Thursday, September 25, 2014

Agents of GOTHAM: Matt on Gotham and Dan on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I went into the series premiere of Gotham with both anticipation and trepidation. There are two kinds of comic book fans: the kind who get a hopeful swell every time a new translation or series for their favorite character appears, and the kind who wants to tear it down because it's not their version of the character. I am, I'd like to think quite obviously, the former. And a new Batman TV series? How could I not look forward to that? But it's not really Batman, or it is in the same way Smallville was Superman; a prequel where we won't actually see the hero that drives the action. So I was wondering if Jim Gordon could carry a pilot, let alone a series. And while the jury is till out on the series, the pilot was highly enjoyable.

I was surprised to see that the first character viewers see is neither Bruce Wayne or Jim Gordon, but a young Selina Kyle. I took this as something of a good sign, since I felt it meant we would be dealing with the wider world of Gotham, as the title indicates, and not just these dual narratives of Bruce and Jim. This is, of course, quickly followed by the iconic murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of Bruce, and the pilot deals mostly with Jim Gordon and his partner, Harvey Bullock, investigating the Wayne murders and running afoul of the mob. We get to see how these two police play off each other, with the more by the books Gordon and the more corrupt Bullock, and we get some great moments between them, some serious and some actually pretty funny. The hierarchy of the Gotham mob is established, with appearances by classic characters like Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot and Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, and new mobsters like Fish Mooney and most of her crew. There are plenty of other Batman universe cameos, but you don't need any real knowledge of the character history to watch the episode.

Ben McKenzie's got some big shoes to fill as Jim Gordon, and I think he did a solid job of it in this episode. He's driven, honest, but doesn't come off as a boy scout. He has an edge to him that I feel works for the modern portrayal of Gordon. If you had asked me any actor in Hollywood to play Harvey Bullock, I would have said Donal Logue, and I was right; he was born to play Bullock. He has the right mix of humor and violence. I was also impressed with Robin Lord Taylor's Oswald Cobblepot, as it is clearly two roles, the one he plays as an obsequious toady to his mob boss, and the other when he's making deals with the GCPD. But the biggest surprise and relief was David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne. I was worried about how Bruce Would be portrayed, either as a lost sniveling kid or as Batman already, but the writers, and Mazouz, found a nice balance. There are moments where Bruce does indeed seem lost, but at least one other between him and Alfred, played in the Michael Caine "old soldier" model by Sean Pertwee, where we see the kind of steel he has in him.

The look of the series is nothing unfamiliar to anyone who has watched any of the modern live action interpretations of Batman. Gotham is a dark, rundown city. It does feel more in line with the Nolan films, which clearly influenced the production, than the more surreal Burton ones, but the influence of all of them are felt. I liked the way the episode was shot as well (with the exception of a couple of odd shots of McKenzie's face as he chases the man he thinks killed the Waynes, done with what felt like a handheld camcorder). There were some very nice shots, especially of Selina scaling roofs and of Gordon approaching Wayne Manor that stick out in my mind.

If you are a continuity nut who is bothered by changes to the existing canon in adaptation, well... I'd probably steer clear. There are lots of tweaks that will drive you nuts. Oh, one thing I noted that pleased me in this regard: I did my best to go as unspoiled as possible by casting announcements, so I didn't realize that Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen would be characters in the show as GCPD officers (by comic continuity, Montoya wouldn't have been born yet, or be in diapers, and Allen would still be in Metropolis). So we have two principal police characters, both of color, and Montoya is clearly still a lesbian. After the discussions about the straight-washing of John Constantine for his new series, it's good to see Gotham not only keeping Montoya's orientation, but making it a plot point without making it something that is going to define her character.

OK, folks, SPOILER HATS ON: I've been general so far, but I really want to discuss the one aspect of the pilot that has me... not nervous, since this is a different vision of Batman, but a bit disappointed. Anyone who has read a mystery novel or watched a cop show could tell that the death of the Waynes was a hit, not a mugging, pretty much straight away, and this is borne out by the episodes end. I have never liked this version of Batman's origin. I feel the randomness of the crime makes it much more poignant; it's not about taking out the mob (that's the Punisher's schtick), it's about stopping crime from hurting anyone else. I just feel like something that is elemental to Batman is lost when it's not a random crime. I can see why they chose to do it, as it gives Gordon something to investigate and something he can get close to solving, so he doesn't look like a major loser since he can't take out any of the major villains they'll be introducing, but I wish there was a way that didn't invalidate something I find important to what Batman is. SPOILER HATS OFF

So, in the end, what do we get? We get a  stylish crime drama pilot, with a bit of the procedural and a bit of the noir tossed in. A lot happens in the episode, more than we get in two or three episodes of some shows, so that's a point in it's favor for me, who likes a densely packed show. There are solid performances. And there's the beginning of a new interpretation of the Batman mythos. While I'm not one hundred percent sold, I think there's a lot of potential here, and I'll be back next week.

