A major cornerstone of superhero entertainment ended this week — and no, it wasn’t the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the finale of Gotham, we lose a wild TV show that knew how to make comic book material weird as hell. While its contemporaries try to honor their source material to please hardcore nerds, Gotham made the bold decision to not give a damn about what longtime Batman fans wanted. The result was a show that was divisive, frequently baffling, crazy as the Joker — and very, very entertaining.
That’s not how it started, though. Gotham was created to be something more like a crime procedural than an action series where costumed heroes and villains square off with all the power of that week’s visual effects budget. It primarily focused on new Gotham City cop Jim Gordon — the future Commissioner Gordon — and nascent crimelord-to-be Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, with frequent check-ins on a school-age Bruce Wayne as he grappled with his parents’ murder.
As someone who recapped the show from the beginning, I can attest that this was a tremendously boring premise. The Gotham City Police Department mainly fought generic mobsters, and occasionally there’d be a cameo by someone the viewer would recognize as a major character in Batman’s future. It turns out that watching 13-year-olds incrementally become superheroes and villains is a hell of a lot less interesting than, you know, actually watching superheroes fight villains. Go figure!
Gotham couldn’t break Batman’s long-established comic book canon, so it could only allude to all the major characters, stories, and relationships that would be established after Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. It was hamstrung by its own premise, because hardcore Bat-fans would never accept it otherwise.
But Gotham eventually made the bold decision to stop caring about decades of established comics that continuity demanded or what nerds wanted, all while other superhero entertainment, from Daredevil to Dawn of Justice, was working so hard to satiate them.
Once season two began, the show started doing whatever it wanted. Gotham began to introduce Batman characters as quickly as possible, especially the villains. Their origins were rescheduled, repurposed, or outright jettisoned. Bruce Wayne’s traditional training to become the world’s greatest fighter and detective was mostly dropped so he could hang around the city and wonder whether Selina, the future Catwoman, was his girlfriend or not. Any important figure in the comics lore could get killed, become good or evil, or end up doing wildly uncharacteristic nonsense just to stay on screen. (Brilliant Wayne Enterprises scientist and future Batman techmaker Lucius Fox once inexplicably spent a season as the GCPD medical examiner, for instance.)
Unlike virtually all of its contemporaries, Gotham also decided that it was no longer interested in that veneer of “real life” that modern superhero entertainment aims for. Instead, the show embraced the zaniness that lurks in the corners of the comics, behind the long-established ideal of Batman as the grim, obsessed, and practically invincible Dark Knight. I knew the show was changing once a centuries-old cult somehow based entirely around hating the Wayne family arrived in town.
Other standout material:
- The Penguin, through the use of “crime licenses,” managed to bring crime in Gotham City to historic lows. The heroic Jim Gordon became so pissed about people losing faith in the police that he teamed up with the mafia to end the Penguin’s reign of peace and safety.
- The show introduced Jerome, a kid who had the Joker’s smile and laugh. Over the next few seasons, Jerome got the green hair and pasty complexion and eventually discovered a penchant for purple outfits and poison gas that made people laugh themselves to death. He was literally the Joker in all but name, but then Gordon killed him. Then they revealed Jerome’s twin brother, who also turned into a Joker simulacrum.
- Gotham brought in veteran musical actor Michael Cerveris to play the incredibly disturbing villain Professor Pyg and then gave him his own musical number — during which he forced Gotham City’s rich and famous to eat homeless people.
- Some lunatic cut off dead Jerome’s face and wore it in a ridiculous attempt to be the pre-Joker. When Jerome woke up, he stapled his skin back on, allowing for a scene late in season three when Gordon literally punched his face off.
- Finally, the Penguin fell in love with the Riddler, a wholly original development that came complete with a genuinely romantic scene that looked for all the world like it was leading to a kiss between the two murderous villains. Alas, the bad guys didn’t lock lips — the Riddler only loved Penguin as a friend — but that didn’t make Batman fandom go any less bananas.
I remember very distinctly watching the mouths of these two supervillains get closer and closer, my jaw literally open in total disbelief at how willing the show was to revise established Batman canon. When so many other comic book adaptations have shied away from openly depicting characters as LGBTQ (Black Panther and Wonder Woman among them), Gotham made the Penguin’s homosexuality a visceral revelation, even though it was unspoken and unrequited. That’s fantastic. I only wish DC Comics had the bravery to incorporate this into the comics universe.
And though Gotham featured constant and often incredibly graphic violence — a child’s throat was visibly slit, despite the show airing around dinnertime — it also gleefully embraced the campy vibe of the 1966 Batman TV show from time to time. It had range!
And while some Bat-nerds might consider any Adam West homage to be the gravest insult possible, I think it’s one of Gotham’s strengths. In its weird way, Gotham managed to celebrate Batman without ever really showing the character himself. There was something massively compelling about watching a comic book adaptation where, for the first time in goodness knows how long, viewers had absolutely no clue what was going to happen.
But that’s not what most hardcore fans want. They want what they know and love, rendered as faithfully as possible to the original scripture. Gotham’s ratings steadily declined over its five seasons. Was this because it stopped kowtowing to the fans that most nerd entertainment tries so hard to reach and please? Was it just the increasingly bloated market of superhero shows? Only the world’s greatest detective could find out, but alas, Gotham’s young Bruce Wayne was never the sharpest batarang in the utility belt.
That’s fine by me. I’d never before seen a Bruce Wayne who had no interest in bats, a Jim Gordon whose moral code shifted randomly each episode, and two — two! — Joker wannabes. And now that the show is over, I’ll never get to see them again. In all honesty, Gotham was almost certainly the least accurate Batman origin story ever told. But that never once stopped it from being entertaining as hell. Your move, Marvel.