There are some endlessly debatable nerd arguments that will vex comic store customers and internet commenters for generations. However, one of them is an easy answer and that’s, “Who has the best villains’ gallery?” No question, it’s Batman. There’s no stronger, more iconic gallery of rogues, killers, super-villains, and psychopaths than those belonging to the Dark Knight. For people trying to adapt comics to a larger screen, it seems like the perfect well to draw from for bad guys audiences love.
The writers and creators of Gotham clearly know this. Season 1 is loaded with cameos and references to villains from all levels of the Batman mythos. Joker shows up no less than three times with different origins in each appearance. Edward Nygma, the man on his way to being the Riddler, is a recurring character. Mr. Zsasz is cutting up bodies almost from the word go. The Penguin makes his first, tentative, waddling steps to taking over organized crime in the pilot. Harvey Dent, filled with boiling over rage, appears as an up and coming prosecutor. The would-be Catwoman and Poison Ivy are palling around together as soon as they meet. Gotham feels chock-full of villains before the Bat-signal ever lights up the city’s sky and there’s something fundamentally wrong about that.
On the one hand, I understand it. People obviously want to see the Batman villains they know and love but Gotham struggles from the first episode to actually do those characters justice. By putting them in a context where Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman and Gotham City hasn’t been taken over by super-powered criminals, they’re a little empty, lacking that spark that makes them who they are. Part of that is a tonal mishmash that just doesn’t work.
See, the writers set up Gotham as a story of cops and robbers first and a story about a young Bruce Wayne and the enemies who will define him second. They try valliantly to set up the idea that before Batman arrives, Gotham City is dominated by organized crime, the warring forces of the Carmine and Falcone families leaving a scar of vice and violence on the city. That’s defensible and has a basis in the fiction but the two never truly occupy the same level because one comics moment permanently separates the two.
For that, let’s consider the most important Batman story of all time, Batman: Year One. Originally printed as Batman #404-407 in 1987, written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzucchelli, Year One has been the definitive Batman origin story for nearly 30 years, despite numerous attempts to dethrone or write around it (see Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s excellent, stylish prequel/retcon “Year Zero” for a perfect example of paying respect to the classic while blazing a new path). In Batman #405, Bruce Wayne, finally embracing the mystique and terror of the Bat, breaks into a mansion where Gotham’s most elite criminals celebrate their dominance of the city. In their moment of triumph, Batman reveals how everything will now change.
“Ladies, gentleman, you have eaten well,” Batman says, his first line of dialogue in costume. “You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth, its spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on – – none of you are safe.” One the one hand, it’s a perfect moment from Mazzuchelli and Miller, showing the strength, determination and terror their hero embodies but, more importantly, it’s where Gotham as a city changes. The feast is over. The Gotham City that belongs to the mob is dead. It belongs to Batman now and the only force that can oppose Batman are his real rogues. The feast is over. The new party arrives just as one iconic page turns.
So what’s this incredibly long transgression clearing up again? Well, what I’m trying to say is that the aforementioned feast should be in full force in every episode of Gotham. This is the time when the mob bleeds Gotham City dry, feasting on the bones of something that was once beautiful and grand. Gotham City doesn’t change until that moment in Year One, when Batman announces himself with a gorgeous, elegant threat. His arrival is what changes things. The villains aren’t villains until Batman ends the feast, until he truly “becomes a bat.”
I know what you’re wanting to shout at me. You scream, “But the mobsters are boring, I want the Joker! I want Mr. Freeze! I want Killer Whale! Give me my villains!” Now, hopefully you’re not the one person who loves Killer Whale, but I think it’s possible to balance having these villains with keeping a grounded feel. Keeping characters like Harvey Dent, someone hinting at the future of violence he holds, is a good way to balance two needs while staying true to the characters of the universe. It’s possible to do the same here. Put a little kid in clown makeup but he shouldn’t be poisoning a river full of fish or taking over an amusement park for a very long time. He’ll get his turn at the dinner table.