The show that wasn’t very interesting for most of its first season then got much, much better for five episodes is BACK! And I’m happy to report that even without Bill Paxton stealing every scene, Agents of SHIELD has retained the quality it finally unlocked earlier this year.

When we last left Joss Whedon’s band of misfit spies, Agent Coulson had been given directorship of a new, post-Hydra SHIELD, complete with a new base and a new clone of Agent Koenig (yay for more Patton Oswalt!).

As the new director – Nick Fury went underground at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Coulson has distanced himself from his agents, with the possible exceptions of May and Koenig, as he tries to recruit new ones who won’t whisper “Hail Hydra” in Gary Shandling’s ear when no one’s looking. In the meantime, he’s padding out the ranks with old contacts and mercs, among them Isabelle Hartley, played by Lucy Lawless, returning to sci-fi/action/adventure after playing Ron Swanson’s love interest on Parks and Recreation.

The show opens strong, in 1945, with a couple of Hydra leftovers debating their next move and revealing the MCU’s latest macguffin – a tiny version of a mall art installation that just happens to have the same Kree gibberish inscribed on it that we saw last season – when in walks Peggy Carter and Howling Commandos Dum Dum Dugan and Jim Morita to round up the stragglers and ponder the German word for nuts.

Said macguffin, referred to as “the obelisk,” wound up in SHIELD hands and later on the black market amid the insurrection. Coulson’s crew are attempting to track it down when they are forced to confront a new baddie from the Marvel pantheon, Carl “Crusher” Creel, the Absorbing Man, who is able to take on the properties of any material he touches and is often depicted as a shirtless, bald weirdo wielding an old-timey prison ball-and-chain. Suffice it to say, the TV version looks much cooler – so much so that it feels like the show maybe got a bump in its effects budget.

So what else have the agents been up to since last we left them? Well, they’re keeping turncoat Ward locked up in their new base, sending Skye to visit him whenever Coulson thinks he can provide useful information. Ward apparently has been using his time behind laser-bars to grow a beard, try to kill himself and work on his Hannibal Lecter impression. At least it’s made him more interesting.

Meanwhile, Ward’s replacement, Agent Triplett, is still around, thankfully. The grandson of Howler Gabe Jones was a welcome addition to the show last season and a far more watchable good guy than his predecessor.

Back in the lab, Fitz, the male of the two Hogwarts post-grad students who heretofore made up the team’s science unit, is having problems remembering words and otherwise doing the things for which he was hired after nearly drowning last season. He’s also hallucinating conversations with his former partner, Simmons, who it’s later revealed is no longer on the team, so he’s essentially their brain-damaged ward, having A Beautiful Mind conversations with himself. This gives Koenig more room to act as Coulson’s Q-style consigliere.

Also back is Adrian Pasdar as Brig. Gen. Glenn Talbot, the military hardass who decided that after the Hydra insurrection, all SHIELD personnel, good or bad, needed to be rounded up. Amid the quest for the macguffin and fighting the Absorbing Man, Coulson has his people steal a Quinjet from Talbot, so they have a transport unit with a cloaking device.

On the whole, the first episode back made me want to restore the show to my DVR. Between the quest stars, watching Lucy Lawless demand her arm be cut off, the increasing importance of Patton Oswalt, and the Absorbing Man's no-at-all-cheesy transformations, SHIELD's overseers are clearly trying to improve upon their rough start, and deserve a second chance.

1 comment:

Katy B. said...

S.H.I.E.L.D. never left my dvr, but it's not something I enjoyed watching really until after Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Glad to see they're minimizing Ward's role and hope that continues.

As for Gotham, I'm less sure. I wasn't as blown away but it as everyone else seems to have been. I was hopeful going in seeing as the TCA named it as the "Most Promising New Show." And I'd agree it should have promise given the source material, but something is just off for me about it. It's not that I'm a comic purist. I'm willing to take change if it works. But when the dialog is terrible and makes no sense in certain places, it renders the show borderline unwatchable for me. There is ZERO subtlety.

I'll keep watching and hoping it improves as much as S.H.I.E.L.D. did, but I'm not optimistic. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s problems were more structural whereas Gotham's stem from the storytelling. Just my two cents.