‘Gotham’ Pilot Review: A Flawed, Ambitious Vision of the Batman Legend

By September 27, 2014
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There are a lot of reasons why DC Comics’ Batman may be one of, if not the most beloved characters in all of superhero fiction. He’s stood the test of time for three-quarters of a century, he’s attracted some of the absolute best storytellers across multiple mediums, and there’s something fundamentally relatable about a young boy wanting to make sense of a world that made him endure something senseless. Throughout his publication history, the story of Bruce Wayne has been reinvented by a lot of the best minds in comics, most recently by writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo in the pages of their massive story arc “Zero Year.” Probably the most timeless retelling of Batman’s origin and the birth of his crimefighting persona came at the hands of writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli in the form of 1987’s Batman: Year One, which has basically helped set the standard for most original and reimagined origin stories for the last generation of comic book storytellers.

Year One helped to solidify the foundation of the powerful partnership between Batman himself and the other character of focus in the story, James Gordon. Both men have a passion for seeing justice done, and both understand that a corrupt system necessitates someone to operate outside of it. Still, even in comparison to the comics and the films of recent years, there’s a great deal about Bruce Wayne’s life that we don’t really know about in the intervening years before his parents’ murder and his disappearance from public life, and it looks like a new TV production may help fill in at least some of those gaps.

Which brings us to the premiere episode of Fox’s “Gotham.”

Two Perspectives

Something needs to be cleared up before we progress any further: I’m a massive Batman fan. It was my Batman fandom that allowed me to parlay commentating on the biggest Batman fan site on the internet into becoming a writer in the first place, I am intimately familiar with practically every facet of his 75-year history in comics, film, television, and radio, and I’ve stated on multiple occasions that he is my absolute favorite character in fiction. Naturally, when a new Batman endeavor outside of the comics takes shape, I’m already paying very close attention. Like millions of people the world over, Batman means a lot to me, so there are elements of “Gotham” as a show that I will critique more than most rational people would, or even could. That being said, in order to approach the review of this episode as fairly as possible, I feel it’s necessary to come at it from two angles: first as someone that wants to see a good and interesting new television show, and second as a diehard Batman fan.

So, with that being said, “Gotham” should first be reviewed on its own merits as a new television series. In that regard, it’s pretty solid.

EVen without the attachments to Batman lore, "Gotham" will be made or broken by the solid dynamic between Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).

Even without the attachments to Batman lore, “Gotham” will be made or broken by the solid dynamic between Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).

Ambitious Television

“Gotham” as its own show promises a lot of things right up front purely in its very concept. It features a character that very clearly acts as the closest thing you can get to a paragon in a large city’s corruption and graft-ridden police department, and he’s paired with a “been around the block” cop that has bowed to, what he perceives, to be the realities of actually being a cop in the city. Immediately attractive as a viewer looking for good drama is the partnership between Jim Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (played by Donal Logue), who will constantly showcase two competing philosophies and ideologies about what it takes to be a good cop in Gotham City. To Gordon, the standards for being a good cop don’t necessarily change based solely on an environment, they’re merely just heightened to compensate for the size of your city and the problems it faces. For Bullock, being a “good cop” in Gotham means working within a pre-established set of rules created by the people with power, and keeping your head down when things seem to get too messy.

Jada Pinkett-Smith's "Fish Mooney" character should prove to be an interesting wrench thrown into the works of Gotham City.

Jada Pinkett-Smith’s “Fish Mooney” character should prove to be an interesting wrench thrown into the works of Gotham City.

This dynamic is what will ultimately make or break the show in the minds of general audiences, because as time goes on, something has to give for one of them. Either Gordon will have to endure humiliation and danger that forces him into Bullock’s viewpoint, or Bullock will have to realize that everything he’s come to take for granted in being a Gotham cop is wrong. On top of this constantly clashing meeting of the minds, the introduction of new character Fish Mooney (played by Jada Pinkett-Smith) is also really interesting even without the implications she presents to the Batman mythology. It looks like she will help to serve as a transitional element between this era of Gotham City and the one we know the city is destined for, which places her importance in the matters of the city and the characters in a pretty far-reaching place.

