DC isn’t Marvel. Their every foray into film and TV isn’t necessarily part of a cohesive master plan to slowly turn cinema back into an serialized medium. It’s interesting to me that the orb and sceptre of Disney’s corporate holdings – namely Marvel and Lucasfilm – are both houses that made a name for themselves by actively championing the sequential and the interconnected. The most famous of Lucas’s output was deliberately in the style of the old Saturday matinee serials and Marvel’s USP in the comics market was, for a long time, that all of their properties took place in a cohesive universe; they were anchored in the ‘real’ world.
Now DC had, of course, consolidated its major players long ago but it still had an extremely muddied continuity that was littered with vestigial characters and titles sitting in the barn doing nothing. They’d tried to fix this before in the 60’s by introducing the idea of Earth-2 (inhabited by the Golden-age versions of the existing DC line-up) but that proved to be only a bucket under a leak, when what was really needed was all new plumbing. Seeing how Marvel’s readers responded to the joys of a more holistic approach to their comic-book worlds, DC sought to fix about 45 years of continuity with the universe busting, sense-defying, 10 issue event title Crisis on Infinite Earths. The tactic worked so well that they’ve kind of been doing it ever since. Every few years, they shake the Etch A Sketch on whatever crap they’ve been up to recently so Supes, Bats, Diana and the gang can all go back to doing what they do best (namely being big, archetypical Gods) rather than the collection of outsiders, loners and developmental allegories favored by Marvel.
However, the other ace up DC’s sleeve was that they got all post-modern. Noting that their star-players had reached that level of iconic status (these were characters that had been used as propaganda during wartime!) they realised what they had. These characters transcended the parameters that editorial control set and they were now open to reinterpretation, exploration and development that didn’t have to come under the tyrannical umbrella of ‘continuity’. These were now latter-day fables, whose lore was there to be twisted by whatever storytellers fancied the challenge and it was this gamble that gave us The Dark Knight Returns and all that would follow it.
However it may surprise you to know I don’t actually relish the prospect of the impending meeting of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. I would rather they didn’t try and play Marvel’s game and, instead, just gave us well-realised visions of these characters on their own merits, within their own paradigms. Attempting to emulate Marvel’s cross-platform success has given us the new TV series of The Flash as a parallel narrative to Arrow and (in my opinion) to the detriment of the Scarlet Speedster. I imagine I’m in the minority here.
Gotham, on the other hand, is a rather different story – not least because it seems to have several of those to offer from the get go. Though it’s two points behind The Flash on Metacritic, I think Gotham’s the show with real potential. This is, I think, what interesting comic-book TV looks like as it has something that The Flash seems to have ignored, i.e. artistically led atmosphere and world building. Now In that respect, Gotham city will always have the home team advantage, as it is (I think it fair to say) the most well developed and explored of DC’s fictional worlds. Since the 70’s, the look, geography and socio-political fabric of Gotham has become a fecund area for DC’s finest creatives. It is the mark of a good Batman writer or artist if they can make Gotham come to life and let us walk a mile in the shoes of its citizens. Further to that, the show is already standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to visual realisations of the city and manages a relatively subtle blend of sensibilities. It takes the more street-level elements of Nolan’s urban realism and blends them with the more nightmarish, gothic/deco fusion of Anton Furst for example.
So I won’t bang on too much about the look of the show. What I will say is that I think it’s a minor triumph to have what is essentially a mainstream police-procedural shifted a notch or two into the realms of the faintly expressionistic. Some of the directorial flair, the composite shots of Gotham’s city-scape and the use of lighting (if a tad garish at times) helps to just gently move us out of the realms of the mundane and the everyday. The upshot of this is that it ensures that the dynamic, the melodramatic, the gruesome and the gritty all sing-out together in harmony. Further to this, the incidental music is enjoyable, well employed, and supplied by Graeme Revell – a composer with an impressively genre-bent (if spotted) history. This is certainly some his strongest work, especially what I perceive to be The Penguin’s signature cue. It’s a simple little thing but just that bit of lite-motif among all the dread and stings can really put the icing on the visuals when you come to recall them later.
