For seventy-five years, Batman has played a significant role in the American mind and in American culture. He is, for all intents and purposes, an American original, equivalent to Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn. He even possesses many of the same qualities of each of these nineteenth-century literary figures. As Bruce Wayne, he is the personification of charity; as Batman, he is the personification of justice. He is as much a citizen of the West as he is of America. He is as tangible as he is mythic.
Though the 1960s presented Batman as an abomination of kitsch and countercultural parody—complete with pows and bams and ker-splats—he had spent much of his three-quarters-of-a century as a “dark knight,” a man driven by the deepest impulses to do good in the world. In the late 1930s and 1940s, he served as a gun-toting noir detective as well as a vampire hunter. Disgusted by the degradation of the character into a 1960s pop culture joke, DC Comics (who then owned and who continues to own Batman) decided to go for gravity rather than popularity.
Under the art and storytelling of Julius Schwartz, Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, and others, Batman returned fully to his roots (sans guns) in the early 1970s, culminating in Frank Miller’s appropriately entitled The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. Since then, the timeless and mythic story of Batman has played out as a type of urban dystopia, with Gotham serving as and representing the worst aspects of Chicago, New York, Newark, Baltimore, and Wilmington.
Over the last thirty years, almost without exception, DC artists and storytellers have consistently portrayed Gotham as decaying, filthy, overcrowded, and violent (to the point of insanity). The streets reek of blood and fecal matter, and the gorgeous neo-Gothic architecture of the massive downtown and surrounding areas sports little more than crumbling gargoyles, littered gutters, and suffocating graffiti.
Even the filth of Gotham has its own layers of dirt, grime, and grease.
Though various writers have explored almost every single aspect of the adulthood of Bruce Wayne and Batman, few have ever considered the environment in which the young Bruce came of age. The shooting of his parents in Crime Alley—the pearls of his mother’s necklace falling onto a rain-soaked asphalt—has become ingrained in the American mindset, a demonic icon of the city as a festering wound. But, what happened between the death of Bruce’s parents and his fleeing the country as a young man to learn what any one in the world could teach him about human nature and how to conquer its most putrid, fallen aspects?
Enter the latest uncovering and exploration of Batman’s world, a prime-time TV show that considers the time period shortly after the murder of Martha and Thomas Wayne. At this point, Gotham is not insane, but merely corrupt. No Jokers, Killer Crocs, or Man-bats are running amok yet. The stage is being set for these hellish mutations, though, as Gotham in the days and weeks after the murder of the Waynes is a city on the verge of another fall, equivalent to the first one in Eden, but this time on a steeper precipice, ready to plunge even closer to hell.
And, for some reason, slowly being revealed, this second fall will come from the murder of the Waynes. As the major crime boss of the city admits, he needed the Waynes, the good to his evil. Each promoted order, but in very different ways. And, certainly, the crime boss (Carmine Falcone) wants as much order as possible, as long as he is in charge. Without the counter weight of the Waynes, he knows that his time is now precarious. The balance, so delicately maintained, has started to erode.
Unnervingly, at least to him, his rivals have become willing to take chances against his leadership. And, perhaps even more dangerously, his underlings have as well. Though he is not averse to a little killing here and there, he is enough of an old-style and old-world mafia man to have some ethics, no matter how slippery. He is, almost purely, Machiavellian.
The scariest of his challengers is a much younger crime boss, Fish Mooney, superficially loyal to him. She is as nasty as imaginable, switching from sensuous (in a sleazy way) to brutal in less than a second. She despises Falcone, but remains impotent to challenge him openly. Instead, she is biding her time, getting her pieces in place.
The creepiest of Gotham’s bad guys, however, is Oswald Cobblepot, known to those who hate him as “The Penguin.” Other than some confusion about loyalties, not a strand of ethics prevents him from getting ahead in this world. Young, brilliant, and avaricious, he wants power purely for the sake of power. Unlike Falcone, he cares nothing about order or dignity. He merely wants to rule, and he will do nearly anything—and betray anyone—to get where he wants to go. Though I have never seen the actor Robin Lord Taylor before, he has captured my loyalty and imagination. The man can act in a way that is almost entirely absent in most popular entertainment. As an actor, he brings all the gravitas of a Shakespearean villain to The Penguin. At one moment, I pity him, and the next, I loathe him. In almost every way, Taylor steals the show. This is an actor with a future.
Truly, the idea of a bad actor on Gotham is really unthinkable. Every person on screen, with one important exception, is giving all she or he has.
The young man who plays Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), Batman’s closest ally a decade or more from beginning of the story, struggles to maintain his virtue in a world that challenges honor at every level. A Marine who served in the Near East, he finds that everyone—his father, his girlfriend, his partner—is willing to sell a piece of themselves for a price. He has nowhere to turn for support, as all of those around him prefer him to be as corrupt as they. He is a “boy scout,” but, the baddies assume, this is probably just an act. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the inability of the evil and corrupt to imagine the true and the good. Gordon is the true and the good. In the opening episode, he promises a young Bruce Wayne that he will stop at nothing to catch the killer of Thomas and Martha. This, probably more than anything else, keeps him on the straight path. We know the promise will pay off, but not without immense struggle and an overwhelming resistance of temptation. It must be noted that Gordon’s goodness is not the kind of grey goodness of most modern entertainment. He is truly good, struggling against the darkest evils imaginable, perpetrated by friend and foe.
His partner, Harvey Bullock, is a romantic turned cynic. Again, the acting (Donal Logue) is simply superb, and one despises Bullock as much as admires him. H is a survivor, but the survival has come at the steep price of his soul.
One of the most interesting surprises for me as a life-long Batman fan is the prominence of Selina Kyle who will one day be Catwoman, the anti-hero and sometimes heroine of the Batman universe, in this television show. In Gotham, she is a Dickensian, streetwise orphan, drawn to justice but thieving out of necessity. In the show, she is thirteen years old, and the young actress who plays her—Camren Bicondova—is nothing less than amazing. There is a biblical quality not only to the character (think Mary Magadalene and the Good Thief) but to the actress. Something about her (again, as a character and a actress) just radiates on the screen. With a little more maturity, she will be the equivalent of Robin Lord Taylor.
There is only one real flaw with Gotham—the character of Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler and surrogate father. Whether this obvious failing is due to the writers of the show or the actor, I cannot tell. But, he just does not work as Alfred. In the traditional story of Batman, Alfred Pennyworth, formerly an MI5 agent, serves not only as traditional butler to American aristocracy, but as security as well. He is witty and nurturing. So far in Gotham (five episodes in as of this writing), the character is low class and thuggish. While this is really the only flaw of the show, it is, importantly, a serious one.
Still, I am hooked. Rarely does television do much for me, but I have now watched each episode twice, so taken am I with it. This is drama at its best. The actors can act, the city is alive in its decay, the cinematography is eye-catching, and the story gloriously takes its time to develop. Gotham is at once eerie, compelling, and repulsive. It owes as much to The French Connection as it does to the X-Files.
It is the world that will make Batman.
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