The actual plot of the pilot is perfectly sound. After an introduction to the major players we’ll be following in the GCPD, a high-profile double murder takes place that will put a great deal of pressure on the new partnership of Gordon and Bullock to see justice done for two of Gotham’s most prominent citizens. What they don’t realize going into this is that the implications of the murder go pretty far above what they can perceive, and ropes them into a different kind of plot that neither of the very different men are prepared to face. Beyond that, the only prominent characters are merely teased: Fish Mooney’s pathetic underling Oswald Cobblepot (played by Robin Lord Taylor) manages to morph a little too quickly from a fear-ridden yes man to brutal murderer, but his intelligence may take the current crime bosses by surprise. Other characters of prominence in the pilot include young Bruce Wayne played wonderfully by David Mazouz, his guarded and combative butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by Sean Pertwee), a young street urchin named Selina Kyle (played by Camren Bicondova), and Jim Gordon’s fiancée Barbara Kean (played by Erin Richards).

After finishing the first episode, it’s abundantly clear that there are a lot of less ambitious and more poorly constructed dramas on TV right now. While some of the dialogue can get a little hammy, and the script might wink at you a few too many times, “Gotham” should prove to be a solid addition to the primetime TV lineup, and hopefully a feather in Fox’s cap. Things do get a little more problematic, though, if you have a high level of familiarity with the Batman mythology.

While the end result of the Wayne murders is perfectly faithful to the source material, the details and extrapolations kind of make you wonder what the show's creators are thinking. (Image at right taken from the cover to Batman #404)

While the end result of the Wayne murders is perfectly faithful to the source material, the details and extrapolations around that event can make you question the fidelity to the original material (Image at right taken from the cover to Batman #404, by David Mazzucchelli).

A Flawed Vision of the Dark Knight’s Legend

Now is where I put on the hat of Batman fandom, and can tell you where certain elements of this pilot begin to fall apart. While most reasonable comic book fans will tell you that strict, almost religious adherence to the mythology in any other media adaptation of comics characters is most certainly a bad idea, there were a few moments where it just seemed like established DC Comics lore works narratively better than what some of creator-producer Bruno Heller’s script came up with. Even with that being said, though, the “Gotham” pilot made one of the biggest mistakes it could’ve made as an adaptation of Batman’s single most formative event: it got too self-indulgent.

As the Riddler has yet to be properly adapted in live-action, Cory Michael Smith's brief portrayal was very promising.

As the Riddler has yet to be properly adapted in live-action, Cory Michael Smith’s brief portrayal in the pilot was very promising.

It makes sense for the pilot to use the pivotal moment of Batman’s history as a jumping-off point to tell a greater story about the city, and in many respects the very nature of Batman’s origin story demanded just that of the pilot. What the actual moment as portrayed in the episode did is milk the drama far too much. Even if you’re not a Batman fan, and especially if you have no idea who Batman is or why he is known for doing the things that he does, the irreplaceable element of the character’s origin story is that it’s universally understandable. When a child walks down an alley with his parents and witnesses their murders before his very eyes, you instantly know why Batman does the things he does. If that moment is communicated effectively, then you don’t need to sell your viewers any further on it. Unfortunately, “Gotham” pushed it a little too hard, as if seeing a child screaming in emotional agony over the bloodied corpses of the two people he loves most in the world wasn’t enough.

As soon as Bullock and Gordon answer the call to respond to the crime scene, the dialogue was just off. It could’ve been Ben McKenzie’s delivery, but it seems that the ultimate culprit was the writing in the moment where Gordon tries to comfort the young Bruce Wayne. “There will be light!” A moment that could’ve been the emotional anchor of the entire series going forward instead became over dramatized, in the one moment that didn’t need any sort of emotional doctoring. In a way, “Gotham” is at a supreme disadvantage as an adaptation of a beloved character, because the moment that kicks the entire thing off has been adapted numerous times by other storytellers in multiple mediums. That automatically breeds comparison with what came before it, especially in other films, and the “Gotham” iteration of the Wayne murders falls short in the “club” it now belongs to.

The single best Joker allusion in history was at the end of Batman Begins. Hopefully, "Gotham" will give us Joker "winks" sparingly over the years.

