Original Airdate: March 7th, 2016 on FOX
Comic book superheroes have been filling airtime on your television since the 1960s, but the 21st century bore witness to an endless flurry of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the concordant money blizzard meant that TV shows weren’t far behind. In Hollywood, there’s one thing that’s better than beating a dead horse, and that’s beating someone else’s dead horse, so Warner belatedly caught on and introduced us to their own “extended universe.” DC has been less vigilant about brand synergy, so Gotham kinda-sorta stands on its own, disregarding the fact that it’s soaked and dripping with Batman intellectual property jizz. Between 2012 and today, a whopping total of 10 MCU/DCEU properties have darkened our screens, and that’s not including shows based on comics from DC’s Vertigo imprint, like iZombie, Preacher, and Lucifer. Really, the impressive thing is that I went through 66 other shows before arriving at the groaning board of comic book grimdark that made action movies (temporarily) obsolete.
- Impressive special effects. It’s nice to live in an era where the special effects necessary for a vaguely supernatural action-adventure crime procedural don’t reduce the viewer to Manimal-grade fits of hysterics. The nice people behind Gotham are quickly digging through their supply of famous Batman villains, which I’m sure will lead to an excellent confrontation with Calendar Man in season 7. Tonight’s offering, along with its immediate predecessor, tells us the sad tale of the rise and fall of Mr. Freeze, aka Victor Fries (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards.) And where would Mr. Freeze be without blasts of icy death? Gotham’s finest stumble upon a victim who was shooting his gun mid-freeze, and the bullet is captured mid-air like an icicle emerging from the gun. At one point Fries throws an ice grenade into the For-All-Intents-And-Purposes East River, and the instantaneous appearance of giant icy spikes is very satisfying. The show doesn’t waste all its industrial light & magic on Freeze, either—Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) is briefly subjected to questionable mad-science based therapy and some fun color filters and deft camera-work does a lot of heavy lifting on behalf of the audience’s atrophied imagination.
- Strong ensemble cast. Taylor’s Penguin is the real discovery here, and his range is fantastic—mincing, brooding, menacing, sycophantic and downright maniacal—but the cast is almost exclusively (see below) excellent. I can never get enough Donal Logue (Ghost Rider) and he inhabits the role of the Bad Cop nicely. B.D. Wong (Jurassic World) is delightful as the cartoonishly fiendish Hugo Strange. Erin Richards does well as Barbara Kean in what could have been a very dull role, although in this episode she’s in a coma, so it’s not going to show up on the sizzle reel. You may also have heard about how Jada Pinkett Smith made an enormous splash as Fish Mooney in season one, so, yeah, the casting directors know what they’re doing. For the most part.
- Atmospheric. At least 50% of any given Batman narrative is nailing the feel of Gotham City and environs. It’s a caricature of the most forbidding parts of New York in particular and the urban experience in general. It’s outrageous wealth and intimidating architecture. You get the sense that the show understands this even in its stock transition shots, which swoop across the forbidding skyline. Arkham Asylum is an experience unto itself, a total institution straight out of the nineteenth century and packed to the gills with colorful sociopaths. Once again, Gotham gets it right—the sets, the lighting, the classic jailbird outfits. The bat cave is also everything you’d want in a bat cave—stalactites, mysterious water source, late Victorian lighting fixtures and all the trimmings of a research laboratory perfect for a weirdo who hangs out in a cave under his mansion.
- Making the best out of a tired Mr. Freeze story. The way the show handles Freeze is something of a disappointment. Every other villain you’d care to name gets a unique origin story—Penguin, The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), Poison Ivy (Clare Foley, Sinister). What does Mr. Freeze get? Dying wife, same as in town. Why reinvent the canon everywhere but here? Tip: If for some reason you’re trying to bring Mr. Freeze back into the public consciousness of people who don’t read comic books, the last thing you want is to remind anyone of Batman & Robin. At least they managed to resist ice-related puns. This episode has a fun twist, though—Victor’s long-suffering wife Nora (Kristen Hager, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) decides she’s had enough of her husband’s crime spree and her own terminal illness and kills herself with Victor’s own defective cryogenic solution. I’m choosing to interpret this as a political victory for the death with dignity movement.
- Bruce Wayne. Here’s another tip. Thinking about using child actors? Think again, motherfucker. It’s not really actor David Mazouz’s fault—the least interesting thing about any Batman story is Batman himself, and I assume Bruce’s flat affect and critical lack of a personality is as written. The thing is, this story is about the world of Batman before Batman is a major player on the scene. I would be thrilled if Bruce was featured only occasionally and when absolutely necessary. He is not necessary here.
