So many people in Fresno and all over the world, this examiner included, love stories of heroes, and one of the most recognized heroes of the last 75 years is Batman. All of us know the story of the young Bruce Wayne who sees his parents shot down right in front of him in a dark ally, traumatizing him for life and motivating him to vow vengeance on all evil in the crime-ridden Gotham City. What many people may not realize is that not only is their much more to Bruce Wayne’s origins than just that, but that every single character, large or minor, hero or villain, in the Batman mythology has their own origin story as well.
Created by Bruno Heller, Gotham is the latest television incarnation of the Dark Knight’s universe and the first live-action version since the Birds of Prey television series. The premise of the show is similar to Smallville in that is takes place long before the main character ever makes his appearance as a superhero, but while Smallville was still clearly focused on Clark Kent’s development from child who lands on Earth from the planet Krypton, to teenager learning who he is, to eventually a young man embracing his true destiny, Gotham seems to be focused on exploring the origins not only of Bruce Wayne, but of the entire world of Gotham City around him. In fact, the main character of this series seems not to be the young Bruce Wayne at all, but instead one of his oldest and most valuable allies.
The first episode, appropriately titled “Pilot,” opens with a young girl named Selina Kyle (played by Camren Bicondova), jumping across the rooftops of Gotham stealing milk for a stray alley cat, as a young Bruce Wayne (played by David Mazouz) and his parents enter an alley after seeing a movie, where they are mugged by a masked gunman who then shoots the Waynes right in front of their son, as well as Selina who watched the whole thing. Called to the scene that night are Detective Harvey Bullock (played by Donal Logue) and his new partner, rookie Detective James Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie). Gordon in the only one who comforts the boy until the arrival of his family’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth (played by Sean Pertwee). Gordon reassures Bruce that he will catch the one who killed his parents, and that no matter how dark it gets, one day their will be light.
Bullock is not pleased with Gordon interviewing a witness without his consent, because he does not want to deal with the pressure to close such a high-profile case, but his superior, Captain Sarah Essen (played by Zabryna Guevara), tells Bullock to suck it up and work with this upstart rookie. The leads they gather lead them to Fish Mooney (played by Jada Pinkett Smith), an associate of Gotham businessman and alleged crime boss Carmine Falcone (played by John Doman), and while Bullock and Fish discuss business, Gordon breaks up a mob beating in progress by an upstart thug named Oswald Cobblepot (played by Robin Lord Taylor), nicknamed by his disrespecting cohorts as “Penguin.” The search for the Wayne’s killer runs cold as they follow a lead that comes up, leading to a chase that seemingly leads the death of the killer, but this may not be the case after all, but rather a framing of an innocent man. It is up to Gordon to unravel the truth, even if it may cost him and Bullock their jobs, or even their lives, in doing so.
I have a confession to make, as much of a fan of superheroes as I am, I do not usually prefer a lot of live action television versions. I think the main reason is because the limitations of producing such a show in that format are usually very obvious and often not satisfying to me. Watching the trailer for this new series, I thought the idea was interesting but I was not expecting a whole lot from it. Now, after seeing the first episode, I think the show has some promise, but it also feel that the pilot may have tried a bit too hard to satisfy up front.
We get the basic blueprints of the series here, dealing with the Wayne’s murders right away, then setting up the dynamic between Gordon and Bullock. In speaking of which, as a Batman fan, it was a treat to finally see a actual live-action representation of Harvey Bullock himself, while in previous films we have has to settle for homage characters like Lt. Eckhardt from Tim Burton’s film or Detective Flass from Batman Begins. Bullock was one of my favorite supporting characters from Batman: The Animated Series, and while this version definitely seems to lean more towards his true dirty cop roots from the comics than the animated version did, he does still register as a conflicted guy who, for the moment at least, leans more toward to corrupt side of Gotham’s law enforcement. On the other side of things is Gordon, the real star of this series, who is supposed to be the optimistic god cop, but does still come off as too hardened and stern than the Gordon I know from Year One. This Gordon seems like a soldier that now serves as a cop, one who certainly has morals, but that’s because he knows its the right thing to do than because he is a softer and more compassionate person.
The city of Gotham itself feels grimy, very urban, and more-or-less the feel I expected, but due to the limits of live action TV, there are times where it feel a bit too much like a green screen. On the flip side, there are other moments were there is clearly some location work done in New York, such as a scene near the end at the docks, and settings like that help the atmosphere a lot.
