Gotham: Beyond Calling It Brilliant



 From the first scene we are wrapped not in Batman, but in the events surrounding him, starting with a panoramic view of Gotham City. The buildings are large but they seem to be darker than the surrounding night sky. Even the lights which shine from them do not seem to have much effect.

Into this we see a surprising young woman. In other words, she-who-will-be-Catwoman jumps off a roof. She is casual about it, smiling as she jumps, and in the end she slides down a shop awning to the Blade Runner-like street. This is a very significant scene, about the third of many.

Catwoman began in the thirties as ‘the Cat.’ She was a stealing socialite. Since then she has been recast as an abused wife, a prostitute, and an Audrey Hepburn look-alike. Now she is a street urchin, stealing milk for a cat. She also steals a wallet, takes the money, and ignores the cards which are likely to be more valuable. This is someone stealing to survive, even if she does do it with panache. Maybe she gets away with it because she is so cute and winsome. Or maybe we just feel sorry for her.

Get used to this. Everything is laid on heavy unless you know the universe well enough to get the nuances of the background. One scene after another is familiar, cliched even, but that’s where the Easter eggs are easiest to hide.

We do not see where she lives, but my guess it is no place, nearly no place, or an unpleasant place. Possibly all three.

I said she would become Catwoman, the goggles she wears are a clue to that. But as she walks down the street she is shorter than everyone else. I checked and the actress, Camren Bicondova, is exactly 5 foot. She is 15 and a dancer, and a dancer is what they’ve needed in an actress playing Catwoman for years. (The last dancer to play the part was Julie Newmar, whom Bicondova mildly resembles.)

But they add a wrinkle to the story. Two of them, actually. The Wayne family is walking down the alley and we all know what will happen. But it’s played here like it is in no version of the story from comics or the movies except, perhaps, Miller.

The family is interacting. Until now the murder of the Wayne family was seen in flashback, usually in at most a page, or with some element of dysfunction in the family. The walk itself is mostly without conversation and frequently takes up one panel in comics.

In this version, the Waynes are talking, interacting, touching. Dr Wayne is something he hasn’t been seen as for a long time: a good father. And here’s where they add the other new wrinkle.

Selina Kyle watches from above as a mugger steps out of the shadows. There’s been a lot of speculation about who commits the murder in various articles. For my money it’s clearly not Joe Chill. Chill was a thug who needed fast cash. He takes the wallet and often just wants the necklace as an afterthought. This killer is calm and collected, he takes the money and the necklace, breaking one strand in a tribute to Frank Miller. He then shoots the Waynes.

He wears shiny shoes. Bruce Wayne notices them, foreshadowing Batman’s future detective work. This is not a scruffy mugger. It’s as they find him to be: a mob hitman.

He wears a mask, actually a black scarf wrapped around his face, and a hat. This all seems unnecessary if he intended to leave no witnesses behind. It seems odd he stepped out of the shadows at all if he intended to leave Bruce Wayne alive and was only interested in the hit.

But it makes sense if he simply doesn’t want his identity seen any time. In the articles I’ve read they’ve gone through every identity of the Wayne’s killer – Joe Chill, Lew Moxon sending Chill to do the hit, and an unknown person. But I haven’t seen the Tim Burton idea that the Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents mentioned. If it isn’t the Joker, why is he wearing mascara and eye liner?

Heath Ledger’s Joker wore make-up and some people have wondered when a guy with lots of facial scars would walk into a shop asking for white facepaint, red lipstick, and green hair dye. Maybe this is how he works up to that. Sure, this guy is heavier than the Joker is usually represented, but then again, the Penguin in Gotham is thinner.

The moment the Waynes are shot, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are linked. I like that more mature approach, giving them a non-sexual, unbreakable connection.

There is also a change that this show acknowledges. Originally, the Waynes were not such a dominant family. When they are murdered it’s only a personal issue. Now their deaths are of “…two of the richest and most powerful people in Gotham.” Or so Harvey Bullock says. The story has finally caught up with itself and for that you have to commend the production team from executive producer and director Danny Canon on.