- Gordon. And while we’re at it, there’s a major exception to the praise I’ve doled out for the casting on this show. Ben McKenzie’s Gordon has the charisma of a deck of beige paint samples, which would be okay if he were a minor character. Instead, he’s the main event. This isn’t the first network drama to have a painfully bland white man holding down the top billing—I see you, Lost—and God knows it won’t be the last. It does take the wind out of the sails for many of the storylines, though. I know I’m supposed to care about Gordon’s slow descent into the dark side. I understand how Gordon and his lover, Leslie (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) are meant to form a thematic pair with the Frieses. I remain unmoved.
- Contrivance. The big set piece in this episode entails Freeze taking Arkham by storm to rescue Nora. Why is Nora there? Oh, because the cops decided that they couldn’t secure a room in a regular hospital or at the police station, so clearly the best thing to do was to take her to a prison for the criminally insane. This yields dividends—seeds are planted for the ongoing relationship between Strange and Freeze, Gordon is forced to come face to face with Penguin after letting Penguin take the fall for a murder they were both involved in—but it feels pretty cheap since the whole reason all the characters came to Arkham in the first place was complete fucking nonsense.
Final Judgment: 6/10. The media landscape is saturated with superheroes right now, and DC is as usual behind the eight ball, but based on what I’ve seen of the rest of their TV shows, Gotham might be the best of a bad lot. Team Marvel for the win.
NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been a little over a year since I reviewed The Wrong Mans, so in honor of that I’ll review another British buddy comedy: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere.
Original Airdate: September 15th, 2006 on Cartoon Network
After forays into the world of ill-conceived watered down superhero cartoons, it’s refreshing to get to watch a show based on classic comic book heroes. DC and Marvel comics are the foundation of the superhero genre for good reason–they offer detailed, well thought out worlds with a rich internal history, frequently backed by considerably talented artists and writers. Of course, no decade spanning enterprise is entirely consistent, but at least the characters here have more resonant mythology than some nonsense cranked out to sell action figures or to keep something airing on the Nicktoons network.
It’s somewhat inaccurate to call this an “episode,” since as with Danny Phantom and Angelina Ballerina I’m reviewing something intended to be a “TV movie,” although since none of these things cracks an hour thirty, that distinction may be somewhat dubious. The Teen Titans television franchise continues to thrive–in 2013 Cartoon Network started airing a spin-off entitled Teen Titans Go!, which is enjoying considerable critical acclaim among critics sad and nerdy enough to spend all their time reviewing children’s cartoons. Ahem.
- Animation. It’s really quite stunning. The combination between DC and Warner Brothers is a winning one, since both are entities with a long-established reputation for making their mark in a visual medium. The coloring, the level of detail, the fluid sense of kinetics–it’s a feast for the eyes, and it really plays to the show’s strengths as an action-oriented thrill-ride with one foot firmly in the world of fantasy. It’s hard to capture in a still, especially when I only have Google Images to rely on, but here’s a taste.
- Action sequences. Speaking of this show being action-oriented, Titans nails the fight scenes. The show opens with a no-holds-barred battle in the Titans’ generic urban home of Jump City as they face off against the mysterious, ninja-esque Saico-Tek (Keone Young, Men In Black 3.) Saico-Tek deploys modified shuriken bombs that emit gorgeous clouds of multicolored smoke on impact as everyone races through the city and struggles to capture him. The Titans travel to Tokyo to determine who sent Saico-Tek. Eventually, Robin (Scott Menville) and Saico-Tek reprise the initial battle by engaging in some impressive rooftop acrobatics, and the climactic scenes feature each member of the Titans facing off against unique, day-glo colored nemeses. I mean, chances are the average eight year old is not tuning in for the scriptwriting, and for those viewers these action sequences are guaranteed to satisfy.
- Superpowers. These sequences are amplified by the fact that the Titans have some pretty badass powers. It won’t surprise people with a passing franchise with the Batman franchise that Robin uses hand-to-hand combat skills and the usual high-tech gadgetry to best his enemies, but Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) is essentially an Animorph without all the weird terms and conditions. You’re lying if you tell me you have no interest whatsoever in seeing a pterodactyl fight a ninja. Raven (Tara Strong, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic) is equally badass, using her command of black magic to astrally project, teleport, generate force fields, manipulate objects and generally kick ass, and because the visuals are so on point you can bet it looks cool as fuck.
