“Batman is the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”
That’s because he’s 12. Portraying Gotham before it became the Caped Crusader’s city; Fox’s “Gotham” sets up a show all its own that not only doesn’t rely on our cowled hero, it doesn’t need him.
Even as a huge Batfan, I went into “Gotham” as a skeptic. If it wasn’t yet another Batman reboot bookended by “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the upcoming “Batman vs Superman,” then a city with no Dark Knight would be too obscure to draw in a crowd. Not to mention, the show’s stylized art promos suggested a characterized superhero world like the one that Marvel’s “Agents of SHIELD” fell into.
But the writers of “Gotham” have struck a unique balance in a limbo between gritty cop drama and comic fan pleaser.
And while it still has to prove itself, its earned the time and patience to do so. “Gotham” focuses on the Gotham Police Department’s rookie Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), whose first big case is the murder of prominent millionaires – you guessed it – Thomas and Martha Wayne. (All witnessed by the shadow of the show, a young Selina Kyle played by Cameron Bicondova)
Gordon’s promise to a young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) to catch the killer, as well as his drive to prove himself, sends him down the rabbit hole of Gotham’s underworld and pulls back the curtain on a police department that the criminal world has by the balls.
While the Wayne murders will always be Batman’s beginning, the show avoids reboot territory by using the origin story as a familiar narrative to ease us into an unfamiliar world and expand into dark shadows it hasn’t touched before. The narrative is also a catalyst to expose a police force and city strangled in corruption to viewers and Gordon alike.
The show also dismisses itself as a reboot by striking a balance between the comic books and the Dark Knight trilogy.
The set design looks like it came straight off the cutting room floor of Batman Begins, painting a grungy, festering sore of a city. And maybe this is a stretch, but I’d argue that Ben McKenzie vaguely resembles a young Gary Oldman as an ode to his Gordon. With a slew of cameos that haven’t been seen since George Clooney was in a nippled batsuit – including The Riddler, The Penguin and a young Poison Ivy to name a few – new characters were weaved in so as not to scare non-comic readers away.
But first impressions matter, and the pilot had its problems. While fun, cameos over-saturated the pilot to the point of bursting. Plus, the over-eccentric Penguin and The Riddler’s cheesy reveal as a GPD lab tech (a pretty funny jab at the overly-quirky lab techs in every CSI knock-off ever) presented a worry that the remaining on-the-nose campiness of new characters would turn off new viewers. Selina Kyle’s random appearances in the first episode seemed tacked on, and the whole thing feels like it should be a miniseries.
Many of these problems were eased in the second episode, with Selina Kyle’s place in the show becoming more pronounced and any cheesiness being offset by the show’s dark heart.
The show did not skimp on talent, with McKenzie presenting a believable (albeit teetering on the edge of cliche) rookie fighting against the powers that be. Those powers include Jada Pinkett Smith as the ruthless Fish Mooney, and Robin Lord Taylor is stunning as The Penguin: evolving into a bullying-molded sociopath with an unpredictable and gory angry streak.
But the children steal the show. David Mazouz is excellent as young Bruce Wayne, with the inflection of a high-born kid juxtaposed against the darkness and empathy of a grieving orphan. And Bicondova presents a look at the future feline thief that we haven’t seen before, making the character that much more believable by doing many of her own stunts.
With DC’s “Man of Steel” being an unexpected wet blanket and “Green Lantern” being well, we don’t talk about that one, there hasn’t been a solid DC film in awhile. And although Marvel has consistently successful film adaptations in every sense, DC owns the small screen.
In quality, diversity, and performance calibre, the “Gotham” pilot was worlds ahead of the “Agents of Shield” pilot. The later tried introducing a similar idea but it played out more like a whitewashed, “inside joke”-driven fan fiction from Marvel’s ego.
It’s not quite addicting yet, and we’ll see if it can get past its issues and persist past the Wayne murder case. But with “Gotham” off to a promising start, it may just prove to be the non-Batman Batman that this franchise deserves.
Catch “Gotham” Mondays at 8/7 Central on Fox