Gotham

gothamPrequels – they’ve become the rage. And we have Smallville to thank for this.

Smallville (2001) told the story of a young Clark Kent as he developed his powers and learned about his heritage and his role on Earth – the foundation of why he’d one day become Superman.

For the most part, Smallville works. Casting is great, with Tom Welling (Clark Kent) and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) brilliant in their roles. The writers also recognized the spirit of the Superman character, instead of making him the gloomy, mopey, emo Superman who appears in Zack Snyder’s two interpretations (Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman). Where the show can struggle is it can be formulaic (a freak of week Clark has to tackle – although this isn’t surprising with twenty-plus episodes per season), and in the continuity the canon has to recognize once the characters move to Metropolis. But otherwise, it’s definitely worth watching.

Then Christopher Nolan gave us Batman Begins (2005), which looks at how Bruce Wayne became Batman – beyond the murder of his parents which fuels him, but also looking at his physical and psychological training. Nolan also grounds the character so that everything we see could just about be possible in our world.

Gotham (2014) tells the story of the younger Bruce Wayne, picking up the story shortly after Thomas and Martha Wayne are killed, and follows Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) tackling police corruption and a city run by the underworld, as well as the emergence of villains from the Batman mythology. Effectively, everybody gets a prequel story, which sounds great in theory.

Right?

 
What Works
Um, nothing?

That’s harsh.

The casting is generally good. Robin Lord Taylor is exceptional as Oswald Cobblepot, the man who’ll one day become the Penguin. McKenzie is solid as Gordon, as is Donal Louge as his questionable partner, Harvey Bullock. The show looks great, too.

But that’s about it.

 
What Doesn’t Work
Gotham is already overrun with crime and the police department is corrupt. How much worse can it get?

Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) spends a lot of his time in his study, whining. Even if you knew nothing about the Batman mythology, you would’ve thought that after his parents were killed, he’d throw himself into becoming stronger so the same fate never befalls him, e.g. getting self-defense lessons, learning karate, lifting a weight or two, and so on. We’re talking about a kid who’s meant to be so messed up that he eventually becomes Batman. Wayne in Gotham is a whiny brat. I can only foresee that this Bruce Wayne will become Bratman.

Lots of the crimes that do happen are offbeat (for the want of a better word) – a precursor, no doubt, to what Gotham will one day become, although (as a friend put it) it feels more like it’s a precursor to the Adam West Batman (1966) series. For example, in an early episode, a murderer kills their victims by strapping a weather balloon to their wrists so they float up into the sky. The detective work behind investigating these crimes is banal.

Most of the villains from Batman’s rogues’ gallery are loitering around in one form or another. Bratty Wayne even hangs around with a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who’ll become Catwoman. And all these characters revolve around Gordon. You wonder why these relationships don’t come into play when Gordon is promoted to Commissioner. It seems he knows everybody. He has a perverse friendship with Cobbeplot.

That’s not to say you can’t make these relationships work. Smallville did it, with Clark becoming friends with Lex Luthor (before he became evil), and falling in love with Lois Lane (Erica Durance). But in Gotham the use of these characters feels more like a menagerie of name-dropping.

 
How I Would’ve Done It
Because it’s a television series, I’m not going to look at a specific story, but setting up the world to sustain a season’s worth of stories.

Foremost, the city of Gotham needs a revamp. It needs to be beautiful, with low crime rates. It should be the city where everybody wants to live. The police department is beyond reproach. The Mayor – backed by Thomas and Martha Wayne – has a zero tolerance for crime. This set-up works better because we can see the city decline. We can see the underworld start to run the city. We can see the police department grow corrupt. This also gives impetus as to why Bruce Wayne becomes Batman – he’s trying to return the city to what it was and, by an extension of that, undo the murder of his parents. We have an arc then: what the city was, and what it becomes. We also have motivation.

Following Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths, Wayne Enterprise founders as there’s spills on the board with various directors trying to take control – some trying to uphold the Waynes’ benevolent programs, while others are more interested in profit. This affects the city and the incumbent Mayor.

Fast-forward a couple of years. One of my issues in the existing Gotham is Bruce just seems too young to have any direct influence on the story. Push him up to fourteen or fifteen and he can start to fraternize with adults without being considered just a brat. He has trained obsessively, running through disciplines (e.g. karate, kung fu, etc.), retaining the best instructors from around the world. At night, he goes out and hangs around with the wrong crowds, trying to understand what makes these people tick. The murder of his parents haunts him. His daredevil behavior desensitizes him to fear.

A detective is reassigned to the Gotham Police Department, and finds not that they’re corrupt, but complacent. They’ve had it good too long. This is a worry because there’s scuttlebutt of a new crime boss who’s organizing the underworld and extending their influence. As the story goes on, the detective learns about other detectives who begin to accept bribes. The crime boss’s influence grows pervasive. He gets behind a political candidate to oppose the Mayor, who’s begun struggling without the backing of the Waynes. The boss tries to eliminate his rivals. This begins a gang war – the first time Gotham has experienced such bloodshed.

