How ‘Gotham’ is Bringing a Comic Book Sensibility Back to Superhero TV

December 9th, 2015

How ‘Gotham’ is Bringing a Comic Book Sensibility Back to Superhero TV

By Miles Raymer

I started watching Fox’s Gotham because I read io9 and I’d always notice that their Gotham recaps had headlines like “Gotham Is the Wackiest Show About Setting a Bus Full of Cheerleaders on Fire Ever Made,” “On Gotham, a Show Ostensibly About Batman, a Bunch of Killer Monks Invaded an Erotic Massage Parlor,” and “I Watched Last Night’s Gotham and Now I Think I’m Insane.” This sounded a lot more promising than the cheap, unimaginative-looking show that its ads made it out to be. I didn’t really care about seeing a bunch of well-known characters’ backstories filled in for the nth time, but I always have time for killer monks.

Ostensibly Gotham’s a prequel to the Batman mythos, meant to fill in Bruce Wayne’s story in the immediate aftermath of his parents’ murder and explain how Gotham City ended up crawling with enough supervillains to require the services of a caped vigilante. But calling it a prequel suggests that we already know more or less how it’s supposed to end–in the Bat-universe that we all know and love. After a few fairly predictable episodes that introduce future characters with an excess of nudging and winking, though, the show goes, in the words of another io9 recap headline, “Completely Off the Rails,” and starts radically altering the Batman mythos with impunity, and becoming much more interesting in the process.

Gotham is a pitcher that only throws wild curveballs, and even if you’re paying attention you’ll still occasionally get one that’ll come out of nowhere and knock you upside the head, and being familiar with the Bat-comics won’t help you dodge. This is a show that spent a long stretch of episodes setting up the introduction of one of Batman’s most famous arch-enemies and then abruptly killed them off. It took a minor civilian character in the comics and turned them into a psychopathic serial killer. It has no respect for the sanctity of the Batman canon, and it’s happy to make huge, universe-altering alterations to it for no other reason than the fact that it sounds fun.

And that’s why it’s the best superhero show happening.

Comic book adaptations have followed comic books in a push towards realism and believability. Huge advances in CGI, combined with similarly sizeable advances in the acceptability of being a comics fan into adulthood, have allowed for worldbuilding with its feet in the real world, from the Avengers’ vividly rendered city-smashing rampages to the nuanced psychology of Jessica Jones

There have been approximately as many good results from this trend as bad–it’s given us Heath Ledger’s eerily lifelike Joker, and it’s also given us a Superman that’s as lacking in fun as it is in color. And it looks like that’s going to be how things go for a while to come. Marvel’s increasing its commitment to the “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of the MCU with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist series. DC’s upcoming cinematic push, starting with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, is so grim and gritty that not even Aquaman can escape a desaturated makeover.

Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Gotham’s a throwback to a more surreal comics spirit where verisimilitude took a back seat to cool shit. It doesn’t offer any justification for its decisions–like why there’s an evil cult after Bruce, or why from out of nowhere there’s a mad scientist grafting random body parts on people, or why the show seems to be set in approximately the present day but all of the cars are from the mid-80s and older–other than they seem like cool ideas.

Which they are. All of these wild, borderline-nonsensical decisions put Gotham more in line with the ‘60s Batman TV show and the increasingly outrageous ‘90s films than with Christopher Nolan’s grand, elegant adaptation. It’s not respectable enough to get reviewed in the New Yorker, or make anyone change their minds about whether superheroes can inspire real, worthy art. It’s absurd, ridiculous, and kind of trashy and exploitative. In a word, it’s insane. We need more like it.