by Jon Wolk
Right off the bat (GET IT!?! BAT!?! Eh? EH? …aww, you’re no fun…) let me tell you that I am a Marvel guy. I’m not a DC hater like many people, but at the same time it does nothing for me. Vertigo is great but when it comes the mainstream DCU I’m just not that into it. Except Batman. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight, Bats, if you will. As a kid I watched the campy Adam West TV show in reruns and was of just the right age when Frank Miller’s seminal piece “The Dark Knight Returns” hit the stands to really ‘get’ it. That book redefined the character for many people, bringing back his early dark roots and, in many ways, creating a revolution in comic writing that is still felt to this day. One of the things that book did so well was lay out, in no uncertain terms, his humanity and vulnerabilities. It made it clear that, unlike Superman, the Green Lantern or The Flash, Batman was just a guy in a suit at the peak of human athletic ability with a lot of money and some really cool toys. That is what has always spoken to me about the Batman character, and about the world he lives in. Even the majority of his rogues gallery are just really crazy dudes with some really messed up gadgets. Not a lot of powers. He also had a close, if at times adversarial, working relationship with a certain Commissioner Gordon that helps to ground the character in a reality where he wasn’t some Messiah to save us all but was often considered to be a nuisance to the powers that be. Gordon himself has had a great history of being a hero in his own right, without the suit for the fun toys. There was even a really good comic book series, the Eisner Award nominated ‘Gotham Central’, written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, with pencils by Michael Lark. In many ways it was just a typical, noir-ish, police procedural that focused on the Gotham city Police Department and all of the problems faced by the officers living and working in Gotham city, but then there is the fact that it took place in Gotham City, so clearly there were a lot of things that they had to deal with that most police officers don’t.
You asked me, “well what does this have to do with the new television show “Gotham”, Mondays at 8/7 Central on Fox, premiering tonight?” That’s a good question. The answer is complicated but could be summed up as everything and nothing. Everything, in that Gotham Central was the initial inspiration for the television series, but nothing, in that the idea of a ‘prequel’ of sorts to the Batman story, introducing Jim Gordon and the start of his career as a police detective, was a device they came up with to avoid having to deal, from both the story and budgetary standpoint, with all the baggage that Batman and other heroes and villains would bring with them. So that inspiration was taken from the Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli epic “Batman Year One”.
The series starts, just as many stories in police procedurals do, and Batman’s story does in particular, with a murder. It’s no spoiler to let you know that there is a very nicely done re-creation of the seminal Batman origin story, one that is visually quite true, for the most part, to the original source material. The one exception to the accuracy of that scene is one of the somewhat ridiculous, and seemingly shoehorned in, “Easter egg” appearances by someone who will go on to be important in Batman’s story. The murder and robbery is, of course, that of Dr. Thomas Wayne and his beloved wife Martha in front of their young son Bruce. It becomes part of our series Because the case is caught by a freshfaced young rookie detective named Jim Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie (Southland, The O.C.). He is partnered with the cynical and possibly corrupt detective Harvey Bullock, played with superb balance and humanity by Donal Logue (Sons of Anarchy, Vikings). Jim Gordon is just getting started, full of righteous anger and steadfast honesty, as a detective in the severely broken GCPD under Capt. Sarah Essen, played by Zabryna Guevara (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Burn Notice) and in a moment of questionable judgment promises the young Bruce Wayne, at the crime scene, that he will not rest until he finds the killer. The investigation eventually takes the detectives to the slimy underbelly of Gotham Cities organized crime, and the beautiful but questionably named Fish Mooney, played by the lovely and accomplished Jada Pinkett Smith (The Matrix Reloaded, If These Walls Could Talk) and her creepy and psychotic right-hand Oswald Cobblepot, played by Robin Lord Taylor, (Law & Order, The Walking Dead). If you don’t know who Oswald ”grows up” to be, Google it, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but he too will become one of Batman’s Great nemeses. There’re a good number of other ”Easter egg” appearances, and promises of more to come as the series continues.
Gordon and Harvey appear to track down the killer and Harvey shoots and kills him just before he is about to do in Jim Gordon but perhaps all is not as seems. In a city as broken and corrupt as Gotham things are just never that easy, and there is more to all of this than it initially appears.
Going back to my opening statement about being a Marvel guy with a soft spot for the Batman stories, I didn’t hate the show but I did not love it either. “Gotham” appears to have the potential to be a good show, between the writers and producers involved and the decent cast, if it can figure out how to use all the positives it has going for it. And there is the problem. The show is going to have to decide what it wants to be. Is it going to be a police procedural? Or is it going to be an origin story?
If it wants to be a police procedural, that just happens to be set in a pre-Batman Gotham City, then it needs to own that. Just tell great police stories that just so happen to occasionally have epic comic book villains, or their precursors at least, and that dark, Noir-esque atmosphere that always hangs around that city. Embrace the environment, the character of the city and all the things, good and bad, that eventually made Jim Gordon the amazing Police Commissioner he will come to be. If the show runners are smart they will reach out to writers like Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker to do some guest writing. They won’t be able to lean too heavily on a still 10-year-old Bruce Wayne and the shadow of his future self, or the future selves of the various nemeses that he will eventually face. That would be a recipe for failure.
If they want to be an ongoing origin story, are fans going to be willing to wait however many years, like on the television show Smallville, for the big payoff? How do you do a Batman origin story without Batman? It’s a pretty delicate balancing act. Even using the show to slowly build his rogues gallery seems like a treacherous and possibly ill-advised decision. Arrow and the upcoming Flash series have the advantage of being about the title characters and not just the long buildup to who they are supposed to be. Batman is nowhere to be seen in the title of the show, and as such perhaps they are going to do the smart thing. I don’t know that I have a lot of confidence in Warner Bros., in general, or Fox, in particular, to have the patience and foresight to allow “Gotham” to grow and become it’s own entity. I have a lot of questions about their vision for this show. Do they have a long-term plan? Have they thought out extended story arcs with an idea of where they want to take these characters? I know that these things can evolve as they go on due to the actors and the writers growing into a comfortable place with their characters and their environment but I would think it would be wise for them to have A general vision, beginning a middle and an end. Lost started out really strong but got kind of… well… lost by the ending. On the other end of the spectrum you have a show like Sons of Anarchy where the creator had a very clear idea and an outline of a who, why, a beginning middle and end for his characters, and left the how open to come about organically as the show progressed…but will viewers have the patience, and the interest, in a television show about the place that Batman grew up? The writers will have quite a task for themselves, and with Fox televisions track record on new shows, Especially in recent years, (Almost Human I am looking at YOU!) I would not get too attached to the show just yet.
All in all I did enjoy this first episode though there are a lot of little details that a true DC fan could, and will I’m quite sure, easily pick apart. There are some inconsistencies, some questionable choices in character names, and a few other nitpicky details, but the show definitely warrants my “Three Episode Rule”: I will watch three episodes before I decide whether or not to stick with it. This gives most shows time to find there their voice or hit their stride.
I would give this show 3/5 Batarangs, but the kids only 10 years old and has not invented them yet. Gotham premieres tonight at 8/7 central on your local Fox television station, and will most likely be available for streaming tomorrow.