So far, I haven’t used any names from the Batman canon, outside of Bruce Wayne. These would all be new characters. The established characters regiment the universe, where – at this point – the universe should be nebulous. This gives greater license to maneuver. Then those existing characters can gradually be seeded in as Gotham continues to devolve, with a view that the universe grows more colourful and idiosyncratic as it goes on.

MovieRant: Evolution.

A counter that’s often thrown my way when I question movies is, Why criticize it? As if by the virtue of paying to see a movie – thus investing in being entertained – means I should check my brain at the door before taking a seat in the cinema and just unquestioningly accept everything I see and hear from that point.

This is becoming a popular mindset in regards to watching movies nowadays, although if this is the attitude, then how can there ever be a bad movie? Roll out a shocker, no problem – don’t question it. Of course, we don’t do that. At some point, critique emerges. But what line needs to be crossed before a movie becomes acceptable to criticism?

Many forgive mainstream movies of stupidities if they look pretty. That’s how simple it is. Let’s not question the immense dumbness of Star Trek into Darkness because it’s so nice to look at and listen to, it’s well cast, it’s slickly made, it’s decently acted, it ticks so many criteria, why be troubled by the stupidity and convenience of the plotting?

Similarly with Man of Steel. It ticked all those boxes. Why should we care if the character portrayed in Man of Steel is virtually the antithesis of Superman? This is Superman for a new era. Just because the character has survived in comics, five previous movies, and three television series as a boy scout, why should we feel betrayed by the representation of a grittier, angst-ridden Superman? Let’s not question it.

Let’s just sit back and watch.

How has this become the prevalent attitude?

At some point through the 1990s, Hollywood grew dumb. I blame the modern action blockbuster, championed by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then succeeded by Bruce Willis, amongst others.

Think about it.

Stallone’s first Hollywood hit was Rocky (1976), a story about a million-to-one-shot bum of a boxer who gets a chance at the heavyweight title and pushes the champion the distance. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture (Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff), Best Director (John G. Avildsen), and Best Film Editing (Richard Halsey, Scott Conrad), and was nominated for Best Actor (Sylvester Stallone), Best Actress (Talia Shire), Best Supporting Actor (Burgess Meredith), and Best Supporting Actor (Burt Young).

That’s an impressive CV.

But as the Rocky movies went on, each became more outlandish than its predecessor. The fights played like computer games, with the characters slugging the crap out of one another. We questioned it, comparing it to the reality of boxing. Boxers don’t really hit each other that much! But we also loved it. It ticked all those other criteria. Each movie also had stories, too, (even if Rocky IV was unimaginably silly).

Stallone’s Rambo movies are another evolution in outrageousness. Watch First Blood, and nothing happens that couldn’t really happen if a Green Beret decided to go nuts in the woods and hunt down local constabulary. Rambo: First Blood Part II had the titular character heading to Vietnam to rescue POWs. Forget stealth here. None of the enemies could shoot straight. The issue was exacerbated in Rambo III, and culminated with Rambo ramming a helicopter with a tank.

This loss of reality and increase in explosive absurdity with the action has been a natural progression for action movies. Look at the Die Hard series, or the Lethal Weapon series. Each began with a tight story that contained some action. They ended with action into which a story had been interwoven to hold it all together. Similarly, Schwarzenegger’s roles got more and more unbelievable until they even had us trying to believe he could play the Governor of California. Oh wait.

The point is proportion was lost. Story steadily became secondary. What improved throughout was the art of moviemaking. Each movie looked better than the last. Action had to be bigger than its predecessor (or its competitors). Effects took a quantum leap with the introduction of CGI, (although in sci-fi movies, I still think models look better).

Naturally, then, when new movies were introduced this was the way to do it. Nobody wanted throwback action flicks. This was the new template – and it’s a template that’s been pounded, seemingly irreversibly, into contemporary moviemaking by the saturation of franchises that are nothing but action (e.g. Star Trek, Transformers, Man of Steel, Spiderman, etc.), even if their predecessors and/or source material were not.

Every now and again, somebody will surprise, as Christopher Nolan did with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, two action movies that are (for the most part) tightly plotted. Sadly – and perhaps as proof of how superficial moviemaking has become – this isn’t the aspect of them which is emulated. Instead, what’s copied is the way they ‘look’, because this is what’s deemed important – getting the aesthetic quality right.

Generations of cinema-goers have been programmed into accepting this as the standard. They don’t want to be challenged. They want the pretty effects, the breathtaking visuals, and the stirring score. Their ability to be analytical and objective has atrophied. If a good movie comes along, they don’t recognise it. Instead, we get them championing overrated flicks or total turds because it meets the criteria they can now best empathise with: Wow! It’s pretty!

Well, not me.

I saw Rush the other week, which is an enjoyable retelling of the 1976 Formula 1 Champion Season, and the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. I have no interest in F1 but it was a great story (although reality had all the elements required) well told.

Pity instead of more movies like this we’ll just get another Transformers reboot.