Why 'Gotham' Is The Superhero Origin That We Need Right Now
Gotham, the FOX show about a young Bruce Wayne and your Distant Uncle Commissioner Gordon, is not a good show.
Half of the characters have the emotional arcs of a broken Slinky, rarely making it to the intended destination in the right way and mostly just tumbling on their sides down the stairs. The other characters aren't given destinations, and so they can only explosively twiddle their thumbs, acting out of character and biding their time until Bruce Wayne is allowed to put the bat ears on.
The plots and tone are neither gritty nor cartoonish, and while this would usually imply that it has reached some happy medium, like the classic Batman: The Animated Series or the Arkham games did, it actually means that Gotham operates by more of a barroom dartboard system. The stories might require some degree of sadness or momentum or even the basic application of logic, but whether it has those things or not depends on drunken aim and a lot of luck. The majority of the time, though, that dart goes whizzing past the board, nearly striking a waitress in the head and leaving you in a state of "What did I do, and why did this ever happen?"
Gotham seems to have erupted from an alternate dimension where it is the only real form of Batman. Yes, that dimension had heard of things relating to this "bat-man," but it had never gotten to experience a full Batman comic or TV show or movie. And so, relying totally on rumors and things written about Batman on the insides of bathroom stalls, it went to work crafting a whole Batman universe which someone would want to see. And then, barreling through a rip in spacetime, it flung itself into our world, a world where we sort of already know how Batman goes.
And that's why I love Gotham. I love that there is a superhero show in 2017 which, 70 episodes in, is still trying to figure out what the fuck it is.
Usually, a show is at its most insufferable when it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Hell, most things are insufferable when they're at that stage. I know this because I've been alive for a while. There was no one in the world worse than 2009 Wears Aviator Sunglasses Everywhere Daniel or 2004 Talks In A Scottish Accent Daniel or 2013 Wants To Write A Novella Daniel. For a more widely acceptable example, check out the first season of a show like Parks And Recreation. Watch it splatter all over itself as it tries to figure out whether it wants to be The Office With Trees or not.
Superhero movies and TV shows in 2017 rarely have this problem. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is based entirely around the idea of knowing exactly what it wants to be. They've mastered solo superhero movies to the extent that they feel comfortable mixing them all together as ingredients in the big delicious Marvel cake. And I eat this Marvel cake multiple times a year. I stand in line at the movie theater and demand "Oooh, give me a slice that has the Hulk's face on it."
And if these movies are becoming so similar to one another that they're unwatchable, I certainly haven't gotten the memo. Yeah, they have the same vibe, but I'm still thrilled by them. The same cannot be said for the Marvel Netflix series, though. When Daredevil premiered in early 2015, it was refreshing in the same way that you'll probably enjoy a Coke if you have it a little while after a Sprite. The Marvel films were fun, and now I was getting a new flavor of fun, a flavor that was more street-level, gritty, and apparently filled with endless waves of ninjas.
The Marvel Netflix shows display both the best and the worst aspects of the "Darkness and realism make something inherently more important" line of thinking. On one hand, you get things like the deep characterization of Jessica Jones, or the idiosyncrasy of the Kingpin. Can you imagine a weird, intense performance like Vincent D'Onofrio as Kingpin in a giant Marvel movie? I'd like to, but I can't. MCU villains tend to be created out of booming declarations of evil and intense shockwave-y powers. Kingpin, on the other hand, is really sad about his wife and throws huge baby tantrums when he gets the slightest bit ticked off. There's nothing cool or action-figure-ready about him, and I adore him.
You also get invigorating fight scenes that the other movies of the MCU (and most of the superhero genre in general) have yet to top. It's hard-hitting stuff that seems to have been ripped from an Indonesian or South Korean action film. Daredevil and Punisher and Luke Cage are pounding bad guys until they look more lasagna than man. You don't see that a lot in the energy-beam-filled world of the MCU. The fights in the Netflix series have urgency and stakes. The fights in the Avengers films are placeholders until the big world-ending device shuts down or explodes.