In fact, The Penguin is good place to start when examining what I dig about this show. Similar to the treatment of Sylar in those heady days of Heroes season 1 (back when there was still hope), we follow The Penguin, young Oswald Cobblepot, as he begins a slow, murderous, manipulative climb to the top. It’s a character trajectory that reminds me of Steerpike in Gormenghast. Here we have a contorted, ostracised and sociopathic young man attempting to rewrite his own destiny in a crumbling city state with entrenched hierarchies and a plethora of egos to be massaged to sleep before a razor can find their throat. It’s a parallel that is made all the more explicit by the fact that, after a fall from grace, the bottom rung of his journey is, like Steerpike, that of a kitchen boy
However, The Penguin is an emergent thread in what begins a the story of young Jim Gordon and I think it’s here that the show’s detractors find a foothold. The spine of most episodes thus far has been, essentially, that of a two-hander between Gordon and his impossibly salty partner Harvey Bullock. This rather tried and tested dichotomy; the straight laced idealist and the weary cynic reads as cliché to many a potential audience member. To be fair, it’s hard not to snort a little when you see a man in a leather jacket and hat at a crime scene – coffee in hand – pointing at his partner and actually saying the words,
“You’re a loose canon!”
It feel like that’s the sort of thing that must be written on the walls of writer’s rooms with a Ghostbusters-style ‘NO’ symbol running through it. Surely you’e not allowed to still write that? Funnily enough though, I don’t see it as a problem – in fact I think it’s very deliberate. We’re in a heightened world. Yes there’s gritty violence but there are also visual and stylistic cues to let you know that we’re not playing with a full deck of realism. Here there is knowing use of genre conventions flying about all over the place and, personally, I love it.
Though, of course, some winks at the camera are more brazen and more groan-inducing than others. The use of Edward Nigma has, up till now, been mostly an exercise in filling that weeks ‘Foreshadowing-Quota’ and him brandishing a question mark coffee mug is tantamount to outright piss-take. However, something of his interior life and his loneliness has begun to shine through recently and I look forward to him being given time to grow. At present, his characterisation is precariously similar to that of The Penguin’s (lots of obsequious toadying, bird-like staccato movements, near constant psycho-smile etc.) and it would be nice if we’re given a chance to follow him for a day somewhere down the line.
Alfred though is coming along very nicely. It’s possibly because we don’t see that much of him per-episode so when he’s on, there’s usually only a couple of key beats to hit that can be really nailed down. Sean Pertwee’s Alfred is a good example of this trend in comic-book adaptations (and within genre fiction in general) of reinventing traditionally patrician or avuncular characters as being ‘a little bit tasty, a bit of bruiser…know what I mean son?’ It’s certainly a relatively fresh take. Michael Caine’s Alfred had a hinted at military past and was less RP than previous incarnations but he we was still, at his core, the composed English country gentleman. This Alfred, by contrast, seems still to be attempting to discover what it means to be a butler at all, let alone surrogate father to young master Bruce (played dead straight by David Mazouz). It’s truly enjoyable to watch this relationship develop because of all of the relationships in the show, this is probably the most essential to the Batman mythology. This is most likely why it is fed slowly to us each week as three-act vignettes that are largely separate from the narrative proper. This is Gotham’s redemption growing slowly in the wings, one careful lesson or act of trust at a time.
My only worry with Gotham is actually its sustainability. Not in terms of the world itself as there is so much you can do, so many stories you could potentially tell and the range of characters already on the board (Fish Moony, Falcone, Boss Maroni) means that you’d have to have pretty lazy writers to screw that up. No my concern is that its audience are going to impose upon the show what I’d call The Smallville Problem. Sooner or later, everyone is going to start getting itchy to see some cape action. Now obviously this show CANNOT deliver that (unless it ends up having a truly unprecedented run or jumps ahead in time) and so I worry that what this show has in it to do and the stories it can tell will be struck down before its time out of audience impatience for something that they really shouldn’t be hoping for in the first place. Gotham could be the show we deserve, as long we’re prepared for it to be not always quite what we need right now.