It had to happen sometime: “Viper” has brought superpowers to Gotham. A superhero show without superpowers is like a carrot cake without luscious cream cheese frosting, and when it comes to Gotham, we’ve been eating our cake dry for far too long.
Here’s the deal. A guy by the name of Stan has been distributing a new wonderdrug among the homeless of Gotham. It comes in a cute little mini-bottle imprinted with the words “BREATHE ME.” Follow its advice, and you’ll gain a few hours of unbelievable super-strength. Do whatever you want with those few hours. Snap baseball bats in half like twigs. Hurl a pile of policemen off of you in dramatic fashion. Drink your weight in dairy products. Your choice. Then, when the allotted hours are up, your bones crumble apart and you die in agony. Naturally, Gordon, Bullock and the rest of GCPD would prefer a population with regular human strength and intact bones, so they spend most of “Viper” trying to get the stuff off the streets.
Viper, as the drug (and the episode) is named, is our introduction to superpowers in the world of Gotham. And Bruno Heller and the rest of Gotham’s braintrust couldn’t have picked a better power, because chemically-induced super-strength is how every other superhero show on the market has first breached the topic of superpowers in a real-world setting.
The CW’s Arrow was power-free until the introduction of Mirakuru in the second season, a miracle drug that imbued its users with general strength enhancements and a healing factor. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had technically introduced superpowers pre-pilot (with all those Avengers-related movies), but its pilot started with the same: Centipede, a super-strength cocktail introduced into the bloodstream via a bug-shaped device.
There’s a reason everybody reaches for the vial of punching power first – it’s simple, reasonably believable (more so than, say, magic lightning that transforms a little boy into a he-man with a red cape) and it’s just too easy to integrate into the real world. Like Viper, which rewrites human DNA, processing the calcium in a user’s bones to use as a massive energy resource. Then, when the calcium taps out… crunch. Sounds believable enough, right? Don’t think too hard. There. That’s better.
And if Heller and the gang decided to opt out of any more powered villains, Gotham could count “Viper” as a one-off, and Gotham’s fabric of reality would remain unchanged. Or, Gotham could keep nudging against the bonds of believability- maybe a Victor Fries whose body mutates to thrive in freezing temperatures, with some science-ish explanation similar to this week’s “extra calcium lets you pick up and throw an ATM with ease.” Then, maybe a Waylon Jones with a crocodilian skin condition, and continue from there. It’s not like the Batman universe is crawling with ridiculous superpowers (other than Clayface and Man-Bat, his rogues gallery is largely human), so occasional jaunts like “Viper” would be well within Gotham’s wheelhouse.
They’d also be in Gotham’s best interest, because “Viper” was so unbelievably great, and more episodes on this level are now a requirement.
Waiting a few weeks to debut the superpowers was brilliant. All that extra muscle power meant Gotham’s pent-up weirdness was finally able to cut loose in a way it hadn’t before (and that we hadn’t realized was possible until this very moment). Give people the live-action equivalent of Futurama’s Boneitis? Absolutely. Old man gives himself super-strength and dramatically rips his walker in half? Of course. Gotham’s atmosphere, with its mix of styles and settings from, like, eight different decades of American history, always felt a little fantastic, and now the material within can match that. Good show.
Also, “Viper’s” dialogue was more on point than any Gotham in history. Everything said in that first convenience store bust-up, from “don’t vex me, mortal” to “drinking milk like there’s no more cows.” Also, everything that came out of Bullock’s mouth was more or less perfection, from his doctrine on pickles to referring to super strength as “joie de vivre.” “WHAT’S ALTRUISM?!,” he bellows, as we wonder if Batman is supposed to be this funny. Donal Logue perfected the half-assed detective snark a few years ago on Terriers, and in “Viper” he’s finally given enough of a spotlight to prove his mettle. Boy, was it ever proved.
The reasons to love this one just keep coming, unlike weeks previously, where the comic bookery was limited to “guy with the name of an unrelated supervillain” or “guy with a pointy stick,” “Viper” is classic Batman. Well, technically something called Venom is classic Batman. But Viper is Gotham’s precursor to the real thing, so we’re still legit.
Venom is a more recent addition to the Batman canon, first appearing in the appropriately titled “Batman: Venom” arc of the “Legends of the Dark Knight” comic series in 1991. At first, it was Batsy taking the drug himself – after a costly failure, he wanted to boost his power level and turned to illicit super drugs to do so. Eventually, the Dark Knight realized the error of his ways and forced himself through a month of detox, which is possible because he’s Batman.