The single best Joker allusion in history was at the end of Batman Begins. Hopefully, “Gotham” will give us Joker “winks” sparingly over the years to come.

As much as I love many of the other characters that populate Batman’s world, I found the “winks” at the camera a little too much. Gordon goes to meet Bullock near “Grundy Avenue.” A girl literally named “Ivy” is obsessively spraying her plants in the background every moment she’s on screen. One character that I really like, even though he was on screen for all of maybe 3 minutes, was Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma. Riddler has never been properly adapted in live-action, and it looks like this may be the first opportunity for the character, even though it would be as a “proto-Riddler” at best. The iteration of Alfred in the show seems ripped straight out of the pages of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Batman: Earth One, which is different and interesting while still rooted in a facet of the extended comics mythology, which is kind of cool. It’s also a great idea to explore the origins of the Penguin, and how he comes up in the criminal underworld as a force to be reckoned with by the time Batman does arrive on the scene.

One thing I’m automatically not crazy about, though, is any allusion whatsoever to the Joker. I had no delusions, though. I knew they would do it. That automatically means, though, that it loses points as a Batman adaptation.

Don’t get me wrong: like most people, I think, the Joker is my favorite comic book supervillain. My reasons are likely a little bit different from most, though, because my love of the Joker as a villain is entirely dependent on my love of Batman as a hero. My belief has always been that within the DC Universe, the Joker is the result of a chaos response to the arrival of Batman. As soon as Gotham City itself sensed that someone as undeniably capable as Batman would be operating within it, Gotham seemed to respond, “wanna bet?” He is the only equal and opposite response to Batman that could’ve happened. One of the major reasons that the Joker works so well is because he’s a force of nature. Bruce Wayne spent a good portion of his life preparing to wage a certain kind of war, and it was the Joker who singlehandedly made him question everything that he’d spent his life preparing for.

So, any allusion to the Joker this early in Bruce Wayne’s life just seems gimmicky to me. His strength as Batman’s nemesis is because he virtually came out of nowhere. Hopefully, the show will only lightly allude to him over the course of the series, because if it takes it any further than that, then it’d be clear that Heller and the show’s writers just don’t understand what makes that timeless conflict so special.

Overall

There’s a lot of things going for “Gotham.” Its cast, particularly Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock and David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne, show a lot of promise. I’m not yet completely sold on Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon, but there’s time enough. I’m not worried about that. What I am worried about, though, is what it will choose to be in the pantheon of the larger Batman mythology. “Gotham” can both be a valuable extrapolation of an era we don’t know much about in the character’s life, as well as an overextension and extrapolation of limited material from which to adapt.

Still, though, this is a pilot episode. This show’s identity hasn’t been fully created yet. Hopefully it will have a long life in front of it, and prove itself to be a valuable addition to the Batman mythology. It’s that existing literary and cinematic canon that can be both a benefit and a detriment, though, so like any first step in a long journey, we’ll have to see whether this show ends up becoming a feather in the cap of the long history of the Batman character. It’s okay to be optimistic, but I’m leaning toward the cautious flavor for now. 7/10

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.
  • Mike Glustien

    Don’t you think the stand up performing in Fish Mooney’s club was the allusion to the Joker you were looking for.

    • Chris Clow

      Not really, because I’d preferably be seeing no allusions. Ideally, any allusion to the Joker would be in dialogue and not related to any character we see yet, but that’s just a big Bat fan talking.

      • birdmantle

        I was okay with the standup comic auditioning for Mooney as a quick wink towards a possible proto-Joker. He looked very uncomfortable with what he was seeing, and yet he didn’t turn away. The discomfort means he is still basically human, but his curiosity and his willingness to audition at a gangster hangout means he contains the right kind emotional stem cells to blossom into the lunatic that Batman later inspires. I do agree, though, that such references should be so very few and far between. Like, maybe we see only one more during the entire series, until the series finale, even. I would envision a scene near the end of the series where Bruce suits up for the first time, and the man who would become Joker is observing from a distance, with a curious detachment, much as Selena Kyle has been following the young Bruce around…