This is truly the age of the superhero. Not only do they dominate the comics industry, but the biggest films of the year invariably involve genetically/mystically/technologically/alien enhanced people punching one another.
Even TV isn’t safe, what with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and DC’s Arrow – soon to be followed up with a The Flash spin-off – currently thrilling on the small screen.
Gotham, launching soon in the UK on Channel 5, takes something of a different approach: it’s a superhero series about Batman, that features neither superheroes nor Batman. And yet it works a lot better than you might expect.
Gotham is set in an indeterminate time-period – one that embraces an early 20th century noir aesthetic, ‘70s cop movie tropes, and 21st century technology all at once – and opens by depicting the pivotal moment in young Bruce Wayne’s life: the murder of his parents.
There’s no time-jump to Wayne as Batman, however: the show is content to keep Bruce a young boy, dealing with his grief, and instead, our hero is one Jim Gordon, a recently returned war veteran and new recruit to the Gotham City Police Department.
Gordon and his reluctant, grizzled – and highly corrupt – senior partner Harvey Bullock set about trying to solve the murders, and it’s not long before Gordon realises that the GCPD is rotten to the core, and that Gotham itself is awash with crime and moral corruption. And, given the number of future Batman baddies that the show teases, it’s only going to get worse.
Can one decent man in a corrupt system change things from the inside? That is the question that Gotham intends to answer – although it’s one that future Batman-lore more or less answers for us.
Given that one day, it will be necessary for Batman to exist, Gotham must remain more or less a cesspool, so there’s clearly an upper-limit on how much Jim Gordon can achieve here. So it’s important that show gives us compelling characters and stories to latch on to, and, based on the pilot, Gotham does that very successfully.
The OC’s Ben McKenzie makes for a superb lead as the tough, idealistic Gordon: he’s solid and gruff enough for this crusade, but his big, soulful eyes reveal the compassion that lies beneath the necessarily tough exterior. Donal Logue, as corrupt Bullock, is every bit as charming and sleazy as you might hope.
As for the rest of the cast, Jade Pinkett-Smith has a blast as mobstress Fish Mooney (she’s as bonkers as the name suggests), but the standout is clearly Robin Lord Taylor as the snivelling but ruthless Oswald Cobblepot. Taylor’s mannerisms are wonderfully demented, perfectly hinting as his future role as a Bat-villain, and he’ll certainly be one to watch.
Batman’s rogues gallery gets quite a workout, in fact, as alongside an early look at The Penguin, there’s also The Riddler (currently, intriguingly, working for the GCPD), Poison Ivy and an enigmatic young Catwoman – and potentially a subtle hint towards the biggest foe of them all…
Gotham is extremely assured, as pilot episodes go. In fact, it’s so slick that it doesn’t really feel like a pilot at all – it’s a show that comes fully formed right off the Bat (sorry). The pumping soundtrack, sardonic sense of humour and exciting action beats all combine to create a thoroughly accomplished piece of entertainment.
However, quite how Gotham will progress moving forward is anyone’s guess. With so many cameos by so many Batman characters already, will we be seeing more of them in future episodes?
Some, such as the already grown-up Edward Nygma, will undoubtedly feature, but will Poison Ivy’s child appearance be left at just a cameo? How much can we actually follow these rogues as children? And what happens when the show begins to run out of fan-pleasing cameos to throw in?
More likely, it seems that the show will focus itself primarily on the very human enemy of Carmine Falcone (John Doman, superbly cast), crime-boss of Gotham, with most of the city officials in his back pocket.
Gordon loosening Falcone’s vice-like grip on Gotham feels like a good avenue to go down, keeping the show relatively grounded until the potential day when everyone starts dressing up in lycra. Whether the show will ever jump forward in time to depict that, and the more grown-up versions of the characters it seeds throughout these early days, will be interesting to see.
For now, though, Gotham is a superbly crafted crime show, as dark as it needs to be, with enough comic-book flourishes to keep it fun as well. And with so many Easter eggs for DC fanatics, it looks like the superhero phenomenon has now well and truly made television its home.
Gotham begins at 9pm on Monday 13 October 2014 on Channel 5.
Are you looking forward to Gotham? Let us know below…