“Is Gotham any good?”
This is a question that I’ve heard brought up in late night dive bar conversations with friends and posted all over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. My comic book nerd friends are happy to watch a superhero show that’s good, but they don’t want their hearts broken again by yet another poorly-written serial.
Of course, there’s a double meaning to that question.
As a show, Gotham is pretty good. It had a strong pilot, but then wobbled a little bit. It’s still finding its footing as a drama, but there is enough there in terms of plot, characterization, and slick production design to keep a casual viewer interested.
But is Gotham morally good?
Television drama doesn’t have the duty, but it certainly has the prerogative, to deal with human morality in an honest and ambiguous way. Comic books are traditionally the closest things we have to modern myths and morality tales. They teach us how about the nature of good, the perils of evil, and they glorify those who stand up for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
There is a clear line that separates how the big comic book companies treat morality in their film and television adaptations. In general, Marvel will present us with unlikely heroes who wind up doing the right thing and saving the day, but DC seems to want to obfuscate the meaning of morality. I’m not just talking about how Christopher Nolan turned the campy funhouse mirror madness of Batman into the dark, thrilling, and sometimes ponderous Dark Knight trilogy. I’m talking about how Superman snapped a dude’s neck in Man of Steel. Granted, that guy was Zod, and he was hellbent on the destruction of the human race, but Superman killed someone on the big screen. Is he torn up about that moral indescretion? It’s hard to say. When last we saw Clark Kent, he was putting on some neato hipster glasses and signing up to blog for The Daily Planet. So, maybe he’s not all that conflicted…
Gotham, though, is clearly concerned with the issue of morality, but it’s unclear if the show knows its own moral code is.
The best scenes and juiciest dialogue are saved for the show’s black hats. We’ve seen people lit on fire, two girls tear each other apart for a “singing” gig, and watched the Penguin murder, poison, and impersonate his way to mafia middle management. We’ve also seen one guy tie people to weather balloons and another poison the city’s homeless population in pursuit of “justice.” Oh, and most of the cops are liars, murderers, and cheats.
Speaking of the Gotham City Police Department, we are repeatedly told that Jim Gordon is “the last good cop” in Gotham City. But is he? He kills people, lies to his girlfriend, and in the most recent episode, gave up serious intel to a dangerous mafia boss. He’s not precisely a white knight, but he is the closest thing Gotham has to a hero because he might be the only adult person in Gotham City actively trying to be good. He is consumed by his own personal crusade to find out who murdered Thomas and Martha Wayne. Both young Selina Kyle and Alfred also seem concerned with the welfare of young Bruce Wayne, but they also seem blissfully unconcerned with anyone else’s survival. She may not be Catwoman yet, but Kyle is already picking pockets and plucking out eyeballs. The stalwart Alfred only begins to delve into the corruption at Wayne Enterprises once he realizes how much it matters to Bruce Wayne.
If morality has any place in Gotham, it all circles back to Bruce Wayne. Gordon might be billed as the show’s hero, but Bruce is the boy who would be Batman. Just as the show can’t help but to wink and nod at every tiny reference to a future Batman villain, it’s completely aware that it is a Batman show without Batman. And I’m beginning to think that’s the point.
Gotham‘s one good cop is clearly on the slippery slope to moral degradation. He has no choice but to compromise his values for the sake of protecting those he loves. He’s just one good man, and one good man can’t survive in such a fetid cesspool of corruption. Jim Gordon is the closest thing Gotham City has to a hero, but he’s no superhero.
While Man of Steel might have made Superman kill Zod to seem darker and “cooler,” Gotham is very deliberately setting up a world where good can’t hope to survive without a champion. Most superhero origin stories start with the hero’s journey. Then, as Gary Oldman’s wizened Commissioner James Gordon tells Christian Bale’s Batman in Batman Begins, it’s assumed that a superhero is what sparks the creation of a super villain. I think Gotham is taking the opposite tack. Gotham is suggesting that it’s not an overabundance of good that gives rise to a hero — it’s too much evil.
Bruce Wayne is only going to become Batman because no one else will. And that’s why Gotham might really be good.
Where to stream Gotham.
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[Photos: Everett Collection]
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