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REVIEW: Batman begins again with strong characters on FOX’s ‘Gotham’

Superheroes are kind of a big thing right now. They’ve already conquered the movie market and started making progress on video games, and recently, the capes have decided to come back to the small screen.

While there have been live-action superhero shows on television before, they usually were just pilots that fizzled away to irrelevance. (Anyone remember the Justice League TV show? The one from 1997 without Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman? Me neither.)

But it seems like one show might break that mold. No, not “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Since it’s part of the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would already have a fanbase — there was no risk of it failing. I’m talking about FOX’s new show “Gotham,” which premiered on Monday and is based on the Batman comic canon.

“Gotham” is, as FOX never ceased to repeat throughout its various social media outlets, a series about the origins of some of the Batman comics’ most iconic characters, but it is most certainly not another Batman origin story.

FOX's new show "Gotham" revisits the Batman origin story told from the eyes of Gotham City Police Department Detective James Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie. PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX TV
FOX’s new show “Gotham” revisits the Batman origin story, this time as told from the eyes of Gotham City Police Department Detective James Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie. PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX TV

The famous murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne is shown in the first few seconds of the show, probably to get that plot point out of the way so the story could shift its focus onto the actual main characters: Detectives James Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie, and Harvey Bullock, played by Donal Logue.

The man who will become Batman’s (second) greatest ally in the fight against crime is shown here as a rookie detective and a war veteran who, upon returning to the United States from an undisclosed location, decided to join the police force of the city where his father was once a district attorney. But despite all this backstory that is sometimes only alluded to — the show does a good job of cutting back on exposition for the most part — Gordon seems bland.

The entire basis of Gordon’s character is that of the aged cop who acts as the connection between Batman and the police force. Here, Gordon seems like yet another white guy power fantasy. With his buzz cut, his stubble, his constant scowl and sense of righteousness, he’d fit into at least five upcoming first-person shooter video games.

There is one scene, however, when we see a glimpse of good old Jim: when he comforts Bruce Wayne at the scene of the crime. It’s fairly obvious that this scene is supposed to be a heart-wrencher, with lines like “There will be light, Bruce.” But like most of the scenes involving Bruce Wayne in this episode, it’s all trodden ground for those who’ve read the comics or watched the movies or — you get the idea.

The rest of the members of the Gotham City Police Department are written as foils to Gordon’s clean sense of justice. Harvey Bullock (Logue), who in the comics acts more like a slobbish, bumbling aide to Gordon, is now Gordon’s superior on the show. Logue does a good job of making Bullock a character who has clearly been in the force long enough to learn how horrible and rotten it is, but who still has some sense of justice that compels him to stay there. Once again, though, the chemistry between Gordon and Bullock in the show is just another mentor-apprentice story waiting to happen.

Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen, played by Victoria Cartagena and Andrew Stewart-Jones, respectively, round out the main members of the GCPD showcased in the pilot and are primarily used to represent the members of the squad who don’t trust Gordon at all. It’s plain to see that the rest of the police force is just there to emphasize the fact that Gordon is a fish out of water who will eventually find his place as head of the squad — though only after proving himself in some major way.

Speaking of fish, the strongest element “Gotham” has going for it is the villains. The main antagonist here is Fish Mooney, a character created specifically for the show played by Jada Pinkett Smith in what is quite possibly the best performance of all the characters in the pilot. Fish has presence; as a crime boss serving under a big mafia family and owner of a nightclub, Smith’s character exudes authority with every word, keeping her surrogates in place while advancing her plans to eventually take over the city.

Serving as her right hand is an ambitious young man named Oswald Cobblepot, more commonly known by his criminal moniker, the Penguin. Robin Lord Taylor does the feathered fiend justice in his performance, distancing the villain from the circus freak played by Danny DeVito in “Batman Returns” or Burgess Meredith’s squawking, smoking criminal from the 1960s “Batman” TV series.

Cobblepot is a nervous wreck, a real stuttering, overly dramatic mess of a person who serves as the perfect foil for Pinkett Smith’s authoritative mob boss. Though the implications that the Penguin, a white young man, will eventually take over the criminal empire shaped by Fish Mooney, an African-American woman in a position of authority — presumably by murdering her — are more than a little unfortunate.

Regardless, both characters were handled perfectly and the pilot’s end shows just how twisted the Penguin truly is while also hinting at a major conflict between those two forces.

Other villains are given little glimpses as well. The episode opens and closes with a girl who is implied to be Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, played by child actress Camren Bicondova), constantly watching over Bruce Wayne since she watched his parents’ murder. Poison Ivy shows up for a few seconds as Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley). And perhaps the best Easter eggs go to Cory Michael Smith’s performance as the GCPD’s coroner Edward Nygma (aka the Riddler) and an unidentified actor playing a comedian auditioning at Fish Mooney’s nightclub — I believe we all know who that might be, despite receiving no hints from showrunners.

The plot isn’t necessarily the most important part of this episode. It exists only to further all these origin stories, which is the main point of the series anyway. “Gotham” will thrive if it can manage to keep these characters engaging. We’ve all seen them before, so what could possibly make us think their origin stories will be interesting in the first place? What could they reveal that hasn’t been revealed in the comics or the movies or the video games?

This one-hour epic was the perfect pilot, and from what the promotional material for the upcoming two episodes suggests, the series will continue in its dark-but-not-too-dark tone. Sure, this isn’t DC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” but if it manages to keep these well-known characters’ origin stories fresh, “Gotham” has the potential of coming in a solid second. Insert Two-Face pun here.

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