The major weakness of this pilot is that it felt like it was trying too hard to capture the long-time Batman fans upfront, which lead to a few too many character cameos and fanservice moments. As stated in the synopsis, the episode opens up with a young girl clearly meant to be Selina Kyle, jumping off roofs and feeding cats in alley, which leads her to become a witness to the deaths of Bruce’s parents, also appearing again to witness their funeral in a similar manner. That is the extension of her role here; now I have no idea what the writers have planned for the rest of the season and how this twist will inform her evolution, but at the moment it is hard not to see Selina’s appearance here as just set up and cameo material. But even then, she seems like the least of the evils as several familiar characters are plucked into this one episode, like Renee Montoya, Crispus Allen, even Edward Nygma (and yes, he is already speaking in riddles every chance he gets, even this early on). The most blatant of these cameos is the appearance of a young girl named Ivy Pepper, clearing set up for the villain Poison Ivy. This is very strange given that fans all know that her real name is Pamela Isley, so I could not understand the point of the cameo. Without spoiling anything, there is, possibly, one more cameo appearance by an early incarnation of a familiar Batman villain, but the episode wisely does not confirm whether or not it is really him; if it is, then I really hope that the writers do not go too far in developing an original origin for this character because, really, he doesn’t need one. Don’t get the wrong idea, as a Batman fan I do like seeing all of these characters pop up, but was way too many all in just a single episode.
Frankly, the only major Batman villain set up here in a way that truly fits is the Penguin. Oswald Cobblepot is introduced as this interesting, quirky, devious little rat of a character that is treated like dirt by the crime boss he works for, and we see from the moment he gets his first taste of power where his sense of greed, lust for power, and his savage temperament originate from. We even, in a clever homage to past incarnations, get a credible excuse to show off the Penguin waddle. The last scene of the episode already sees him take his first major step in climbing the ladder to the underworld kingpin he is meant to be, and it will be interesting if that is the arc they have intended for him this season.
I am surprised at how little I have to say here. For the pilot to a brand new live-action Batman show (even if Batman is only a traumatized young boy at this stage), the premiere feels like it was made with passion, but not enough inspiration. I do appreciate the mature tone and atmosphere that it goes for, hence the TV-14 rating, but I will have to wait and see if further episodes will continue to improve from here.
Like with any show, Gotham is driven by a mostly solid cast. Ben McKenzie, having already voiced Batman himself in the animated film Batman: Year One, brings that same sort of toughness and edge to the young James Gordon, and while I get that it makes the character feel strong and authoritative and he really does feel like a good guy at heart, I still think that McKenzie’s acting, aided by his rugged visage, makes the character harder and gruffer than he ought to be, even at this phase in his life. On the other hand, Donal Logue steals the show several times as Harvey Bullock, capturing the character’s age, experience, selfishness, inner conflict, and of course his inner scumbag mixed with comedic relief that made him an enduring figure in the Batman mythos. David Mazouz only gets so much to do here as Bruce Wayne, but he is already working hard to bring intensity to the role of this lost, disillusioned young man. Zabryna Guevara appears as Sarah Essen, and she does not have whole lot to do in this first episode, but given her role in the Year One comic, I do look forward to seeing how her character grows in further episodes. One of the most surprising performances is Sean Pertwee as Alfred Pennyworth, barely seen in this first episode but already rejecting the traditional prim and proper father figure we are used to in favor of a comparatively more thuggish, over-protective who seems more prone to violence himself is someone were to try to harm Bruce – somewhat reminding me of Alfred’s portrayal in the short-lived animated series Beware the Batman. Robin Lord Taylor appears as Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. the Penguin, whom he plays as a sniveling outcast who gets and taste of power after what has likely been a lifetime of being put down, and will now indulge himself in the brutality he has discovered to gain control, a very credible beginning for this character. Erin Richards appears as Barbara Kean, Gordon’s fiance; not a whole lot to say about her, but I like her honesty, commitment, and how she stands out as a light of goodness in this dank, hopeless world of Gotham City. Jada Pinkett Smith appears as original character Fish Mooney, and she plays this role with authority, danger, and seriousness, you have no doubt why so many men fears this character upon seeing her performance. Other performances in this episode include Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle, Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma, John Doman plays Carmine Falcone, Richard Kind as Mayor Aubrey James, Victoria Cartagena as Renee Montoya, Andrew Stewart-Jones as Crispus Allen, Drew Powell as Butch Gilzean, and Clare Foley is cast as Ivy Pepper.
Overall, Gotham is a show that holds a lot of promise, but I think has some ways to go in forming it’s identity. It get much of the atmosphere of the Batman world right, introduces a lot of possible story threads, and is not afraid to try new and different approaches to familiar and established mythology. But the amount of fanservice and character cameos feels too many and too intrusive for only a pilot episode and the main character does not come across and compassionate as the script wants him to. I can see a lot of fans and non-fans enjoying it, and I do hope for the best, but given the nature of the concept, I do hope that the show does not drag on for too long and go thorough too much of the character’s mythology before even ever seeing him in the suit, like what happened with Smallville. Those who love Batman and are looking for something a little different should check the show out!