Every superhero has an origin story. The more popular the hero, the more times fans will hear that origin story told over and over and over again in countless variations. In the latest iteration, Fox gives Batman the ‘Smallville’ treatment with the new prequel series ‘Gotham’. As one of the most anticipated premieres of the fall TV season, does it live up to the hype, or is there any point to it at all?
Young Bruce Wayne and his ultra-rich parents Thomas and Martha are walking home after a night at the theater (now a movie theater, which begs the question why they got dressed up for it) when they’re accosted by a mugger in an alley who guns down the adults and leaves the boy traumatized by the experience. We know all this. Nothing new here. Fortunately, the pilot episode dispenses with this part very quickly at the beginning. Bruce Wayne is in fact not even the main character of the show. We’ll revisit him briefly later, but the focus of the series is rookie detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie from ‘SouthLAnd’) and his grizzled older partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), who land the case, much to Bullock’s displeasure. He knows that this will be a high-profile investigation and he doesn’t want the pressure or the scrutiny of having to resolve it quickly.
The case will take them on a journey through the city’s shady underworld, where Gordon is introduced to mid-tier mob boss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a character invented for the show whose name is goofy even by Batman villain standards. (I routinely have to correct myself from calling her “Fish Tacos.”) Mooney runs the theater district where the murder took place, and she has a very cordial relationship with Bullock, who tries to educate his young padawan about how things really work in the city, where the line between cops and crooks isn’t exactly clearly delineated.
Eventually, a tip leads them to small-time thug Mario Pepper, who seems like an unpleasant individual and runs at the sight of cops. Gordon chases him in a strangely-staged action sequence featuring weird close-ups apparently shot with GoPro cameras. Pepper beats up Gordon until bullock catches up and shoots him dead. In the aftermath, they find Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace in his apartment. Case closed. The cops are declared heroes. The city breathes a sigh of relief.
Of course, that’s not nearly the end of it. Mooney’s eccentric henchman Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) has plans to supplant his boss, and snitches to the police that Mooney planted the necklace to frame Pepper. When the dogged Gordon hears this, he can’t let the case go. He keeps digging until he winds up captured by Mooney’s men. Mooney realizes that Cobblepot was the snitch and breaks his foot, hobbling him.
In attempting to help his partner, Bullock gets strung up in a meat locker with him. Things don’t look so good for the two of them until the city’s head mob kingpin Carmine Falcone intervenes. He’s displeased that Mooney has overstepped her bounds, and he doesn’t want the attention that killing a couple of cops will bring his operation. He admits to Gordon that he ordered the framing of Pepper. Although he claims that he had nothing to do with the Waynes’ deaths, he found it expedient to maintain the illusion of swift justice to keep order in the city. Chaos would be bad for business.
Falcone lets the cops go, on the condition that Gordon must execute Cobblepot to prove that he’ll be a team player. Gordon can’t go through with it, so he stages a shooting and tosses Cobblepot into the river still alive. We see the henchman later swimming ashore, where he kills a hobo and starts his new life as arch-villain The Penguin. Obviously, he will want revenge, and what does a penguin do to fish?
In an epilogue, Gordon visits the Wayne boy and tells him the whole truth about Pepper being framed. He vows to catch the real killer and clean up police corruption in Gotham. Good luck to him on that.
Sprinkled throughout the premiere are introductions to other characters who will become major players in the Batman mythos. Street urchin Selina Kyle (future Catwoman) witnesses the Wayne murders and keeps her eyes on other key events. Riddle-loving Edward Nygma is a police forensicist. (Bullock has no patience for his patter and demands that he get to the point.) The thug Pepper has a daughter named Ivy who spends a lot of time hiding behind plants. Mooney auditions a bad stand-up comic for her nightclub, who may or may not turn out to be The Joker. (The show’s producers are being coy about that.) The fan service is laid on pretty thick, and it feels a little contrived the way that all of these characters happen to cross paths with one another. Hopefully, future episodes will let them explore their own storylines more independently.
The pilot episode has high production values (that chase scene notwithstanding) and a great cast. McKenzie is very appealing as Jim Gordon, and Jada Pinkett Smith has a lot of fun vamping it up as Fish Mooney. Logue’s character is a collection of cop movie and film noir clichés (to demonstrate how hard-boiled he is, he double-fists whiskey in one hand and Milk of Magnesia in the other), but he plays them well enough and he’s a likeable screen presence. The Penguin, one of the silliest of all Batman foes, is given a surprisingly effective and believable origin story. I also appreciate the efforts to bring some complexity and moral ambiguity to the storylines, which are more nuanced than the usual superhero fare.
Despite the need to cram a lot of set-up and action into the premiere, I enjoyed this pilot episode a lot more than, for example, last year’s ‘Arrow‘, which I found very cheesy yet has somehow grown into a big hit for its network. Whether the series can keep up the momentum remains to the seen. Show-runner Bruno Heller previously created HBO’s outstanding ‘Rome’ but also CBS’s dull and formulaic (yet very long-lived) ‘The Mentalist’. From what I can tell, it appears that future episodes of ‘Gotham’ may settle into a standard police procedural structure where Gordon and Bullock investigate various outlandish crimes perpetrated by future super-villains. Depending on how it’s handled, that could either be fun or could get old quickly. For the time being, I’ll stick around to see which way it goes.