Since there are so many TV shows out this year with comic book source material that I’ll be watching, I’ve decided to expand my focus when it comes to reviews. Last TV season I wrote a lot solely on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but now we have Gotham, The Flash, Constantine and Agent Carter to go along with the pre-existing Arrow as well.
So, for as long as I can, I’ll offer brief reviews of each shows episode every week in a combined piece. These reviews will be spoiler-free for that particular episode, but will not refrain from discussing details of past episodes. It’s early days yet, and this week saw only the pilot episode of Gotham and the season two opener of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Flash begins October 7th, followed by Arrow the night after, then Constantine on the 24th of that month. Agent Carter will hit our screens in January, and at some point after that the Marvel/Netflix union will produce its own shows as well. So, let’s get right to it.
Gotham – “Pilot”
When one of Gotham City’s wealthiest couples is murdered, leaving behind a grieving son, rookie detective James Gordon and haggard veteran Harvey Bullock are tasked with tracking down the killer.
A victim of so much whining fanboy entitlement about its very existence, I was predisposed to Gotham before I actually sat down to watch it (seriously, Gotham Central, Year One, Elseworlds? It’s like alternate continuities don’t exist to these people). But while I was mildly entertained by Gotham’s pilot, it is clear that it remains very rough around the edges, with plenty of underwhelming elements.
The set-up was good. The Crime Alley murder of the Wayne’s is always a gut punching scene, and while Gotham can’t top Batman Begins’ adaptation of that seminal superhero moment, it comes close. David Mazouz sucks you in early with his shocked despair as the caped crusader in waiting, and that continues for the rest of the episode.
But Gotham isn’t about him. It’s about a young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the decent man in an indecent time, paired with the lazy, corrupt and uncaring Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). McKenzie wasn’t great to be honest, looking too out of place and struggling to sell the character, even in his crucial “There will be light” speech to a grieving Bruce (Begins again has them beat there, with Gary Oldman’s simple, almost wordless, comforting of Bruce on the big screen). Logue has the better of McKenzie in terms of acting chops in this pilot, settling in easily as the reprehensible yet endearing Bullock, though the extent of his corruption makes him fairly unlikeable by the conclusion of “Pilot”. The back and forth between the two was alright, mired in cliché, but had acquired a necessary edge due to the ending of the episode, that bodes well for the future.
The actual plot was fine, just rather weighty, even for a pilot. The chase for the Wayne’s killer was simple, but dragged down by layers of subplot – the MCU going after Gordon/Bullock, Gordon’s relationship with Barbara Kean, Montoya’s relationship with the same, the budding gang war between Carmine Falcone (an excellent John Doman) and Fish Mooney (the even better Jada Pinkett Smith), the genesis of the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), etc. Showrunner/writer Bruno Heller has a lot to say in this pilot, and I felt like a two-part 90 minute thing might have served better, given the circumstances.
Other points: I liked the brief introduction of Nygma, if only for the look of shock/annoyance as Gordon instantly solves one of his riddles. I liked the use of a very young Selina Kyle for the opening, and the connection immediately drawn between her and Wayne. I liked the limited action, the set for the GCPD and the Eartha Kitt-ness of the Fish Mooney character. I didn’t like some of the lighting effects, especially in night scenes, which were altogether garish, or some of more extreme camera choices. I didn’t like the vague hint towards the Joker, which was my personal step too far when it came to references. I didn’t like Sean Pertwee’s Alfred, which seemed like the writers saw Michael Caine’s version and decided to push it too far.
Like I said, rough around the edges. But that’s pilots for you. There is solid bedrock here, great potential for mystery of the week story telling combined with overarching plot. And there’s a certain ambition in trying something new with a well worn tale, which I cannot help but admire. For now.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Shadows”
Operating under vastly changed circumstances after his organisation’s destruction, Agent Coulson, director of the new S.H.I.E.L.D, continues the struggle to combat the villainous HYDRA.
It seems like a long time since I was writing on this shows abominable pilot. But it got better, and it deserved the second season it was trusted with. Now, a year on and carrying Marvel Studios’ efforts singlehanded until Ultron shows up, Coulson and company needed to make an impression.
And they did. I was quite impressed with “Shadows”, a season opener that expertly establishes the changed nature of the universe for the titular organisation and a marketedly changed tone for the entire thing as well. One of my most recurring criticisms of Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s first season was that it frequently felt like no one was taking things seriously enough. That’s changed in “Shadows”, with the strained nature of S.H.I.E.L.D’s existence making everyone look more professional, more dedicated and more believable as their own brand of secret agents.
An opening flashback to 1945 – almost a backdoor introduction to the upcoming Agent Carter – starts things off nicely, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Reed Diamond in the future. Things move a bit slowly from there, but it was fine: “Shadows” had a story to tell and wasn’t in a rush, with a very changed world and new characters to establish. The use of “Absorbing Man”, while hardly very vivid in his characterisation, was effective insofar as it was a cool looking and very dangerous villain to focus the episode around. That didn’t detract from the larger picture of S.H.I.E.L.D now having “gone dark” and having very difficult choices to make. The sense that it is, at times, “all or nothing” for the new S.H.I.E.L.D, with the prizes up for grabs not what the audience might have expected, is created very well, and there are a lot of effective sub-plots set in motion besides: Ward as the Hannibal Lector in the basement, Coulson getting used to being the “Buck stops here” guy, Talbot’s relationship with the new S.H.I.E.L.D and the mercenary aspect of the operation.
Those new characters, led by Lucy Lawless, didn’t get much time to make a large impression, but that will hopefully change in the future. Better was Adrian Pasdar as Glenn Talbot, whom “Shadows” starts to humanise away from his grouchy military archetype showing of last season. The established regulars are all battling for screentime in a season opener packed with characters, but I can’t really complain about any of them, especially Iain de Caestecker. I’m delighted to see Agent’s Of S.H.I.E.L.D not cop out on the trauma his character suffered at the end of the last season, and his situation by the end of “Shadows” is genuinely heartbreaking.
Likes/Dislikes: I liked the action, which were simple but effective at driving things along. I liked the brief use of comedy moments, namely Coulson’s impression of Talbot on the phone. I liked that Coulson was less of a main character than he was before and that Skye is actually a proper S.H.I.E.L.D agent. I didn’t like some of the plot point requirements (the terrible efforts to contain Absorbing Man by the military for example). I didn’t like the much reduced participation of the Trip or May characters, with the cast looking whiter than ever with the new recruits. I didn’t like the somewhat hackneyed nature of the final scene, as trope-like as they come.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D is off to a solid start with its second season, far more solid than it was this time last year. I hope the ratings solidify as well, because this premiere, with its more serious tone, driven pacing and well layered sub-plots, was the perfect episode to whet the appetite for an upcoming season.