Batman Minus Batman
As has been discussed here and elsewhere ad nauseam, when you are dealing with certain pop-cultural icons, they belong to everyone, regardless of the opinions of their corporate attorneys. Like any other mythological figure, from Odin to Jesus to Sherlock Holmes, there is no really ‘right’ or ‘correct’ interpretation of the character of Batman; there is only the one that every individual holds to be real and true in their own personal cosmology. If the company that owns him reserves the right to change his history, his continuity, even his essential character and identity to serve their commercial needs of the moment, then it’s hard to see how they can argue that the millions of people who make up his audience don’t have the right to do the same to serve their own needs, whether they’re narrative or psychological or sociopolitical. Of course, money talks and bullshit walks in the copyright courts, but this is my space, and while I’m willing to go along with the competing visions of the Dark Knight Detective that DC presents in various media on their own merits, I’m certainly not going to resist the urge to editorialize about how those visions reinforce, or stray from, my own conception of the character that’s stuck to my psyche for over 40 rewarding and frustrating years.
The latest reframing of the Batman mythology comes to us courtesy of the FOX network and showrunner Bruno Heller, who did some solid work on HBO’s Rome and some rather more tedious work on CBS’ The Mentalist. Last night’s premiere was a decidedly mixed bag, one that I’d count overall as a substantial failure, but one with enough moments of redemption and possibility that I’ll keep tuning in for a while to see if there’s any improvement. The central conceit of Gotham is that, while taking place in a contemporary setting, it focuses not on Batman, but on the young Bruce Wayne, freshly shattered by the murder of his parents, and particularly on the young police detective Jim Gordon, who will learn about the city’s unique brand of corruption and evil as a number of future Bat-foes — including the Penguin, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman — develop around him. It’s an interesting idea, though my main concern is with the consistency of the execution.
First of all, though, the critique of the show-qua-show: it’s got a lot of uphill work to do. Aside from the actual killing of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a scene that likely only worked for me because it’s so reflexively iconic, the first half to three-quarters of the pilot was kind of a mess. The production design is excellent, and Gotham has an interesting, if still rather inconsistent, look to it; and British TV vet Danny Cannon does a solid job with the direction, at least from a technical standpoint. But the whole thing had a rushed, inchoate feel to it, and level of audible and visual noise left little to distinguish the episode from the truck commercials that interrupted it. Only the use of some highly distracting special effects kept a big flashy chase scene midway through from resembling similar fare from any generic police procedural, and much of the characterization felt incomplete (Oswald Cobblepot was pretty poorly drawn, a melange of conflicting motivations) or just strikingly off (Erin Richards playing Jim Gordon’s fiancee as a party girl made little sense, and the lesbian tease with Renee Montoya was the worst kind of pandering fan service). The edgy feel seemed forced, as if an attempt to conjure a mood of action when no action was taking place, and the few moments of genuine menace took place late in the pilot when they finally slowed things down and allowed the mood to build naturally after the capture of Gordon and Harvey Bullock by Fish Mooney’s gang. Perhaps most uncomfortably, the acting was generally bad at worst and forgettable at best; Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon lacks not just warmth but any affect whatsoever, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney was overdrawn and overblown, the usually excellent Donal Logue had to choke on some particularly fruity dialogue as Harv Bullock, and Erin Richards was just a write-off. Only Robin Lord Taylor as Cobblepot and the always-excellent John Doman, exuding quiet danger as gang boss Carmine Falcone, showed any real spark.
That’s not to say that the show didn’t show flashes of potential, and the pilot is rarely good in any show of quality. As noted, it’s got some great design, and if the title implies that the city itself is a character, it’s one that’s been interestingly exposed so far. Mooney’s gimp-suited butcher henchman showed real visual flare in the five seconds he was on screen before getting murdered, and Doman’s speech near the end did a lot to both show the value of slowing things down and clarify the otherwise cloudy motivations of several of the plot’s principal actors. (It’s still not clear why Renee Montoya’s outfit is called the Major Crimes unit but seems to perform the duties of an Internal Affairs section, but that may come in time.) There’s hints that Gordon’s past may make him something more than a blank-faced cypher, and you can never count out Donal Logue, no matter how much loopy dialogue you make him chew up. There were a few dramatic choices I really liked, particularly the way young Bruce Wayne snapped at Alfred and immediately seized control of the direction of a conversation; clearly, he’s already becoming Batman. (A few writers have touched on this idea, that Alfred is truly subservient, and more than a little afraid, of Batman, but it’s largely been lost in the recent tendency to butch him up and make him a substitute father figure to Bruce.) And there are a few characters yet to appear who have promise; using Carol Kane as the Penguin’s mother might turn out to be madness or genius.
