There’s an age-old debate in the Batman mythos: Does Batman really stop crime? Or does the very presence of Batman, a man gallivanting around in bat ears and a cape, attract costumed criminals that wouldn’t have shown up in the first place, thus doing more harm than good? Gotham, Fox’s shiny new Batman prequel series, set in the grimy corruption of the Gotham City Police Department, throws all this good/evil Bat-debate in the trash. “Nope!” it proclaims, fancifully showing off a parade of before-they-were-villain villains, “Freaks were running around Gotham and committing meticulous theme-based crimes long before Batman ever started doing the same.”
That’s already par for the course on Gotham, a prequel interested in a new take – a Batmanless take – on Batman. It will pursue that newness to any end, even if it means scrapping the subtlety and the blurred lines of good and evil that are present in just about every Batman story.
Case in point: Gotham is a police procedural (well, sort of…according to showrunner Bruno Heller, it’s a mix: “There’s a procedural framework for it, but the world of Gotham is too big and operatic and complex to do it any other way but serialized”), and there’s no better case to open a Gotham City cop drama then the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Just before the opening credits roll on the show’s inaugural episode, we’re already forced to witness the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. In slow-motion. As blood spurts from their open wounds. Then, young master Bruce reaches out to their bodies in shock, smearing their blood on his hands in the process (get it? blood on his hands?), before shrieking his pain into the heavens as the camera cranes towards the sky.
Not subtle. There are plenty of ways to frame this extremely melodramatic parent death (most commonly associated with the image of Martha’s pearls skittering across grimy pavement) without letting the melodrama overpower, but Gotham misses the mark. It doesn’t add anything particularly new or different to this seminal part of Bruce Wayne’s Batman-ing, other than a quick note that young Catwoman was sort of nearby when it happened.
But don’t take this criticism to heart – there’s far more good than bad in Gotham, even if its very first impression seems a little shaky. Gotham is fun, and it can’t be overstated how important that is. The criminal underworld is a deft blend of colorful comic villains and actual street toughs splattered in brown muck.
The pilot, which follows detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie, of Southland and The O.C. fame) and his scruffy ne’er do well of a partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), as they investigate the terrible Wayne slaying, comes loaded with enough twists to throw off the most hardcore Batman aficionados. Even if a few are plainly telegraphed – yes, we all know the guy who killed Batman’s parents was Joe Chill; no, some schmuck named Mario Pepper that our heroes catch in the first twenty minutes isn’t going to be the real perp.
Consider Gotham, for all intents and purposes, to be an “Elseworlds” for the television set (an “Elseworlds” is a DC comic that falls outside the established canon), essentially a “what if Batman had Superman/Green Lantern’s powers?” or “what if Batman existed in the 1800s?” (Marvel makes it way easier, calling their version of “Elseworlds” just “What Ifs?”). It’s plucking elements of Batman from wherever it sees fit and arranging them into a fancy prequel timeline, but Heller knows where to pluck.
Our two leads, Gordon and Bullock, are Batman stalwarts. And, as is required from every single adaptation of a comic book, there’s a throwaway reference to a comic element so audacious that Gotham would never touch it with a nine-foot Batpole. In this case, it’s Solomon Grundy, the Hulk-sized super-zombie who only speaks in snippets of the “Solomon Grundy” nursery rhyme (“born on a Monday, christened on a Tuesday,” blah blah blah). There’s no chance of a ten-foot undead beast on Gotham, but the no-super-zombies-allowed city named a street after him. So that’s something, I guess.
Then, there are detectives Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya (Andrew Stewart Jones and Victoria Cartagena, respectively), who in any other cop show would be those two all-stars who make everyone else look woefully incompetent (see Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson in The Other Guys). But in Gotham, they’re also a callback to the great granddad of all Gotham City cop comics: “Gotham Central.” Like most of Gotham, they’re not a 100% match – Allen is a little younger and a little brasher than his usual wearied, “leave me the hell alone” workhorse, while Montoya is sleeping with (or was, at some point) Gordon’s wife – a new development. But they’re here, which is fan service enough.
Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s “Gotham Central” is a comic book The Wire (maybe a comic book Homicide: Life on the Street), just with a Batman branding – good police, bad police, chain-of-command politics and the minutiae of investigations, except those investigations frequently involve a man in a deep-freeze body suit shooting ice cannons at a man dressed in a bat costume. They even use the same jargon: “skel” (a mope, a perp, a bad-deed-doer) being a particular favorite of the GCPD.
Gotham isn’t quite so poetic, even if a “skel” still gets thrown around in the pilot.
Though it employs two Wire actors in the pilot alone (Michael Kostroff, the series’ seminal sleazy drug lawyer Maurice Levy, plays a throwaway beat cop, while John Doman – who was once Major Rawls – is the current crime overlord Carmine Falcone), this isn’t the minute detail of catching a skel or bitching about the coffee back at the station. This is big stuff, life and death stuff, Gordon taking on the world stuff. Good and evil have their battle lines clearly drawn: Gordon and a tiny, brooding pre-Batman on one side; Bullock; super-villains and basically every other Gotham denizen on the other.
Gotham is fast-paced, action-heavy, thrill-of-the-moment stuff. Within the first hour, we’ve got two shootouts, a chase sequence (that ends in more gunplay) and a grab bag of sustained and brutal beatings. Yet it’s all handled with finesse; just as exciting as any other cop drama, given massive bonus points because the action frequently includes men who act like penguins or characters that will totally be friends with Batman one day.
But you might have noticed, just after “battle lines clearly drawn,” that Bullock isn’t listed among the good guys. And that’s worth a little discussion.
Harvey Bullock is absolutely not one of our heroes; in Gotham, he’s basically the anti-Gordon. Corrupt where Gordon is honorable. Lazy where Gordon is diligent. Fully bearded, where Gordon is neatly shaven and trimmed. Bullock is the kind of guy who will say “I haven’t been ashamed since I was twelve and my mom caught me jacking off” at least once per episode (well, once in the pilot, so far). But while Harvey was always a boorish knucklehead (“slovenly, lackadaisical cynic,” in the words of Gordon…and Bullock), he was our boorish knucklehead. One that would knuckle heads (or something to that effect) on the side of good.
Comic Bullock drinks and accepts bribes and beats the shit out of suspects on a daily basis, but he does all those things in search of justice. TV Bullock does not – he’s just another criminal underworld pawn in a sea of criminal underworld pawns. He’d gladly abandon the Wayne case rather than face any kind of heat; ditto on his partner Gordon. Hell, at the end of the pilot, he outright tells Gordon he’d kill him rather than lose his position as a comfy mafia mouthpiece on the force.
This may rankle Batman lovers turning on Gotham.
There’s a silver lining, though (well two, really, once you count Logue and his scruffy, well-worn, utterly convincing performance): the comic characterization of Bullock that Gotham should probably adhere to – it wasn’t always the norm. In his original incarnation (“Detective Comics 441,” in 1974), Bullock was a sniveling, corrupt coward, but one who eventually has a change of heart and becomes one of Gordon’s closest allies. Perhaps Gotham might go that route. But in all seriousness, we’re one episode into a sixteen episode season and it’s waaaaaaaay too early to tell at this point.
Although it might be worth paying attention to the pilot’s terrifying moral climax. The Penguin has betrayed his mob superiors, and must die. Gordon, having proved to be all “upright” and “not corrupt,” must now execute him, to prove he’s a team player in a city where every single police officer and public official is up to their nostrils in graft. So Gordon shoots Penguin… just beside his head, making the Penguin yelp and fall to a convincing enough death. Cue Bullock, watching from the sidelines: “Attaboy.” Someone desperately looking for “Bullock’s not so bad after all” clues might see that “attaboy” as a sign that Bullock saw Gordon miss on purpose, and is rooting for him to win. But, again: waaaaaaay too early.
Lift yourself up out of the comic book nitpickings, though, and Gotham is a cut above the average cop show. It’s trying to do something weird and special, and it seems to be succeeding, given the amount of groundwork that’s laid out in this first hour.
Sure, cramming six villains into a single pilot (Penguin, Riddler, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Falcone and Jada Pinkett Smith’s original villain, Fish Mooney) is a bit much, and three of the six (Riddler, Ivy, Catwoman) are glorified cameos, but Gotham has me chomping at my own fingers to see what happens next week. And that’s the point of a pilot, isn’t it?
Related Topics: Batman