Ah, the white collar world. An endless array of identical suits and identical ties and identical jobs; people who make phone calls, clack away on keyboards, and whose job descriptions all involve something vaguely financial. But just under the surface is a simmering vat of violent tendencies, bursting forth in an underground society where people beat the hell out of each other on a regular basis.
This of course, would be Fight Club.
Also, Gotham. At least for about an hour last night.
The police procedural chunk of this week’s Gotham (titled “The Mask”) was it’s own little mini-Fight Club. White collar schmucks in suits and suspenders, bashing on each other with office supplies. Until one of them ends up dead in a trash heap, thus attracting the attention of Gordon and Bullock. Well, technically it’s not quite Fight Club; instead of fighting to relieve the pent-up frustration of modern living, these guys brawl to get into the corporate world. Perhaps a Boiler Room or Glengarry Glen Ross reference would have fit more snugly (but those movies don’t have as much punching in them).
Like any underground fight club/financial firm, this one’s run by a shadowy overlord: Richard Sionis, Gotham’s take on Roman Sionis, the Batman villain who regularly goes by the name Black Mask. Just like in the comics, Sionis is:
- Very, very wealthy.
- The head of his own business.
- Often seen while sporting a black mask.
But after that, the similarities start to fade. The Sionis of the printed page is not the cutthroat financier we saw on TV. He’s kind of the opposite – wishy-washy, with terrible business sense. Originally the head of a makeup company, Sionis blew his fortune on a product that disfigured (or better yet, killed!) anyone who applied it to their face. Out of money and short one fiancee (she skipped out on him after the whole “death by makeup” thing), Sionis did the only thing a down and out citizen of Gotham ever does: carve himself a death mask and embark on a life of crime.
At which point Sionis, now known as Black Mask, stakes a healthy portion of the Gotham City underworld, wielding it against Batman whenever possible.
Obviously, none of this is in “The Mask.” It’s a lot of backstory to cover, and we’ve barely got 40 minutes once you factor in all the ads (plus all the time we’d have to devote to characters who aren’t Black Mask). And you know what? That’s okay. It’s good fun to point out that this detail is different in the comics and this detail is different on the screen, but when it comes down to it… does it really matter? At least as far as surface level stuff goes, the difference between a failed Revlon exec and Tyler Durden in suspenders isn’t much.
But there’s one key aspect of Black Mask’s character that is lost once he goes all Fight Club. Black Mask, originally, was the ultimate foil for Bruce Wayne. Both are roughly the same age, and both were boys born into mass quantities of prosperity. Thomas and Martha Wayne were pillars of the community; Sionis’ parents were a pair of unfeeling snobs. Batman’s parents were tragically killed, forever shaping who he’d become as a man. Sionis’s parents were tragically killed… by Sionis, forever cementing what a total creep the guy is. The birth of Batman came when a bat flew into Bruce Wayne’s study, imprinting itself upon his psyche. The birth of Black Mask, as told in “Batman #386” (Black Mask’s debut), came when a rabid raccoon chomped down on Sionis’s fingers. Those raccoon-rabies-induced hallucinations gave Sionis the same general fear/power trip regarding masks (like the one naturally imprinted on every raccoon) as Bruce has with bats.
Black Mask is Bizarro Bruce, an alternate universe version that tells us precisely what would happen if Bruce Wayne was the bad kind of rich, the bad kind of crazy and employed the bad kind of back alley ass-kickings.
At least “The Mask” manages to draw some kind of parallel between the two characters. Sionis wants to fight for money/power/his own amusement. Bruce wants to fight for justice. It’s not the deepest parallel, but hey, it ties the hour together well enough. And right now, having some kind of “case of the week” element is mandatory.”Penguin’s Umbrella” shook Gordon up in a series-altering way. It put a fire under him. Gave him a reason to fight. Made him not dull. Now, we need to see how loose cannon Gordon operates under the usual conditions (“Penguin’s Umbrella” being a special, case-of-the-week-less hour).
And it’s just so wonderful. Crime in Gotham City is a disaster, an insane Boss Tweed level of corruption. And now we have a hero who will happily get right up in crime’s face and scream at the top of his lungs. Scream things like “Oh yeah? How’s that feel? You like it?” (which, when read in print and not coming from the mouth of Ben McKenzie, sounds too close to sex talk, but you get the idea). When our sneeringly evil villain presents himself, stroking a ceremonial mask and crooning “such fire” and “I imagine killing gets quite addictive,” New Gordon’s there to call him on his bullshit, to say that’s all a bunch of “juvenile play acting” and that the GCPD’s gonna take you down, man.
