With a second season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D about to air in the UK and a whole host of comic-book television adaptations reportedly in the making (Daredevil, Constantine, X-Men, and more), the newest interpretation of the Batman mythology on the small screen might be seen as a sort of acid test for comic-adaptations’ infiltration of mainstream TV.
That imminent infiltration of the medium of course follows the genre’s domination of big-budget cinema in the last decade. Whether it’s something in general to be excited about or not is a matter of taste and a matter for debate.
I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with TV comic-book adaptations, having generally preferred the animated shows to the live-action entities. I’ve at no point been particularly excited about the various recent announcements of comic-book TV properties being developed, Gotham included.
It took me a while to get into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but now I’m happy enough to have another season of it. With Gotham, I paid very little attention to the flood of build-up, rumours and spoilers in the months ahead of its UK premiere last night. So I watched with no pre-knowledge or expectation; but aside from a love of the Batman/Gotham mythology in general, the other thing that compelled me to note the date and time of Gotham’s premiere was learning that Bruno Heller was the series creator – Heller was one of the key creative forces behind what I consider the very best television series of the last twenty years, specifically HBO’s short-lived Rome series (still ridiculously under-watched, despite its brilliance).
Those two factors aligned to create an uncommon condition – me being interested enough in the premiere of a new TV series to actually sit down and watch it.
What I saw, questionable though it was in places, was pretty good and has me interested in seeing where this series goes. One does wonder, however, if those involved in the development of other comic-book-to-television properties are watching something like Gotham closely to see what’s working and what isn’t and to see how viewers are responding.
In this much-hyped pilot we are introduced to a Batman mythology that is immediately familiar to us on some levels (character names and references) and not so familiar to us on others. When we open with the famous, legendary scene of Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot in a dark alley, we’re immediately in familiar territory; and when we glimpse in the shadows a young and limber woman who we immediately take to be the young Selena Kyle, we know that we’re seeing something that isn’t divorced from the established mythology we’re familiar with even if there’s room for reinterpretation.
In tone it follows the gritty crime drama formula that’s pretty much in-vogue; I could take or leave that style of police-based drama with its scowls, clenched jaws, fist fights and good cop/bad cop routines. The fact is I wouldn’t have been watching but for the Batman/comic-book connection in the first place. But from the outset a show like this needs to find a balance between appealing to a mass audience and also paying dues to its source material and genre-specific audience. The show’s opening episode sees the writers trying to perform this delicate balancing act throughout; in my opinion fairly effectively.
This is a prequel series, set at a point in time where Bruce Wayne is still a child. Whether that means ‘Batman’ in proper form will never appear in this show or whether the series will build to that transformation over time (or whether we end up in a flash-forward situation where we see some future Caped Crusading somehow while the main narrative remains in the past maybe?), is at present unclear.
The question some are asking is whether an entire series without Batman-proper appearing will be able to sustain itself and hold people’s attention. Personally I think it could and probably will.
We’ve had plenty of depictions of Batman in various mediums (it’s recently been announced, for that matter, that the classic Batman: Animated Series of the nineties might be returning), but a live-action prequel-type series is something new and interesting with plenty of room for exploration and growth. Just from this one episode alone, the potential is visible. It would have to keep going beyond the mere ‘gritty crime drama’ thing and remain linked to the comic-book mythology; but it’s already managed that juxtaposition in the first hour. This feels like something new and worthwhile, and moreover like something that can grow and build substantially. Speaking as someone who doesn’t do much TV drama (seriously, I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad, The Wire, or whatever else people keep telling me to watch; I’ve had Game of Thrones on DVD for two years and I still haven’t unwrapped the plastic), Gotham seems like something I could easily and comfortably get into.
As said earlier, a lot of the episode falls into the standard gritty police drama cliche, but there are a few key things I liked straight-off about the Gotham pilot. I like that this is set up at the moment as a Commissioner Gordon origins story primarily. But at the same time, having the show littered with young versions of future staples of the Gotham Rogues Gallery makes it on one level feel like a multiple ‘Origins’ type story; we see the future Penguin most prominently of all, the young Catwoman, as well as the future Riddler, Scarecrow and Poison Ivy (and anyone else I might’ve missed). Albeit with revisions in detail here and there, which is to be expected of comic-book adaptations. It was all of these little hints and moments that appealed to me the most, I have to admit.
I’m not sure why the Penguin is the villain chosen for the most prominence here, but it works well enough (it may help that I’ve recently been re-watching Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and falling in love with it all over again). In particular that final transformative process (facilitated by Gordon’s last-second act of mercy) is appropriately dramatic. Robin Lord Taylor takes on the famous role of Oswald Cobblepot well enough; camp, yes, but enjoyably camp rather than annoyingly. What would be particularly interesting for this series to do is to work in those origins stories for these characters over time and to make them something fascinating; given what we saw with the young Penguin-in-the-making in this episode (and given what little I have glimpsed of future episode titles), that seems likely and it’s something that would probably keep someone like me watching.
In terms of this series being (probably) not a Batman-centered series – hence the title – I’ve never had any problem with that in the way some fans have. Gotham City has always seemed a rich, fascinating world to explore even without the Dark Knight himself being central; and getting a sense of the city prior to the advent of Batman seems like something that could add new dimensions to the Batman/Gotham mythology… depending, of course, on how well it’s written. Bruno Heller has a strong track record, however. Getting back to Catwoman, Camren Bicondova’s young Selena Kyle is an intriguing, albeit silent, presence in the episode. Having her there in the background from the very first scene and right through the episode is a really effective idea.
I’m not sure what I like so much about that; whether it’s the emotive and symbolic linking of the child Bruce Wayne and child Selena Kyle in this wordless, almost spiritual manner, or whether it’s the fact that the future Catwoman being this silent, shadowy figure in the background feels very comic-book-like in its conception.
Thinking about it, had we not seen the Waynes and the child Catwoman as early in the episode as we did, I’m not sure I would’ve been sucked in like I was; so those opening sequences were probably a clever move.
While the show’s premise could be said to impose limitations on what’s possible (no grown-up Batman, etc, and none of the Batman paraphernalia), it still leaves a substantial arena of storytelling possibilities, of which we’ve already had some in just the first episode alone. In particular I’m interested to see where the writers go with the young Selena Kyle; if the pilot is anything to go by, she’s going to be a major presence. Ben McKenzie holds his screen time well enough as Gordon, though Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) is the main thing wrong with the first episode; just a terrible character with no likeability taking up too much screen time.
On the whole though this was about as good a start as could’ve been hoped for. I have no qualms with the premise and there’s certainly enough quality in this first hour to suggest better to come.