by viewing him though a gimmicky contextual lens, this time a Gothic murder mystery. The problem is that the gimmick isn’t exactly a deviation at all, but rather a reinforcement of what was already in the forefront in the Kevin Conroy era. Much of the appeal of Batman: The Animated Series was its Gothic literature overtones, which created nice tension with the show’s modern urban crime thriller narratives (borrowing a page from Tim Burton’s book). DC’s animated movies have been chasing that creative high ever since, but Gotham by Gaslight takes the faithful diligence even further than most projects by transporting its narrative to an actual Gothic literature setting, robbing it of all its aesthetic tension.
19th Century Batman is the same philanthropist sleuth as he is in any other timeline, this time dedicated to solving the case of Jack the Ripper. Familiar faces like Harvey Dent, “Constable” Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Poison Ivy (an erotic dancer stage name in this context) populate a From Hell -style story about a mysterious serial killer who targets female sex workers in dank London alleyways. In a way, Batman’s crimefighting presence makes more sense in this world than it does in a modern one. It’s almost expected that a local wealthy eccentric would have the bizarre nighttime hobby of dressing up like a humanoid bat to beat up the local peasants for petty crimes. Many people even suspect him of being Jack the Ripper, recalling the same parallels between masked criminal & masked vigilante that drove Under the Red Hood. Even Batman’s cape & utility belt make more sense in this context, though he is outfitted with a more traditional trench coat collar for flair. The problem is that Batman makes too much sense in this context, especially after the Gothic literature foundation laid about by The Animated Series. Outside a few strong details like a zeppelin-set knife fight and a steampunk motorcycle, Gotham by Gaslight does little to exploit the possibilities of its gimmick and instead plays its material straight. The film occasionally pretends it has larger gender equality issues on its mind (mostly through the crossdressing, sex work-championing exploits of Selina Kyle), but it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery styled after the literary trappings that define its setting. Batman: The Animated Series made that aesthetic interesting by clashing it against a modern(ish) urban setting. Gotham by Gaslight isn’t sure what to do without their central juxtaposition. Once the enticing gimmick of its Batman vs Jack the Ripper premise settles into a comfortable narrative groove, the film leaves very little room for novelty or surprise.
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is billed as the 30th film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand, which I don’t think even covers films like the recent animated Adam West campy reboots. That’s a whole lotta Batman content, with only two titles under Bruce Greenwood’s belt as the vigilante weirdo. Much like how Gotham by Gaslight does not do much to separate itself from the previous achievements of The Animated Series, Greenwood mostly serves as an echo of the excellent work Kevin Conroy has achieved in the vocal booth. Being that kind of placeholder in the brand can fulfill a lofty purpose, though, particularly when it anchors a well-written story. The dozens of animated DC movies have filtered through writing teams as frequently as any comic book writing stable would, so a consistency in different actors’ vocal performances as the same character is beneficial to maintaining a calm surface that covers up the movement underneath. Bruce Greenwood has voiced Batman in two animated movies, one great (Under the Red Hood) and one dull (Gotham by Gaslight). The quality disparity between these two pictures is entirely on the writers’ shoulders, as Greenwood’s performance changed very little, if at all, between them. Under the Red Hood is a self-contained narrative that brings a comic book storyline to the screen that Batman fans rarely to get to see in motion. Gotham by Gaslight, by contrast, turned the subtext of an animated show with nearly a hundred episodes into up-front text, making its aesthetic less interesting in the process. Bruce Greenwood was present for both, but had very little effect on their outcomes even as the voice of their shared central character. Live-action Batmen have found plenty of room to leave their marks on their respective franchises over the years, but the animated ones mostly come across as a copy of a copy of a copy of a . . . Bruce Greenwood is just one of many.
For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.
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