The surprising promise of Gotham.
What would Batman look like, if it were a town? Not Gotham, not Batman’s home. We already know the city is dirty, and it steals from you in ways you cannot even imagine. Steals from your spirit. And what’s more, Gotham itself has already been beautifully realized in the cinematic expansiveness of Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins (and for that matter the rest of the trilogy), and arguably even more gorgeously in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.
Don’t imagine Gotham, when I ask the question. Imagine Batman, the whole of the intellectual property, the full weight of publication and production history, now 75 years on from its inception, and imagine it as a town. And this pilot episode of Gotham earlier this week, and this summer gone’s celebration of Batman’s 75th, and imagine-Batman-as-a-town is beginning to feel a lot like where Michael Moore grew up (and where he always seems to return to film), and a lot like where Bruce Springsteen sings about circa The River and on through Born in the USA. You know… Middle America, depressed economy, dead-end towns with a single plant, single steel mill or paper mill, and even so, it’s now teetering on the edge of ruin. What Phil Karlson so lovingly captured in the 1973 original and what Kevin Bray could help but reanimate in the 2004 remake of Walking Tall.
Or am I entirely mistaken?
Is this rather a tale of two soundtracks? Instead of Bruce Springsteen in his versus-Reaganomics phase, could this be what we all saw earlier this month? With the new U2’s newest offering Songs of Innocence foisted upon us in the hyper visibility of a free iTunes upload to our devices? You’re probably going to want to don your hockey mask and find out where I live when you say this but… But, once you get behind the name-rip from the William Blake poetry anthology, and once you get beyond the foisting-it-on us all, and if you’re savvy enough to not fall for that “U2’s been doing this all along” hoax, and that almost-necessary doff of the hat to their “influences,” (Joey Ramone, Bob Dylan, no really, Joey Ramone and Bob Dylan) Songs of Innocence is kinda…well…good.
Good in that U2 kind of way. In that they sound originally themselves for arguably the first time since Achtung, Baby. In that they sound like the Roots when they played “in the style of a grand U2 anthem,” on the “Freestylin’ with the Roots” segment of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon that aired this Monday gone (the episode with Sofia Vergara and Megan Boone).
So what do you imagine, when you imagine Batman, the full IP and all of its history, as a town? Do you see the solitary Middle American town where not only jobs but opportunity, capital oh, is drying up? Or do you see, as with the endlessly self-referential U2 Songs of Innocence, a character and a history that perpetually mirrors and reenacts its past in the most postmodern of ways?
Because that’s what’s at stake with Gotham—the question of whether or not we’re living in another Golden Age of Batman, as we did once before in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, or whether we’re facing a storytelling model that’s been hyperextended and is now threatened by self-implosion.
Or to put it another way. Has Batman simply survived, these last 75 years? And if so, is the character now woefully overdue for a radical reboot? Or… or, has the character and the IP as a whole thrived in these last few years, and is there only more and better to come?
First, let’s set aside some shibboleths.
There wasn’t really a Golden Renaissance of the Batman that followed on the double bump of The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Sure the public attention probably helped get Batman made. But for that matter, Batman wasn’t really Batman from the comicbooks realized on screen, was it? It was far too artistic, far too embedded in the early sketchings a unique artistic voice slowly crawling from the runaway success of Beetlejuice towards meditative poise of Edward Scissorhands. It could be argued that we didn’t see Batman’s world fully realized in superhero neorealism grandeur until Nolan’s The Dark Knight. That even Nolan’s panoramic precursor Batman Begins pales in comparison to The Dark Knight. Arguably.
And in the comicbooks, things didn’t spark they way you might have expected either. It would still be a couple of years before the dream team of writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle got anywhere near Detective. And nearly a decade before Knightfall—a Batman story without Batman, and after that, Knightsend, a Batman story where Bruce Wayne slowly rebuilds himself in order to take down his usurper. And it would be pretty much a generation before Grant Morrison wades in with the most postmodern Batman of all—a Batman where his entire publication history is his biography, and all versions of the Batman, no matter how unlikely, how science fictiony, no matter how camp, get integrated in a wonderfully orgasmic vision of the character as he battles with the very Devil.
