“Gotham” Gets It Right
Five of the top ten highest grossing films of 2014 starred superheroes. Release dates for more crime fighting epics continue to come out of the woodwork, effectively rendering any comic book nerd senseless with anticipation. With so much superhero noise, it can be easy to tune it out altogether. But then you might miss out on Fox’s new series, Gotham, which would be a mistake.
Given the roaring success at the box office, it’s not surprising that Warner Brothers and Marvel Studios are beginning to turn their gaze towards the small screen. Marvel is dipping their toes in the water with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., while Warner Bros. is diving in head first with Arrow, The Flash, the newly announced Supergirl¸ and of course, Gotham. Granted, the superhero angle isn’t completely unexplored. CW had Smallville (2001-2011), NBC rocked out with Heroes (2006-2010), SyFy showed some love with Alphas (2011-2012), but there’s no denying that the superhero wave is hitting the television landscape in force, just like it is at theaters. Even in the midst of all of these origin stories and special effect extravaganzas, Gotham stands out through its unique approach, rich story, and soulful execution.
Set in Gotham years before the first appearance of Batman, the show focuses on the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the city that will eventually forge Bruce Wayne into the Dark Knight. It primarily follows Detective James Gordon, who is just starting out on the GCPD and is among the few—if not the sole— honest officers in the entire department. Gordon is destined to become Commissioner Gordon, friend and important ally to Batman, but he’s just a rookie in this series and there are no caped crusaders coming to his rescue. That’s what makes Gotham so unique. It’s a superhero story, but without a superhero. While that may seem like a recipe for failure, it’s actually a stroke of genius. Bruce Wayne is present in some episodes and we check in with him from time to time, but he’s by no means central to the plot line.
I’ve watched the aforementioned shows that feature other comic book characters fighting crime and there have been moments in all of them where I cringed in my seat. With a movie, they get a big budget dedicated to two hours of visual bliss, so it’s possible to construct a world where we suspend our disbelief and allow superheroes to do their super stuff. The effects are well done and the stories don’t get tired inside of 120 minutes. However, when you try and stretch that to 45 minute episodes every week, with a smaller budget, you’ll probably hit a few bumps in the road. Questionable displays of physics, exhausting sub-plots to distract from the lack of action… Wouldn’t The Flash just use his Super Speed to solve this problem? Oh, you already used up the Super Speed visual effects budget this episode? Maybe a supporting character can solve the problem instead. Lovely.
With Gotham, the crux of the show isn’t a superpower gimmick. It’s the city itself. Out of all the superhero dwellings, developers wisely chose the one that is compelling enough to stand on its own and is densely populated with colorful characters. We’re not even through the first season and we’ve already had glimpses at the early lives of well-known villains like The Penguin, The Riddler, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Two-Face. There are warring mob families, each with their own internal seeds of rebellion trying to usurp the leaders, creating a delightfully complex web of alliances and betrayals. Corrupt government officials, love triangles, bone chilling assassins, officers that want to be honorable, but fear for their safety… All of them cast beautifully.
Benjamin McKenzie brings the perfect boy scout/badass vibe to the role of Gordon. It must’ve been all that experience playing a patrolman on Southland (2009-2013) that makes him so believable as a cop. Some of the best scenes with McKenzie are with his partner, Detective Bullock, played brilliantly by Donal Logue. Bullock could carry a show by himself. He’s corrupt, sure, but not evil. He’s just been in the depths of Gotham for too long and hasn’t had a figure like Gordon to rally behind. Gordon gets a much needed reality check from time to time by his comical, yet intimidating partner.
Jada Pinkett Smith demands attention in every scene. She plays Fish, an underboss in the Falcone family who is intent on climbing the corporate ladder, no matter how many bodies pile up at the bottom. There are also some mesmerizing performances from relatively unknown actors. Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin) is played by Robin Lord Taylor, who gives the character a chilling charm that makes you feel pity for him one moment and recoil in fear from him the next. Anthony Carrigan plays serial killer for hire Victor Zsasz, and his performance is so memorable that it’s hard to believe he’s only been in two episodes. Fox even managed to track down some talented child actors for the parts of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman), played by David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova, respectively. Sometimes it can be painful to watch kids read their lines, but these two blend right into the story, thankfully.
In addition to a solid cast, the production design is also spot on. It’s set in some undetermined year in the past, which results in no smartphones, no laptops, and cars that seem to be from the ‘80s or earlier. This makes for some actual police work instead of using touch screen technology to enhance some frozen frame of a security feed. It’s much more entertaining to watch Gordon and Bullock bully informants and do legwork than to have some tech guru shout out answers from behind a computer monitor. They still use filing cabinets in Gotham! No wonder so many people get sent to an insane asylum.
Since the show is filmed in New York City, it allows for some stunning backdrops that give scenes an authentic feel. The establishing shots of the camera soaring through the beautiful, but sometimes broken city set the perfect tone for a Gotham that is teetering on the edge of being overrun by evil. The alley where Bruce’s parents are killed is a real location near Chinatown, but it could have been lifted straight from the pages of the comics. Whether it’s an interrogation under a bridge, a fist fight in the GCPD station, or a lounge singer performing in a club, each scene is unmistakably Gotham.
Batman as a franchise isn’t exactly frontier territory, considering he first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939. There have been 10 live action films over the years, as many cartoon series, and a wealth of animated feature length films. Still, this is Batman’s world as we have never seen it before. The writers should be applauded for visiting the same well that’s been tapped for years and coming up with something fresh. Fans of the movies, cartoons, and comics will love the Easter eggs, but new viewers can jump on board and discover who characters are as they find out for themselves.
Gotham airs Monday nights on Fox, 8/7C.