However, because their ultimate goal isn't to build these characters up until they're ready to show up in movies, but to provide a definite alternative to the movies, they've boxed themselves in with "realism." Sure, Iron Fist has a magic hand and his show talks about immortality, but the most outrageous foe he can take down is a jacket-wearing guy in a dim alley. The Defenders brings up an immense dragon skeleton, but the climax is based around preventing damage to building foundations. A huge section of Luke Cage deals with anti-Luke-Cage bullets. You have a story about a wonderful man who can't be damaged, and you make the plot about niche ammunition manufacturing?
It's this kind of adherence to the comic book definition of "realism" and playing the safe hand when it comes to TV budgets that's frustrating. It reminds me of the Christopher Nolan Batman films. They were awesome, but every single one of those still ended with some variation of "We must turn the people of Gotham against one another." I think having each of the Defenders' main struggles be against internal demons is a great idea, but increasing the number of flesh-and-blood demons wouldn't be so bad either. Otherwise, we're going to get, well, even more ninjas. Overall, as origin stories, they are locked in place, and strangled by the things that were initially supposed to set them apart.
DC on television seems to have itself mostly figured out as well. Shows like Arrow and The Flash have set themselves up as able to jump between the silly and the serious with ease. So Gotham is sort of an outlier. The closest thing it resembles is Smallville, another show which knew it wanted to be a teenage drama BUT ALSO knew it wanted to be a grand Superman story, complete with body switches and alien invasions and mutant infestations. It never quite got its sense of balance either. It was a show that dreamed of being Superman's extended origin story, but it was stuck in the trappings of Sabrina The Teenage Witch.
But the beauty of Smallville didn't lie in it being accurate to any comic book or having a consistent tone, but in the newness of it. There was a constant feeling that you weren't watching a superhero show that was created by diehard superhero fans. There was this pervasive wondering whether characters who were important to you would be important to the show's writers. There was this idea that something was truly starting over, and you were getting to experience all of the growing pains that come with that.
99 percent of superhero reboots aren't reboots; they're simply retellings of a classic origin with some stuff changed around. Daredevil knows that Kingpin and Foggy Nelson and Elektra are important to the comics, and so it gives them to us. Smallville showed no such understanding, and assumed that we'd be just as interested in Lex Luthor's weird dad as we were in Lex Luthor. The main character in Gotham is the Penguin. That's like hearing that someone wants a pizza and delivering them a fresh bag of chopped mushrooms. It makes sense, but only if they're basing the importance of their characters on who they pick first out of a hat. In other Batman media, Penguin is a sixth-round draft pick. In Gotham, he is MVP every time he gets off the bench.
I said a lot of negative things about Gotham at the beginning of this column, but I don't want you to think that I watch Gotham like I watch The Room, with a kind of ironic "I love it 'cause it's sooo bad" affection. I think the Penguin and the Riddler in that show are the most enjoyable they've been in over 20 years. And any show that puts a spotlight on Harvey Bullock is alright by me. Also, the main appeal of Gotham isn't in Bruce Wayne's story, but in watching the villains interact. Most superhero movies place their villains in a line, and when Two-Face clocks out, Mr. Freeze clocks in. Half of every Gotham episode is devoted to the Arkham Asylum High School Ten-Year Reunion.
But most of all, I like it because I have no idea where it's heading. On one hand, this can annoy me in a "IT'S PRONOUNCED ANIM-AY, NOT ANIM-EE, DAD!" way. But on the other, it makes me glad that I'm not watching a show that has its shit together. I know I won't be seeing a paint-by-numbers Batman story; I'll be watching a Batman story where the third villain who's introduced after Penguin and Catwoman is a guy who ties balloons to people and floats them away. Gotham did not start with a Joker or a Ra's al Ghul, but with a Balloonman. And I think that's the ridiculous TV superhero origin story that we need right now.
Daniel has a Twitter, where he mostly talks about Batman. Sorry about that.
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