Now for the big picture. The show’s central premise is an interesting one, and might just pay off while remaining true to the overall direction of the Batman mythos: what effect would it have if it were Jim Gordon, and not Batman, who was around at all these formative moments in Batman’s development? It worked well in at least one critical scene: seeking justice at the expense of sensitivity, making exactly the wrong decision for all the right reasons, a well-meaning Gordon approaches young Bruce, not yet transformed from a wounded boy to an abstracted spirit of vengeance. Instead of telling him that it’s all right to cry and feel the loss of the beloved parents who were just slaughtered in front of his eyes, Gordon cements the future implacably by urging Bruce to “be strong”. Thanks a lot, Jim! This looks like, from the previews, that it’s a thread that will continue playing out, but there are aspects of it that I like and aspects that I don’t. By having all the primary Bat-foes already in one formative stage of existence or another, it removes the onus for their existence from Batman himself and places it on Gordon — and that robs the mythology of a critically important psychological pillar, the idea that Batman, even if he doesn’t flat-out create his enemies, at least sustains them by providing endless shadowy projections of his own mentality. There’s a reason why Falcone is recently used as Batman’s earliest and easiest villain; we desperately need for it to be Batman who is responsible for the proliferation of Batman villains. He must always play an active part in their worldviews, not a passive one. Making James Gordon the catalyst for Gotham’s darkness may be an interesting approach, but where does it leave Bruce Wayne?
That leads me to my next speculation: is it possible to have Batman without Batman? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think it’s not an impossible request and might even be a rewarding one. I certainly think it’s possible, for example, to have a Superman mythos where you almost never see Superman; he’s so powerful, so omnipresent and omnipotent, that his mere existence hangs over the world every minute of every day and inspires how people behave — or don’t behave. The mere idea of Superman can be enough. With Batman, though, this trick — while still potentially interesting — is a lot harder to pull off. Superman, to put it another way, is like the polio vaccine, protecting you even when you’re barely aware it’s there. Batman, on the other hand, is like a rogue blood cell: he sets out to aggressively combat any invasion of his territory, but he’s so dedicated and single-purposed that he can seem like a virus, or even a cancer, himself. Batman’s world without Batman is still a pretty interesting idea, but I’m not completely convinced that this is what Heller and his writers are going for; I think they’re going to just develop Batman along parallel lines as they tell the story of Gordon and the rest of the Bat-family and foes, which is going to reduce the overall impact of the villains — if all this was inevitable, what do we need Batman for? (It also creates the usual logistical problems: some future villains, like Catwoman and Poison Ivy, are young Bruce Wayne’s age or just a little older, but others — the Penguin, the Riddler, and a guy who’s presumably the Joker — have a few decades on them, meaning that it may be hard to one day develop sympathy for a Batman who’s punching the face off of an Edward Nygma or an Oswald Cobblepot who are in their fifties.)
It may very well be that I’m giving Gotham both more and less credit than it deserves; again, it’s almost impossible to get a sense of any series’ real direction or intentions from the pilot. However, while I’m not nearly the mark for comic book nonsense that I used to be — I gave Arrow half a season, and, seeing absolutely no sign of the quality some critics had promised me was just over the horizon, I dumped it without a second thought; and my interest in Flash is essentially nonexistent — I’ll give this one plenty of rope to hang itself. Batman got his hooks into me as a young boy, and I’ll never break free from my fascination with the character (or at least my conception of him), no matter how silly the results usually are. All I can do is hope against hope that the version of Gotham that plays out on screen is half as interesting as the one that’s already unspooling in my head.