Gotham: The Waynes… And Those Other GuysOctober 3, 2014
As of this week, I have watched two episodes of Gotham, DC‘s latest attempt at opening the wallets of non-comic consumers and attracting some of that sweet, sweet casual fan money. And, to be fair, the TV strategy has worked well for them. Smallville was huge. Arrow has gained some real ground. It makes sense that they would throw some weight behind Batman, especially with the popularity of the Nolan bat-films.
I understand Gotham. I like Gotham. I’m just not quite sure what I think about Gotham.
If you listened to last week’s inaugural Fans First nerdcast, you know that my wife and I both thoroughly enjoyed the pilot. And I certainly enjoyed the second episode. The show is dark and moody, and Gotham City just looks like it should. The Nolan influences are strong in this series, but that’s a good thing. The dark, gritty atmosphere works very well with the story they’re telling, and because of this, Gotham City almost becomes a character within the show, which is exactly as it should be.
The characters themselves are all fairy well done. Donal Logue kills it as Harvey Bullock, providing as much humor as you can in light of this recent no-jokes DC era. Earlier this week, Barry and I were talking about how much Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Fish Mooney character brings to the show with her dark humor and ice-cold demeanor. And Ben McKenzie does a great job as Jim Gordon, though I currently find him to be kind of boring, something I assume will change as we move closer to the impending “war” that Penguin predicted in the pilot. Gordon’s already grown slightly more interesting by the second episode, as he tries to pretend he’s dirty, so he can clean up the city from the inside. That seems like a very Jim Gordon thing to do.
Even the side-characters, the cameos, feel right within the show. It makes sense to me that Edward Nigma would work as a forensic anthropologist, sort of like Dexter, before becoming the Riddler. I can buy that. Same with a 14-year-old street thief named Selina Kyle and a low-level thug named Oswald Cobblepot. These all make sense.
On paper, Gotham gets everything right, and as I’ve said, I am enjoying the series. Something is still nagging at the back of my mind, though. And I think what’s nagging me is what the show actually says about how little Warner Bros. and DC understands about how to successfully use their comic properties in non-comic media.
The biggest issue is that the show can’t seem to figure out its audience. I think it’s fair to say that people know Batman and most of his villains. DC, and maybe Warner Bros., however, don’t seem to believe that. I don’t know if they think the audience is stupid, or if they’re easily scared off. But, they seem to want to spell everything out for the audience. It’s why they changed the name of Pamela Isley to Ivy Pepper, so they can call her “Ivy” as she takes care of a houseplant. It’s why Bullock says the word “riddle” fifty-million times the first time we see Edward Nigma. For some reason, those involved with the show seem to feel like some of their audience members may not know who these characters are, and the writers bring the show down a bit by preaching to those few watchers on that level exclusively. That’s why we get Selina Kyle insisting she be called “Cat” in what can only be the most awkward conversation ever held by a police detective and a street thief. You can almost see the show producers in the background shouting, “SEE? SEE? DO YOU SEE? SHE’S CATWOMAN!”
The biggest offender, and the one I’m going to talk about today, is the opening death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. As with every almost every other on-screen depiction of Batman, Gotham opens with the brutal murder of the Wayne family right in front of a young Bruce Wayne’s eyes. Of course, Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock are the responding detectives, and it appears that the major story-arc of at least the first season is the hunt for the Wayne’s killer. My issue with this is that it all seems really pointless to include this scene. I’m not the first to make this criticism of origin stories, but people, I think we all know how Batman became Batman. Do we really need to see this story again?! DC and Warner Bros. appear to think we do.
Compare this to a Marvel movie, like Guardians of the Galaxy, in which only one character receives an on-screen origin story, and even that’s brief and it doesn’t really explain much. Rocket Raccoon has one of the more emotional origin stories in the movie, and it’s pretty much told through a drunken rant after a barfight. Eventually, people, even non-comic fans, are going to get tired of seeing the Wayne parents killed in Crime Alley, and unfortunately, one of the more emotional turning points in comic book history will start to bore its audiences. You would think that by 2014, DC and Warner Bros. may have figured this out, but Gotham still opens with that familiar scene. It’s like they’re so scared of losing their potential non-comic audience that they feel the need to keep the series firmly rooted in familiar territory, and in doing so, they kind of talk down to the audience.
By now, you’re probably wondering, “So what?” Well, unfortunately, in this case, I think talking down to the audience actually does damage to the ethos of the series. Before its debut, Gotham was advertised as a prequel story for all the characters in the Batman mythos, especially Jim Gordon. We knew that Bruce Wayne was going to be a character in it, but we were led to believe the spotlight would definitely shine on the other characters, such as Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman. It was fresh and original, and I was excited for it. A Batman story without Batman. I was skeptical, of course. I wondered if the show could carry its weight without the caped crusader. Well, now, I\’m not so sure it has to.
By opening the series with the murder of the Waynes, and making sure that at least the first season arc is about solving that crime, the showrunners are making an active choice to make this a series about how Bruce Wayne becomes the man that can become Batman. It’s like they don’t trust the audience to make certain connections, so they spell things out. And the real victims are the Waynes, who are shot over and over again with each new media property. And, unfortunately, this decision leaks out into other areas of the show. We lose out on a lot of time that could have been used to develop those side characters through literary devices other than clumsy dialogue. The great and wonderful cast of Gotham is reduced to occasional on-screen cameos, while the writers shine the spotlight on Master Wayne.Â We’re stuck in familiar territory, while right over the fence, a wonderful lush land of awesome and unique stories waits.
I get why they do it. They believe that by not focusing on Bruce Wayne, audience members won’t get the show. As I said earlier, they don’t understand their audience — and possibly TV audiences in general. After all, shows like Breaking Bad and Scandal are immensely popular, despite the fact that their characters were not familiar to audiences before the story started. Gotham actually has a leg up on those other shows, because people know most of these characters from the other Batman shows. Gotham could get away with a slow, methodical journey into this mythos, but the producers refuse to, and I think that decision hurts the show in the long run.
I will continue to watch Gotham, because I am enjoying it. I like the characters and the atmosphere, and I thought the second episode of the series was much better than the first. It felt more natural and organic, and it seemed like the characters were really starting to develop some chemistry together. I’m excited to see where it all goes from here. Hopefully, now that a lot of the introductions are done, the characters will have a chance to develop into something more than just cameos. Because those are the stories I want to see.
You’ve given me a great city, Gotham, a city that breaks people. Now, show me all of the ways it does.