GOTHAM and the Problematic Perfection of Batman

Fox’s Gotham has made no bones about playing fast and loose with Batman’s seventy-five year canon, and with good reason. To handicap the show by limiting its storytelling options to what’s already been laid down on paper would have the writers do a disservice to their show and its own dramatic thrust. That said, there remains a legitimate criticism of how the show runners have chosen to include so many characters who the comics depicted as dependent on Batman as a part of their origin.

In introducing so many of Batman’s rogues before the appearance of the Dark Knight himself, the writers of Gotham have erased a crucial piece of the puzzle which makes up one of pop culture’s most iconic figures. Consider the final scene of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins where Lieutenant Gordon explains to Batman that his arrival has changed the game.

Jim Gordon: What about escalation?
Batman: Escalation?
Jim Gordon: We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds.
Batman: And?
Jim Gordon: And, you’re wearing a mask. Jumping off rooftops. Now, take this guy.
[pulling out a file]
Jim Gordon: Armed robbery, double homicide, has a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card.
[shows Batman a plastic evidence bag containing a Joker card]
Batman: I’ll look into it.

Now consider that, in this last week’s episode, the show runners chose to introduce the Red Hood gang, an element which comic fans will remember eventually gives rise to the Joker, Batman’s greatest nemesis.

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By introducing the Red Hood gang early, the writers of Gotham have disconnected the Joker’s origin in a major way from Batman as the person responsible for his creation.

One of the few chinks in the armor of Batman’s mythos is his culpability for his city’s problems. It’s an element which has been a key component in Batman’s status as a vital, heroic, but flawed protector. In the universe of television’s Gotham, instead of being the source of Gotham City’s masked epidemic, the reason for the escalation, he becomes the response to it. By removing Batman’s responsibility for the creation of the very villains from whom he protects the city, in addition to showcasing a young Bruce Wayne who is already well-along the path to his eventual fate, the writers of Gotham have turned Batman from a flawed hero who has walked a tortured path and remains tortured by the fact that he bears the burden of having created Gotham City’s super-criminal community by virtue of his mere existence.

Gotham was never going to be about Batman. It was always going to be about the city and those who try to keep it safe. Introducing the rogues who create the heightened threats which make the city unique has helped to push along the story and create threats which the mundane members of the Gotham City Police Department struggle to contain. Hopefully, the show never reaches the point where it introduces Batman because, if it does, it will be a Batman diminished by having been relieved of the burden which makes up a great deal of his tragic character.

Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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  • Excellent analysis, Josh. Just this past week, I’ve been discussing the nature of the Superhero — both the archetype and the genre (as defined by Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT!) — with a screenwriting colleague, which is identified by three narrative conventions: a special power, a nemesis, and a curse. As you noted, it’s the very EXISTENCE of the superhero — the gifted “other” — that provokes the forces of antagonism into action. This is true whether one is talking about Batman and the Joker, Lex Luthor/Zod and Superman, Iron Man and Iron Monger, Harry Potter and Voldemort, Simba and Scar, Dracula and Van Helsing — even Mozart and Salieri from AMADEUS. In each of those cases, the nemeses saw in their respective superheroic counterparts someone special that was an existential threat to them, and they sought to suppress that threat; that’s the nature of the superhero-nemesis dynamic, as you illustrate. So, yes, the bigger problem with GOTHAM is not that it is breaking from canon — I published an analysis of the Nicholson and Ledger interpretations of the Joker on my blog to demonstrate how folkloric characters can and should be subject to periodic reinvention — but that the show is ultimately undermining, if you take into account what comes later, the very essence of the tragic relationship between Batman and his rogues gallery that resonates so profoundly with fans. GOTHAM, to me, is emblematic of the challenges any filmed depiction of Batman is going to wrestle with in a post-Nolan environment: His approach was so logical and elegant — so believable yet so grandly mythic — that subsequent attempts to find a new angle on the legend are bound to seem subordinate. Moving forward, the new nemesis to the Batman mythos may very well be the DARK KNIGHT movies themselves: Their creative achievement is so monumental, it casts a very imposing shadow across the fictional landscape of Gotham, and that’s bound to squeeze some creators/interpreters to the point of desperation — like introducing a city full of supervillains in search of an adversary still many, many years from maturity.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sean.

      I’ve gotten a lot of grief in some circles for this post, but I think it encapsulates one of my biggest issues with the show.

      • GOTHAM certainly has its vehement defenders, but so do SMALLVILLE and ENTERPRISE — I actually know some of them — and those shows exemplify why not all backstory requires the full prequel treatment. (The handful of scenes set in Smallville in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE are exponentially more dramatically effective than ten endless seasons of the Tom Welling series.)

        (If you haven’t already read it, you ought to check out Jeff Jensen’s scholarly assessment of GOTHAM: http://www.ew.com/article/2015/01/05/gotham-midseason-premiere-review)

        I’m in the process at present of writing a novel that serves as a prequel to a famous piece of literary folklore (à la Dracula and Frankenstein), and the trick in these cases is to bring the narrative to a conclusion that segues with the original story, but to do so in a way that the audience didn’t quite predict (CAPRICA shed some unexpected insights on the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA backstory, but its premature cancellation, alas, robbed it of any chance to close the gap between the two chronologies). So, for example, the ultimate problem with the STAR WARS prequels, really, is that there are no surprises — Anakin’s journey from messianic slave to evil overlord unfolds pretty much exactly as we expected it would: emotionally unstable Jedi falls under the influence of Machiavellian mentor and is manipulated to overthrow the Republic. The wiser strategy might’ve been to get THAT story out of the way in the FIRST movie (rather than making us wade through THREE installments only to reach the inevitable), and then use the remaining two entries to twist and turn the saga in ways that make us wonder HOW it’s going to mate up with what we know comes later. But, when a prequel has no fresh insights to offer, it resorts to dropping Easter eggs — and those get rotten real fast.

        Great prequels — and there aren’t many — are revelatory: They don’t simply depict the implicit, they shed light on contextually historical events that we previously took for granted by offering alternative perspectives on — and competing truths about — the accepted backstory. (Imagine the surprises that could’ve been spun in EPISODES I – III if Obi-Wan’s account of the fall of the Republic per RETURN OF THE JEDI had somehow been inaccurate or incomplete rather than treated like unassailable gospel.) Most prequels, though, are merely exercises in inevitability; by providing faithful elaborations on the established backstory, they end up not endowing legendary characters like the Red Hood and Darth Vader with new dimensions, but rather demystifying them — diminishing the spell they cast over the audience by reaffirming what we already knew, and, in the process, eliminating the tantalizing possibility that there might be more to the story than meets the eye. Sometimes the best parts of a narrative, like what happens between the panels on a comic-book page, are the moments that are left to our own imaginations.