The show has 18 writer credits including ‘unknown episode’ credits for Bill Finger, Frank Miller, and Bob Kane, among others. There are already three directors and nine producers not including second units.

Five people are given casting director credits. They wanted the right people to play their parts and I think they got them. I’ve already discussed the future Catwoman. She is the witness to a lot of things and she goes through a lot of emotions through the first episode: eager, pleased, cocky, scared, concerned, afraid, shocked. She is often the signal to what the audience should be feeling. This is a lot of weight on a fifteen-year-old but she seems to handle it. And the show does put a lot of confidence in its young actors.

David Mazouz is an interesting choice for Bruce Wayne. So far he’s had only three turns to play: shocked, noble, and psycho. Shocked when his parents are killed, noble when he encourages Gordon in an otherwise inexplicable scene, and psycho when he stands on the balustrade of the Wayne Manor roof and when he says he wants to meet his parents’ killer again. He has a short time to get things done and so far has done fine, but I do want to see more.

If we did not know Bruce Wayne will become Batman, we would worry about this kid. And the people in charge of the show are smart enough to play it that way. Jim Gordon takes Bruce Wayne seriously, right from the start. But neither he nor Alfred (more on him later) know what will happen, so they react to him as if he is a thirteen-year-old kid, which, by the way, the actor is.

This, by the way, may be the show’s biggest problem. It’s in some ways not the police procedural it thinks it is, but a cozy mystery. It’s a small, constantly interrelated cast who know each other and are all already known by the audience. So when Bullock tells police forensics officer Edward Nigma to stop giving them riddles, is that heavy handed? Is it foreshadowing? Or is it just part of a slow curve that will turn Nigma into the Riddler?

I would call it part of that curve because of Major Crimes Squad member Crispus Allen. I know he will be murdered by a cop and become the second incarnation of the wrath of God, aka the second Spectre. Is that a heavy handed way of saying this is not Nolan’s world and that superpowers are part of it?

If you think that too heavy handed then possibly this isn’t the show for you. But for me it one of those Easter eggs that assure me the people behind the scenes care about what they’re doing. And for all the concentration on Bruce, which is necessary, they don’t chronicle everything.

Bruce does not discover and does not fall into the cave under Wayne Manor. He does not know a young Zatanna but will later have his memory wiped of that experience. He does not leave the opera afraid, but leaves a movie as an ordinary kid, something that hasn’t been done for years.

So the core of this show is not Bruce Wayne, it’s Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock. This show is called a procedural, but it isn’t. There’s not enough routine for that. It is a chalk-and-cheese police drama. Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is young, honest, and sometimes insanely heroic. He approaches a man with a gun, risking himself to save a fellow officer we never see again.

Jim Gordon is a cop with a military history. Ben McKenzie is an actor with a history of playing soldiers, cops, and Batman (voice in the animated Batman: Year One). He walks, straight-backed and hard-faced, softening only when talking to a crying child or his own fiance. Yet he never forgets he’s after the criminals in a city where the criminals by and large are the law. This is summed up nicely when he talks to Carmine Falcone.

Falcone appears at the end and you wish the speech he gives would last longer. Fortunately, the writers are more disciplined than that, and Falcone indicates lots of revelations, since he says he was friends with Gordon’s father, a DA.

Harvey Bullock is old, cynical, and corrupt—ish. Played by Donal Logue, Bullock works with crime as much as he contains it. He is lackadaisical, though I can’t see how he would see he had any chance to change the state of things. In this, he draws on a long history playing parts of characters in chaotic situations like in Vikings, Sons of Anarchy, and the X-Files. His credits also include several parts in Law & Order and Law & Order SVU. He also has the background for the part, but it’s not clear exactly what part that is.

There are several indications Harvey Bullock is not what he usually seems to be. Perhaps they plan to turn him straight like they did in the comics. But right now we are left with questions why he is a contradictory character.

