Garwulf’s Corner #32: Gotham, Knightless
Originally published October 26, 2016
Stephen Pile’s The Book of Heroic Failures details a remarkable performance of Hamlet in 1787. The lead actor, a man named Cubit, had become so sick from stress that he was unable to go on stage, leaving the production without anybody to play Hamlet. Rather than give the audience a refund, the actors decided to just perform the play without its title character…and, as Sir Walter Scott wrote, the audience felt that the play was much better that way.
I have similar feelings about Fox’s Gotham.
In the here and now, I’m not much of a superhero fan. It wasn’t always this way — as a kid, I loved watching reruns of the Adam West Batman series, I was a fan of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and devoured the Michael Keaton Batman movies. But, as I grew older and started telling stories of my own, my enjoyment of them petered out. I don’t await the next Marvel movie with bated breath, or read much in the way of comic books. Don’t get me wrong — I thought The Dark Knight was brilliant, and I loved the first season of Legends of Tomorrow, but the mere presence of a superhero doesn’t do much for me anymore. Ideally, there has to be a good story with great characters, well told.
And this brings me to Gotham.
For those who haven’t seen it, Gotham is an origin story for the setting of Batman. Set in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, its central character is the young police officer and army veteran Jim Gordon, with the series following his rise to Police Commissioner. While this happens, a young Bruce Wayne must work through his grief, along with the realization that his family’s company is doing things that are, in a word, unconscionable.
With the third season now begun, I’m loving it…and hoping that Batman never shows up.
By the middle of the first season, Gotham had created a world that was far more interesting than anything I’ve seen in Batman. Compared to Gotham, in fact, the world of Batman seems somewhat disposable…which is weird, considering that they’re both the same world.
But in the end, it comes down to the characters. One of the biggest structural problems with Batman is its own hero. Bruce Wayne is a billionaire, rich enough to be able to tell the rest of the world to get stuffed whenever he likes — this means that he has the luxury of always brooding over his murdered parents, and can descend into the city at night as a costumed vigilante with little fear of consequences the next morning.
The young Jim Gordon, on the other hand, has no such wealth or protection. He has to navigate a corrupt police force and justice system, in the process being forced to make decisions about what principles he will sacrifice to get the job done. He has to take into account not just catching the criminals, but making a case against them. When he takes drastic action, he is one of the first to be in the line of fire of the consequences. Now that he is a bounty hunter in the third season, he doesn’t even have the protection afforded by a police badge. His path is harder, less clear, more morally dubious, and as a result, far more gripping than Batman’s could ever be.
Likewise, the young Bruce Wayne is a better, more interesting character than the grown-up Bruce Wayne. Because he is a child, he is by definition powerless despite his wealth. He must struggle to be taken seriously by the corporation he owns and would reform, and is an easy target should those who ordered the death of his parents decide to come after him.
Alfred, too, is improved. Far from just being the loyal servant and established surrogate father figure, he’s a man who has been thrust into fatherhood under the worst possible circumstances. He’s having to figure out how to raise a child while protecting that same child from dangerous elements far greater than he is.
Even the villains are better characters. Ed Nigma’s slide into the Riddler was gripping and tragic, all the more so because we’d had a season and a half to get to know him, and he’s a likeable character — we want him to find happiness, not fall into darkness. Oswald Cobblepot is a nasty, vicious psychopath trying to take and hold onto power during a gang war (which he helped start), but also human and sympathetic, particularly after he meets his father. He’s not the cliche of a cartoon villain, but a well-rounded character. And Selina Kyle is a kid on the street trying to survive — her struggles are far more interesting than those of a seasoned cat burglar.
Deliberately or inadvertently, by removing Batman from the equation, Gotham has managed to find the best version of all of its characters. Even as the more over-the-top elements have appeared, their core struggles feel real and meaningful. It’s better than any repeating pattern of Batman fighting his rogue’s gallery could ever be.
Amazing, really — who would have thought that the most disposable part of the world of Batman would be Batman?