We all love a superhero. Blockbuster releases from Marvel have dominated the box office once again this year and that same studio is currently duking it out with DC for supremacy on the small screen with the likes if Arrow, The Flash, Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Constantine inundating our TV sets.
The question is: with so many superhero spinoffs available, how does a new show make itself stand out from the pack? Gotham, Channel 5’s latest American import, has the ingenious solution of simply doing away with the superhero altogether.
Many have questioned whether a show that is inspired by the Bat-mythology can survive without the caped crusader, but it is actually Gotham’s main strength because it sets the show apart from any past and future movie adaptations by focusing on the direct aftermath of the murder of Martha and Thomas Wayne – something which has never been explored on screen before.
In the absence of the Dark Knight himself, Gotham concerns itself with detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), who will one day become Batman’s closest ally in the GCPD. For now, though, he’s just an idealistic young cop who arrives in Gotham with the intention of saving the city from the grip of a ruthless crime syndicate. His ambitions are soon put in check, however, when he is partnered with Donal Logue’s Harvey Bullock, an ethically compromised senior detective who introduces Gordon to the seedy inner workings of a city run by violence and corruption.
We are also introduced to a plethora of Gotham’s most notorious villains in this episode as showrunner Bruno Heller spends far too much time trying to appease fanboys with nudge-wink references to the DC-universe rather than setting up his main characters.
The people who will become The Riddler, Catwoman and Poison Ivy are glimpsed throughout the pilot, but there characters are never expanded upon making their inclusion here somewhat redundant.
With little time to fully establish his main players, Heller often falls back on tired clichés to bring his characters to life. Take the show’s original creation, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a colourful mobster who runs a sleazy strip club and is introduced growling, “Where’s my money?” to a bloodied employee who stole from her; it’s a scene straight out of the gangster-movie playbook, and it undermines the show’s ambition to be something boldly genre-defining.
But these sorts of problems are to be expected of a pilot episode in which the show is still trying to find the right balance between honouring its comic book heritage and establishing itself as an inventive crime thriller. And it still has more positives than negatives.
For one thing, the production design and cinematography are simply gorgeous. Ever since Christopher Nolan took over the movie franchise, camp has been jettisoned from the Batman style guide, and Gotham continues this grim tradition, channelling Blade Runner in its neon-noir depiction of Gotham City, while director Danny Cannon makes every shot appear as though it has been ripped straight from the panels of a comic book.
It’s also perfectly cast across the board, with Robin Taylor Lord a particular standout as Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, a snivelling police informant with an explosive violent streak who has grand ambitions of being more than Mooney’s sycophantic henchman.
Ben McKenzie, too, is excellent as a young Jim Gordon. A good man determined to stay on the right side of the law and see justice is upheld, there were fears that Gotham’s Gordon would be too clean cut to be a compelling hero; but McKenzie brings the same edgy charisma that he brought to Ben Sherman in Southland, giving his Gordon that added layer of complexity that makes a more than suitable substitute for the Dark Knight.
By far the most interesting thing about Gotham, though, is the way it plays with the notions of right and wrong. Batman stories have always dealt with moral shades of grey, and Gotham is no different with Gordon’s decision to fake Oswald’s death suggesting that the show will explore how much the young detective will have to compromise his values in order to survive, and in the process do some good, in a broken city.
The plot may not be overly original or genre defining, and Heller has yet to firmly decide on the show’s tone, but there’s a lot of potential in a series that could reinvent the superhero spinoff for the modern TV era. Until then, there’s more than enough working here to keep me watching for a few more weeks at least.
Click here to watch the trailer for Gotham