- Meta-commentary. So it turns out that the animating force behind Saico-Tek and his cohorts is very literally an animating force. He’s Brushogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Mortal Kombat), a manga artist whose rapacious desire to see his creations come to life led him to eventually gain the ability to actually bring monsters to life using ink and paper. Corrupt police commander Uehara Daizo (Young) traps Brushogun inside a cursed printing press and uses him to generate monsters to keep the police force looking necessary and useful. Of course, all the monsters the Titans fight are merely ink and paper brought to life by twisted minds, and the creatures that Brushogun spawns are all riffs on well-known anime characters. Daizo himself looks an awful lot like Inspector Zenigata from Lupin the Third. Clever!
- “Humor.” Unfortunately, I wish there was more of that cleverness to go around. Now, the show’s not without its risible moments–Raven bemoans not having a steady supply of gas-guzzling SUVs to hurl at an attacking Godzilla-esque monster, since all the streets of Tokyo have to offer are sensible fuel-efficient sedans. Later, she ends up becoming the incongruous celebrity spokeswoman for “Super Twinkle Donkey Gum.” Meanwhile, Cyborg (Khary Payton) pulls a Homer Simpson at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, so the chef (Young) tries to slow his roll with an endless variety of disgusting foods, including “an old boot stuffed with wasabi.” But once again, Titans offers us a case study in a non-comedy’s inability to restrain itself from trying to tell jokes when it doesn’t have any good jokes to tell. The main offender here is Beast Boy, who is aggressively telegraphed as being Wacky and Irreverent. The writers seem to have been instructed that every appearance by Beast Boy on screen must be accompanied by dreadful attempts at lulz. Upon landing in Tokyo, he asks when they’ll get to see the Great Wall. When Robin instructs Saico-Tek to put his hands in the air and Saico-Tek flies off instead, Beast Boy rejoins “Hands in the air, man, not your whole body!” He even gets a stupid and entirely pointless musical number so we can enjoy an extended riff on Engrish karaoke lyrics. HO HO HO
- Unnecessary romance. Regular visitors to this space will know if that there’s one thing I love, it’s stupid tacked on romance plotlines. I mean, what 8 year old wouldn’t want smoochies in her action packed superhero cartoon? Clearly that is why one watches action packed superhero cartoons! Especially when the romance features the least charismatic character on the show, i.e. Robin. Sure, Robin is the de facto leader of the Titans–probably because he’s the only one of them the casual fan has ever heard of–but he’s also a humorless prig. The main obstacle to his burgeoning romance with Starfire (Hynden Walch, Adventure Time) is the fact that he believes he has to devote 100% to superheroism related activities and can give no quarter to the frivolities of romance. How, uh, relatable. I mean, he doesn’t even have eyes. Why not Starfire and Cyborg? I suppose I complained because Ballerina didn’t take the opportunity in its final movie-length outing to explore the romantic potential between Angelina and William, but that’s not so much something it was missing but something it coyly teased at on its way to having no plot whatsoever. It could have easily been just as boring as the Robin/Starfire romance.
- Orientalism. So I understand the strong appeal of telling a story about Americans in Japan–the two countries have a similar quality of life but are almost completely antipodal in terms of culture. It’s an especially good fit for Titans because its animation style is dripping with anime tropes. (I don’t think it’d be unfair to say that Titans offers the best of both anime and western animation.) For the most part, Titans manages to avoid the gigantic steaming pile of racist/orientalist/exoticist tropes that frequently come along when the west looks at the east. There are definitely some stinkers, though. How did Brushogun get his powers? Oh, by dabbling with “Japanese black magic,” of course. The disgruntled sushi chef doesn’t just serve Cyborg the old boot full of wasabi, he also feeds him eyeballs and other various Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-grade bullshit. I mentioned above that each of the Titans faces a custom nemesis as designed by Brushogun. Beast Boy’s nemesis lures him onto the battlefield of her choice by appearing to him as a comely Japanese schoolgirl, and of course Beast Boy can’t resist the primal forces of lechery. What 8 year old doesn’t want to fuck a Japanese schoolgirl?
Motivation: Knowledge. Saico-Tek attacks the Titans and they have no idea why. There’s an excuse for an investigatory road trip if ever I heard one!
Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. Titans is far from a must-see, but it gets the meat and potatoes of the superhero genre right.
NEXT TIME: I review Gracepoint to see how well it compares to its ancestor Broadchurch!