For example, he says he doesn’t want the Wayne case, but doesn’t turn it over to Major Crime when he has the chance. He says it’s because they showed him a lack of respect. But why would he care about respect only at that moment? He doesn’t in any other confrontation with a cop – look at his behavior in the alley where the Waynes are murdered. Does he realize Montoya wants the case just to cover it up?

Gordon and Bullock argue like two men with guns on the opposite sides of a fence. Yet Bullock, the bad one, shows up to rescue Gordon when he gets into trouble (and you knew he would).

In the same way, Gordon makes a compromise with the crime syndicate, and everyone watching should know how much that will bite him later. Those who haven’t watched just misunderstood what I said.

There is character development in this, a thing made possible because we all know who they are and who they are going to be. Very often in comic books characters are cut-outs, and intended to be so. Domestic scenes and side characters are just there to hold the place until the superhero shows up. But that’s not going to happen any time soon in this show so they take a different but still traditional approach.

Alfred Pennyworth is a younger man. When he comes to the scene of the crime (and it is the crime) Bruce runs up and hugs him. In too many films lately a man hugging his son or a boy hugging a man he knows would foreshadow some form of molestation. That’s not the case here. Young Bruce did have physical contact, so perhaps they are foreshadowing a less psychotic Batman, a nobler Batman.

Alfred is younger and he’s more working class. “Get your bloody arse down off of there! How many times have I told you?” And Bruce gets off the roof for now. The actor, Sean Pertwee, is authentically British and has been in everything from Shakespeare to Warhammer 40,000 (twice). He is the son of Jon Pertwee (the third Dr Who) and his family has been acting for like, ever.

It will be nice to see a younger Alfred on film. When they made the 1943 serial they cast William Austin. Ever since in the comic books Alfred has been middle aged when in serials, on television, and in the movies he’s been of advanced years.

We can keep going down the list, but let’s just say I’ve yet to see a bad casting or bad acting job. I have seen some fine background work which I think will become fully canon before too long. In particular the origins of the Penguin and the Riddler.

As to the sets, designs, and costumes, they’re good. Some things they were restricted on: Selina Kyle has goggles to make it plain who she is because she does not say a single word through the whole first episode. The sets are of a city that hasn’t been able to update anything since the 1950s (kind of like Detroit). The police work in pools of light in an ancient precinct. The buildings of the city are not less steel and glass than mostly brick and masonry and graffiti. Obsolete water towers dot the city.

This is a place where there are sweatshops and slums and crimewaves. This is a Gotham where people are either too poor to leave or are paid to stay. In the funeral of the Waynes, we see the gravestones slowly turn into the buildings of Gotham City.

Some will find the show heavy handed, with stock scenes. But look the stock scenes again. A man with a psychosis has a gun to an officer’s head. He keeps saying he needs his pills. Gordon takes him down without shooting him. Sound like a cliché? Look at the background again: the two adjoining cells in the middle of the open plan building which is dark with old architecture and an even older paint job. In the show they put the man in the right hand cell, because in the movie they will put the Joker in the left.

When Gordon and Bullock come to the scene of the crime, it’s all cliché, except for the blanket around Bruce’s shoulders. Kind of looks like a cape, doesn’t it? Just a little.

And while we’re talking about cliches, why does Alfred keep talking like a working class cop cynical about the system?

Bullock mentions somebody tried to fence a 4-strand necklace of pearls, one strand was broken. Gordon asks ‘like Martha Wayne was wearing?’ Bullock says yes, but Martha Wayne’s necklace had three strands, so does the one they find, though one is strand is broken.

And in this episode we see the first costumed, psychotic villain. Strangely, no one seems to have noticed him. I guess like an eyelash, heavy handedness is in the eye of the beholder.

The first episode gives a lot, and promises much, much more. Will they deliver? Only time will tell, but I’ll be watching them, very closely.


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Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.