Feels good, doesn’t it? And like any hero who stands amid a sea of passive sitters, Gordon’s already begun recruiting others to his side. Bullock, having gone from “total dick” to “dick with a good side” to “actually, kind of a stand-up guy,” has been cemented in the side of right. He’s got his partner’s back. He made a speech, for Chrissakes, and no amount of “asshat” drops can make his goodness any less genuine. Even if Gordon tacitly admits he’s going after all corruption, which also includes Harvey Bullock. But that’s a conversation for another episode.
On the other side of town, it’s the kids doing the fighting (although, it’s less “fighting” than it is “one-sided beatdowns”). First Bruce is hopelessly outmatched by the bigger bully; then, when Bruce has the upper hand, he just sucker punches the kid until half his face is a red splotch. There’s not much meat on this story. No complex discussions of justice or rumination on what makes Batman, Batman. It’s as simple as can be: Bruce is bad at fighting. Then, Alfred helps him get better at fighting. Then, pizza!
But what it lacks in nuance, it makes up for in sheer, simple pleasure. All the wonderful things in life are contained in this one brief nugget of young Bruce’s upbringing. Bullies being total dicks, then getting their comeuppance? Check. Adorable bonding between a boy and his father figure? Check (“Pizza? Superb choice, Master Bruce” might just be the best delivery Sean Pertwee’s had all season). A young Batman, about to learn his first lesson in fighting? Oh, that’s a check.
All those elements meld together to bring “The Mask” to some kind of Batman TV bliss point; the moment engineered to deliver more smiles per minute than anything else on TV. There’s just something about Bruce Wayne learning to fight that’s so iconic. So classic comic book. Watching one of the most famous superheroes in superhero history learn to hold his own gives you chills, right?
And anyway, “The Mask” did offer up a sample of more complex Batman thought – just not when its proto-Batman was onscreen. Back when we covered Gotham’s pilot, we started with a particular piece of the Batman mythos, that the current crime rate in Gotham City is, in a way, Batman’s fault. The theory that all those costumed freaks robbing banks with riddles or ventriloquist dummies wouldn’t be doing so if they weren’t combating a man in an equally insane bat costume.
Well, Gotham finally offered up a response to that debate, and why its own take on the city includes costumed nutballs even without a hint of Batman. The answer is Thomas and Martha Wayne. Their death unleashed the crazy; they were the good in Gotham, a dream for tomorrow that was “decent, hopeful.” When they were gunned down, the city spiraled into the kind of madness that can only be sated with costumed crime.
It might not spur on the same quality or depth of debate as “Does Batman attract crime?” but now we’ve got the Caped Crusader and his nutty rogues gallery all crawling out of the same primordial ooze. So that’s neat, at least.
Finally, then, there’s the Gotham City mob scene. No loose cannon Gordon for these folks. Nor is there a bully-beating bliss point. But there is one defining aspect of the continuing war of Fish and Penguin (unless that fish is a Great White, Mooney’s screwed on the nickname front): Lies! Deception upon deception, spun in webs so thick Robin Lord Taylor must hack at them with a machete just to get a word in.
It can be hard to follow at times, but that’s part of the game. Who knows what, and when and why, and how he/she’ll use it against her embittered foe. Right now it seems like things are stacked against Mooney. Sure, she’s got the Falcone ledger, but what if it’s a plant, because Penguin knew enough to get Falcone guessing about his new no-sex mistress? And if it’s real, what kind of power does Fish now wield?
See? Guessing games. But the fun kind, not the kind that leave our story a tangled, frustrated mess. When it comes down to it, we’ve got the basics on lock: Penguin and Mooney both want to own the Gotham mob scene. One of them may win, eventually. Everything else is extra, and extra is good – the more twists and falsehoods, the tenser things become every time Penguin and Mooney have a sit-down. Even if the next one doesn’t involve any sudden Penguin stabbings.
That’s all for this week. When next week’s Gotham rolls around, I fully expect to see two more lies on the pile, and at least one montage of Bruce slowly mastering Alfred’s pub brawl wisdom. If there were ever a time for young Master Bruce to learn something via montage, this is it.