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Does Gotham Need Batman?

I don’t have cable tv, so I watch many of the popular shows months or years after they were aired, when they become available on Netflix or Amazon Prime or when I buy their blu-ray editions. This is why I only recently caught up with Gotham, the gritty series focusing on James Gordon’s youth and his first steps in Gotham Police Department.

Generally, I’m not a fan of DC Universe, and even though when I was young, I enjoyed the 80s and 90s Batman movies, the new ones didn’t manage to enthrall me, so naturally I was quite dubious about the show, but in the end, it surprised me in many positive ways.

The obligatory protagonist

Setting the clock back turned out to be a great way to tell a new story while still keeping some of the iconic characters in it. James Gordon is the center of the show, but throughout the four seasons I’ve seen, his struggle is a simple one: how to be a good man in a bad city. As the story progresses, he doesn’t seem to be able to learn from his mistakes and still puts trust in the wrong people or makes bad decisions. That makes him come across as naive and gullible instead of innocent or righteous, and in the end, he doesn’t seem wiser or wittier than teenage Bruce Wayne who also meanders the storyline trying to be an equal match to ruthless and cunning adults all around him.

The gallery of villains

In contrast to them, the secondary characters are much more interesting bunch. Always plotting, forging shaky alliances, and with betrayal as a part of their modus operandi, they provide a lot more excitement than Bruce’s constant brooding or Gordon’s eagerness to fall into every possible trap.

In a way, Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin like we’ve never known before, becomes the main character on the villains’ side. Still young and not too well-versed in the criminal politics, he’s ruthless and power thirsty, and definitely has all the qualities to become a full-fledged psychopath, but at the same time he’s likable thanks to his unconditional love for his mother and being able to keep his word as well as those rare flashes of traits we attribute to heroes not villains such as compassion or selflessness.

Watching Oswald’s journey as he suffers humiliation and loss, always crawling back up from whatever depths he’d been thrown into, and his ups and downs, makes for a much more interesting show than listening to James’ love interest complaining that her partner cares only about work, and James explaining his perspective back.

Other antagonists don’t disappoint either. All of them, with their interesting back stories and motivations solidified by the complex net of dependencies between them, provide the entertainment that not once nor twice had me exclaim in amusement or surprise.

Who needs the good guys?

In the end, the most boring parts of the four seasons I watched were always related to Bruce Wayne, and whenever he showed up on screen, I wished his scenes were already over. Even the awesome creations of Alfred Pennyworth and interesting portrayal of Selina Kyle couldn’t help it. I felt similar watching James Gordon’s struggles. Although his scenes were usually more interesting, he was mostly the scapegoat for everyone else, and he hardly ever succeeded at anything.

And the longer I thought about, the more I wondered: does Gotham really need Batman? At least in its TV show version, where the good guys fall flat in comparison to the colorful collection of more and less villainous antagonists. With the show’s tendency to resurrect the dead characters in the most surprising ways, there could be no end to the betrayal and revenge cycle, the unlikely alliances, and the play for power.

With the contemporary shows featuring protagonists of questionable morality, honor, or lawfulness, Gotham wouldn’t actually stand out in a bad way if it got rid of its righteous characters and focused on the ones whose actions and ambitions seem to fit Gotham well.
I’d much rather watch the Penguin, Edward Nygma, Barbara Kean, and many other great villains constantly plotting against each other than yet again see Bruce Wayne ponder his mission and pretend he has any kind of choice: after all, he is Batman. Sadly, with the show ending on season 5, my hopes for Batman-less Gotham could only be realized in a spinoff. But hey, why not?

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. sjhigbee

    What an excellent, thoughtful article, Joanna. But perhaps the boring depiction of those protagonists is the whole point – up to now these are the people who have powered the narrative and hogged the spotlight. Maybe the creators of Gotham wanted them there as background fodder to act as a foil for the more interesting, conflicted and perhaps unfairly treated antagonists who previously got such a bad rap…

    1. Melfka

      I’m not sure if it was intentional. After all, the good guys are still the center of the story instead of the background, meandering through it and slowing it down.
      I agree that the antagonists are usually treated badly (cliches, undeveloped backstories, irrational motivations, etc.), and Gotham really lets them shine.

      1. sjhigbee

        Oh yes – but there are a number of successful writers who claim that stories should be powered by the aims of the antagonist and we then see the friction between her and our hero when he thwarts her ambitions.

        1. Melfka

          I tend to be cautious with prescriptions like that. If that means the protagonists just wanders around “being thwarted” (and there’s no real friction), it creates passiveness and boredom – at least for me.

          1. sjhigbee

            Lol… I hadn’t thought of it like that! I think the idea is that sufficient attention should be paid to the antagonist and her objectives, rather than falling back on rather tired old tropes.

          2. Melfka

            I think it works in the novels where there’s an actual antagonist. Gotham is so delicious, because there’s no “real” antagonist: most of the secondary characters may or do become one at some point of time (at the same time, they may or do become protagonist-like). And maybe that’s why I ended up liking it so much.

          3. sjhigbee

            It can be great fun playing with the viewer’s preconceptions:))

  2. J.R.Bee

    We gave up watching it after the eye gouging scene, it just felt like it was getting dark for the sake of it, and as you say, the good guys were meh. Definitely agree that Oswald was definitely the most intriguing character there.

    1. Melfka

      I feel like this was actually the darkest part of the series. Then it got back on track – gritty and cruel, but with that OTT feel of a noir story instead of violent realism.

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