It’s been a long time since Batman has been on television and this incarnation is a little different. The show focuses on James Gordan (Ben McKenzie) as he’s a new officer in the Gotham Police Department and the first episode centers on the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Gordan has an established partner (Donal Logue) but struggles to find officers to trust as he realizes that the police force is corrupted on a pretty deep level.
The pilot doesn’t shy from inserting famous villains from Batman’s rogues gallery as there are seeds for about 5 or 6 villains probably. The most obvious in this episode is Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), who is a lower level criminal working for Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith). There are seeds for other villains such as the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and maybe even a brief appearance by the man who will become the Joker.
The show visually looks great. It’s dark and gritty and creates a real sense of place for Gotham. It made me really look critically at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and realize how bad some of those settings were, where it was obviously a backlot or soundstage somewhere. Gotham had huge open city shots that really made you buy into the setting. And when the city is so vital to this story, nailing that was a key factor.
Ben McKenzie as James Gordon was fine. I used to love him on Southland so I was excited for him but I can’t quite figure out what role he’s supposed to play here. He was the “by the books” cop for some scenes and then the “reckless do-whatever-it-takes” cop for others. I appreciate the nuance though, as it’s not always black and white and maybe having Gordon struggle with what sort of cop he wants to be will provide some cool moments. This episode though, as it’s supposed to set him up as a character, was a little confusing. I would’ve waited a few episodes before shaking up his moral code, so we could get a good grasp on what his moral code is. His choice in the climax of the episode gave us pretty good insight but decisions throughout the episode made me question that.
Robin Lord Taylor as the Penguin was a great choice. He was probably the most interesting character in the pilot, as he’s both a conniving slug who will do whatever people tell him to, but as soon as they’re gone, he’s trying to usurp power. It’s an interesting dynamic and one that fits the Penguin well. His energy also infuses life into the show, when things might get a little stale.
What doesn’t work?
While the show did set some great groundwork for where it’s going to head, this pilot did feel overstuffed and almost pandering to its Batman fans. The amount of villain nods was too much for me. Was it necessary to insert Poison Ivy? The Riddler’s one scene felt forced and overtly “Look it’s the Riddler! He’s doing riddles!” And the possible cameo from the Joker felt odd though I appreciated its understated nature as opposed to the drastic and obvious references for the other villains.
In another comparison to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D…. The Marvel property struggled to get fans to buy in. The occasional cameo wasn’t enough for a lot of people, so it seems like Gotham is going the opposite way and reminding viewers constantly of the world that we’re visiting. Both ways can be detracting, so I’m hoping after the pilot, things slow down a bit.
The show as a whole was really good. It’s a new spin with a familiar story, instead of feeling like a rehash of Batman’s origins. Gordon will be an interesting character to follow and some of these villains, such as Taylor’s Penguin, will make for great season-long arcs. I worry about the overuse of Batman’s villains, but hopefully the show will slow down and pace itself and allow its talented cast to flex their muscles and tell some cool stories.