But Batman isn’t who we typically associate with huffing gas to give himself a power boost; Bane is the name most commonly linked to Venom. He used the stuff for heightened strength as early as his comic debut, in 1993’s “Vengeance of Bane,” a prequel to a prequel to the classic Batman vs. Bane storyline, “Knightfall” (which more or less became The Dark Knight Rises). Sure, TDKR was Venom-free- as Christopher Nolan is a stickler for hyper-realistic vigilantes who dress up like bats, Bane’s Venom supply was replaced with a non-super-strength, garden variety painkiller. But in basically every other instance, an appearance by Bane is an appearance pumped full of sweet, sweet Venom. Such was the case with Batman & Robin’s regrettable idiot. And the Batman: Arkham game series, where Bane is of utmost importance (as is “Titan,” Arkham’s own form of super-Venom). Also “Knightfall,” obviously.
Going full Bane would be way too much for Gotham to handle right now, though. We’re sticking with subtle mob vendetta back-and-forths, rather than mass anarchy imposed by a luchador pumped full of muscle drugs. But the first homeless victim of Viper is named Benny, which is phonetically close enough to the word “Bane” to count as Gotham’s wink/nod version of the character. Probably. Or maybe not.
Alright, now for the other, more criminal side of town. “Shit’s going down” seems to be the theme of the week, because just as much craziness was happening in the Penguin’s world as it was Gordon and Bullock’s. First, the Penguin decided to jump the gun and tell Sal Maroni, point-blank, that he used to work for Fish Mooney but then he snitched and escaped death and now would very much like to work in your good graces, sir. Like the Penguin, we assume this will be another smooth double-cross, and like the Penguin, we’re caught off-guard when Maroni reaches out and plows the Penguin’s forehead into the dinner table.
We kinda needed this. As much as Robin Lord Taylor has delivered the perfect Penguin (random Twitter interlude: Patton Oswalt argues that Taylor’s Penguin is so fresh, it’ll cause DC to reboot the comic character in Taylor’s image, and we couldn’t agree more), the Penguin has been on the same roll, and it’s time he made a giant, horrible screw-up.
And blabbing to Maroni was that screw-up. Sure, in the end the Penguin got what he wanted: a position of higher standing in Maroni’s half of the Gotham City mob scene. But it nearly cost him his life, and that was definitely not what Cobblepot had planned for this particular play. Good to know that despite his manipulative genius, the Penguin’s not infallible. Otherwise, his rise to power would grow real boring, real fast.
Expect more crap to come the Penguin’s way (thanks to Maroni, the nickname’s stuck) in the future. Because, after he’s back in Maroni’s good graces, the Don refers to Penguin as a weapon. And if Fish Mooney’s mob takeover prep has taught us anything, it’s that being someone’s “weapon” is just the worst.
Fish Mooney’s got a human weapon of her own, and this unfortunate soul is part daughter, part lover, part employee, part student and part slave. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least, and it’s demonstrating just how nutty Mooney really is. Although Mooney’s weird abusive nature fits in as a nice counterpoint to Maroni’s treatment of the Penguin – the boss beats Penguin, then turns around and gives him a sloppy mobster “I forgive you” kiss. Basic abusive dad stuff. Fish is going for the same vibe, albeit in a far more sexually confusing manner.
And while we still don’t know just what specifics Mooney has planned for her undercover opera singer (other than a meet-cute with Falcone, ending on a shot of Gotham City that’s captured with an odd Woody Allen romanticism) we know the endgame. Mooney takes care of Falcone, and Russian mobster and fellow Falcone underling Nico becomes the new boss.
Anyone out there want to venture a guess why Fish isn’t planning to claim the throne herself? That’s what I assumed would happen, up until this point.
Maybe she’d rather wield power away from the public eye; maybe she’s got future plans for Nico; maybe, even in 2014, the mafia is just too old-fashioned to be ruled by a black woman with a shiny red haircut. Whatever the reasons, we’ll surely find out as Gotham squeezes more details from her still-mostly-secret coup.
“Viper” is, bar none, the strongest episode Gotham has ever put out. It had essentially zero flaws, even the storylines that came off a little flat in previous episodes were either nonexistent (Barbara Gordon and her snooze-worthy love triangle with Renee Montoya) or perked up into far more exciting territory. Lil’ Bruce was basically place setting up until this point, his presence indicating that yes, this is a Batman prequel series, and yes, the Wayne murders will continue to be mentioned, on occasion. Now he’s got a goal (uncovering the corruption in his parents’ company), and a venue to prove just why Batman’s third most common nickname (after “The Dark Knight” and “The Caped Crusader”) is “The World’s Greatest Detective.”
It just goes to show you: adding superpowers to any TV show makes that show better, without exception.