As you may have noticed, we spend a lot of our time digesting and discussing comic book culture here at DragonDark Towers. Spandex saturation point is a long way off for us; we’re still keen to hungrily devour each and every four-colour foible that leaps from page to screen (often in a single bound, so we’re told), and we’re the first to give any adaptation a fair crack of the whip. Where others decry the genre as dull as the hero is always destined to win the day, DragonDark relish the how rather than the what. We live in dark times, and watching valiant and incorruptible paladins rise from their lowest ebb to conquer their demons is always a welcome and warming slice of escapism.
Arrow has perfected the art of small screen superheroics, with its second season providing one of the most entertaining runs of any recent show we can remember; taking the template and perfecting it, Arrow has left a lot of work for its competitors – especially with cynicism toward the genre at an all-time high following the cinematic dominance of effects-laden megaflicks. The frequently sub-standard Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has done little to quell the hostility toward genre TV from mainstream commentators, and Gotham faces even more roadblocks in the path of capture the hearts and minds of the funnybook sceptic. It’s one thing to build a world around one of pop culture’s most iconic figures but quite another to use controversial chronology to take them out of the storytelling running. Rome showrunner Bruno Heller clearly has balls, but in bringing Gotham to the screen is he putting them needlessly on the line?
The answer, like so many tiresome cop-outs, is … kinda. Gotham’s pilot is OK. Slightly above average. Just about worth watching. Insert your own faint praise here. It’s doesn’t excite us in the way that The Flash’s impending debut has had preview audiences coming over all unnecessary, but it’s certainly not the dog that launched the aforementioned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Batman’s latest Beginning has a lot of work to do to live up to its rich potential, as this pilot is hamstrung by a very poor script and a clunky insistence on introducing as many Easter eggs as possible, as quickly as possible. Fortunately it’s saved by the kind of lively direction that may finally redeem Danny Cannon for his ill-fated trip to Mega City One back in 1995, and some spot-on casting.
It becomes immediately clear, from the opening scenes of a tweenage Selina Kyle pick-pocketing and scurrying through the mean streets of Gotham, that Heller and Cannon understand that the city itself is one of the most underrated and important supporting characters in the Bat-mythos. Presumably this is the reason the show deviated from its originally-planned title of Gordon, and the sets are glorious, bringing the most exciting city in the DCU to rich, breathing life. Cannon provides a pleasantly colourful and angled aesthetic throughout this pilot, embracing an enjoyably comic book-friendly stylisation; a blessed relief, as DragonDark couldn’t face yet another Nolanisation. In fact, it’s fair to say that Gotham takes its cues more from the brace of Burton Batflicks than the recent Balebusters, right from the slo-mo money shot of Martha’s tumbling pearl necklace (get your minds out of the gutter and stop sniggering at the back) to the bombastic sense of style and pantomime performances. How you feel about that will play a large part in how well you stomach this pilot.
What any viewer will struggle with, alas, is the ropey screenplay, inked by Heller himself. Ignoring the fact that we have never previously heard the words “shiny shoes” used so much in 47 minutes, the dialogue feels forced all too often. Maybe we’re wrong but we tend not to picture too many rookie cops telling their gruff and grizzled partners that they’re “a slovenly lackadaisical cynic”, while complaints such as “you just got us caught in a gigantic flaming ball of crap” had DragonDark reaching for the cringe-repellent bat-spray. The plot whizzes along at a fair old pace, with an entertaining enough central mystery surrounding the shooter of the Wayne’s (oh yeah, spoiler alert, some rich 10-year-olds parents are shot in Crime Alley in the opening scene) punctuated by occasional bursts of shocking violence and crowd-pleasing stunt cameos (look, it’s Poison Ivy! Hey kids, that’s The Riddler! Oh, here’s Gotham’s own Sarah Essen!), but it’s all a bit too earnest for its own good. A few laughs never killed anybody unless a certain Clown Prince of Crime was behind them, so to coin a phrase, why so serious?
Thankfully some of this direlogue is pulled back from the brink by some quality casting. Ben McKenzie is something of a blank slate as the idealistic Gordon but he’s an agreeable enough presence, and he’s complemented well by Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock. Logue’s plays Bullock’s ambiguity up for all its worth with some skill, finding himself at odds with countless colleagues and getting cosy with some the City’s underworld figures. Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma is offered just a cameo and is fed lines that try far too hard, but the characters new origin is interesting, with Smith bringing enough oddball otherworldliness to impress. Erin Richards hasn’t yet been given enough to do as Gordon’s fiancée Barbara (though hints at a prior relationship with a supporting character we’d never have expected were a nice misdirection), David Mazouz as the young Bruce Wayne lacks gravitas, and we’re really not sure about Sean Pertwee as a snarky Alfred, but two villainous figures walk away with the episode – Jada Pinkett Smith as mob queen Fish Mooney, and Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot. The latter is a pitch perfect incarnation of a character notoriously difficult to nail in live action; a greasy, creepy and conniving slimeball that plays down the monstrous qualities of the page, but makes up in grey matter what he lacks in muscle mass. Pinkett, meanwhile, oozes a kind of maternal malevolence as the power-hungry Mooney, and we’re looking forward to watching her struggle with her superiors for control of the City’s organised crime – a trick vein of storytelling in countless Bat-books through the years, and an interesting and grounded contrast to some of Gotham’s more colourful and costumed ne’er-do-wells that are sure to surface as the season advances.
These positives are enough to keep us dangling on the bait of Gotham’s hook for at least a couple more episodes. As one major antagonist chillingly announces to the principled Gordon, “Gotham is on a knife-edge. What do you suppose bringing down City Hall and the police force will do, even if you could? Would it makes things better?”. It’s this murky morality that makes Gotham City and its inhabitants – including the most famous of them all – so compelling. While this show hasn’t yet grabbed us by the throat and dangled us from a rooftop, it’s just about piqued our curiosity enough to tune in again next week at the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.