It’s the scene of this particular crime that Gotham wonders into—at a moment when you begin to wonder, “After Morrison’s Batman, his pre-New 52 Batman, aren’t we living in the days when it’s already been proven that the idea of the Batman, and the idea of the New 52 are at least some level, incompatible?” Or to put that another way, 75 years on, isn’t Batman in some senses at least a little reliant on his publication history? Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s beautifully expansive Batman: Zero Year seems to underscore that notion, as one of the prime Batman creative teams take on the task of inventing a prehistory for the current New 52-rebooted Batman.
Beside the story-of-Batman books we’ve seen over the summer, and the standalone issue #27 of Detective, what else have we seen this year that helps us measure where Batman is in its 75th year? Batman Eternal, the weekly comicbook series. It’s solid, no doubt. It actually tackles the full gamut of Batman genre from large-scale, lurking threats to Gotham, to Bat-agents follow secret crime-trails abroad, to mystical wars between sorcerers and demons, to Arkham explored as a Lovecraftian labyrinth. But compared to other weekly comicbooks, most notably perhaps, 52, Batman Eternal feels a little unwieldy, at times, and at other times, a little too compartmentalized. Like there’s no building towards some grand finale that can possibly incorporate the nanobots that Tim Drake is hunting down, and the threat posed by Hush, and the incarceration of Gordon and the demonic stirrings at Arkham. (And to be fair, I’m sure that once that climax comes it will be obscenely mindblowing. But, it’d be welcome if that sense of grandeur could leak, just a little, into each individual issue a little bit more.)
So beside the things we’ve already seen, or maybe because of them, where do we stand on this weeks pilot of Gotham? Where can we stand? We’ve seen the model play out already, and to incredible success, with Smallville. Who’d thought that something beginning so innocuously in the early fall of 2001, with Clark saving Lex Luthor, could span the 10 seasons that it did? And beginning more than a decade after Smallville, who’d have thought Arrow could be the breakout story it would become—reinvigorating the usually second-string Green Arrow and rocketing the character to widespread mainstream acceptance.
Just for a moment there, maybe the day before the season premiere of Arrow season two, or maybe those handful of moments just as the end-credits roll on season two, episode eight “The Scientist,” when the full weight of Barry Allen’s appearance (Barry before he’s the Flash) sinks in, it seemed like DC-Warner Bros had Disney-Marvel beat in the TV show arena.
And, in walks Gotham, after Disney-Marvel’s crossover of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into Captain America—Winter Soldier and back again. And you’re thinking just a little bit, how’s Gotham struggling to measure up to Selfie?
But let it build. Because ultimately Gotham’s got something in its creative DNA you maybe haven’t noticed yet. Gotham is a through-line for almost everyone involved in it. Take the stalwart, dependable Donal Logue. Remember how much better he was in Terriers than in season two of Life? How great he was in Knights of Prosperity and in Grounded for Life? Imagine where he’ll take us with his Harvey Bullock. And Jada Pinkett Smith—imagine the arc her character, Fish Mooney, will take after Pinkett Smith herself having come through Menace II Society and Set it Off and Ali and both sequels to The Matrix. And Ben Mackenzie having crawled his way through The O.C. and Southland to his role as a young, brash Jim Gordon.
But the most promising of all is showrunner Bruno Heller. Coming through Rome and coming through six seasons of The Mentalist where the main character time and again drew supporting characters into ever more complex understandings of what constituted morality and how that sometimes was at odds with the black & of law. Six seasons of holding on the need for vengeance and yet somehow not being consumed by hate. Patrick Jane, the eponymous Mentalist, is a secret masterpiece of television characterization in the early part of this century.
So I’ll be sticking with Gotham, pretty much because I think it’s got the promise of Hush. You won’t see it yet, in these early stages, but once it’s there, I’m betting it will be big enough to touch on all the genres of the Batman, and make Batman after Morrison look like something entirely different from either a Bruce Springsteen or a U2.