The Gotham Problem: Who Cares Where Superheroes Come From?
The origin story for Batman isn't so interesting. The origin story for his city, on the other hand ...
A lot of us have been enjoying Batman, in his many formats (comics, film, television), for our entire lives. Quick question for fans: Did you ever wonder what Batman's schoolboy days were like? Well, never fear, Gotham is here to show us, using as many stereotypes as possible. Patton Oswalt had a famous stand-up rant about the Star Wars prequels, centered on the line "I don't give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!" That line came to mind as I watched little Bruce Wayne get shoved around by bullies at his private school in this week's episode of the Fox show.
David Mazouz, the young actor playing Wayne, is actually pretty decent. His character comes off like a relatively normal, too-smart-for-his-own-good kid with a touch of mournful darkness that we know will eventually spread. I've always loved Sean Pertwee and he makes a wonderfully flinty Alfred—"I hope you broke his bastard teeth in," he says to Bruce regarding a school bully. But still, Bruce Wayne is the best example of one of Gotham's core problems: It's a prequel to something bigger.
When Bruce gets shoved around by bullies who are, I guess, mocking him because his parents are dead (jeez), are we supposed to take this as part of the germination of his life as Batman? At the end of the episode, sick of being tormented, Bruce asks Alfred if he can teach him how to fight. "Yes I can," Alfred replies with a solemn grin. "Oh boy!" I assume the audience is supposed to say. "This is the beginning of Batman learning how to fight!" That's cute and all, but how does it serve Gotham as a television show to wink at something it'll never be allowed to get to? Showrunner Bruno Heller has been pretty firm that Gotham will be all pre-Batman, which I generally can accept, apart from the Bruce Wayne material. I'm happy to give Gotham a little more time to show me how it plans to integrate Bruce into its ongoing plots, but right now I'm not that impressed.
The latest crime of the week centered around a masked fight club being run in Gotham's financial district, and it was about as silly as it sounds. Though—apologies for the geek-out—it was quite bracing to see Ben McKenzie (who plays Jim Gordon) back in those circumstances. Remember the fourth season of The O.C., where he played Ryan Atwood, beginning with Ryan in a cage-fighting ring? Both shows made the decision to lean on this clunky metaphor as an example of the darkness within their protagonists. On Gotham, it came off a little smoother, probably because it's not a teen soap opera set in suburban California.
The fight-club plot was forgettable—cheesy in the right way, otherwise a case easily solved—but I was encouraged by the progress in Gordon and Bullock's relationship as partners. No longer are they antagonists representing two sides of the GCPD coin (eager and angelic vs. lazy and corrupt). Gordon is finally seeing the need to bend some rules to achieve success within a broken system, and Bullock has realized staying in bed with the mob isn't an effective long-term strategy. I'm invested in the overarching tale of them trying to root out Gotham's darkest corruption while ignoring, or even working with, the fringe criminal element. That's a good way for the show to use Catwoman and any other friendly characters it wants to dig out of the DC Comics database.
The brewing mob war between the Penguin and Fish Mooney remains the show's most interesting running storyline, largely because Jada Pinkett Smith and Robin Lord Taylor are gleefully sinking their teeth into the material. Dons Falcone and Maroni are stodgy old guys in suits; Penguin and Fish are a couple of loonies who represent the city's descent from old-school racketeering to something stranger. At one point in the episode, the commissioner highlights the death of Bruce Wayne's parents as a turning point toward a more insane brand of crime, with serial-killer balloonmen and whatnot. If that kind of craziness is what Gotham is going to do more and more of, then, great. It's not so much an origin story for Batman, but for the city in general; we're watching it turn into the playground of costumed villains and outsized lunatics like the Penguin. That's a development audiences have never seen portrayed before, and that's how Gotham can distinguish itself as a property in the Batman universe.