Better the tropes you know | Gotham, The Musketeers and Black Sails

The premiere of Better Call Saul got me thinking about how the shows I enjoy now, post Breaking Bad folding, tend to fit more easily into the mold of romance rather than realism, and that this probably has a lot to do with how the ruse has now been rumbled on the supposedly ‘bold’ grittiness of the shows that have been lauded with both praise and generous ratings over the past few years.

"Have you grounded yourself?" Better Call Saul is off to a strong start

“Have you grounded yourself?” Better Call Saul is off to a strong start

You know, shows like The Wire and, indeed, Breaking Bad itself, with the latter admittedly conceding to a few Tarantinoesque stylistic flourishes every now and then.

This article illustrates the point better than I ever could, but the point remains this: there’s very little actual innovation or subversion happening in these shows, and this kind of storytelling is always better when its embraces its ‘genre’ roots. Because straining to do otherwise often results in nothing but kitsch. I enjoyed Breaking Bad and The Wire as much as anyone, but shows like Boardwalk Empire felt like brittle attempts at the same: spread thin by the half-assed attempt at historically accurate drama, it felt neither here nor there.

Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald 'Penguin' Cobblepot in Gotham

Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald ‘Penguin’ Cobblepot in Gotham

These days I’m quaffing shows like Black Sails, The Musketeers and Gotham – they don’t bother to hide their roots in firmly trodden narrative ground, and any ‘grit’ is by-the-by, acknowledged as just another stylistic detail rather than a willful attempt at – ultimately hollow – innovation. Hell, they simply can’t hide their derivative nature: all three shows are explicitly sourced from clear antecedents. Black Sails is a very loose prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with a liberal sprinkling of ‘historical’ pirates thrown into the mix, The Musketeers is yet another adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ enduring piece of swashbuckling proto-pulp fiction, and Gotham is a shamelessly opportunistic but also refreshingly goofy series about Gotham City 20-odd years before Batman arrived on the scene.

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis in The Musketeers

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis in The Musketeers

It’s particularly telling that the first two shows in are sourced from Stevenson and Dumas, writers historically associated with the aesthetic of ‘romance’. The BBC’s own Musketeers may not be the best iteration of that story – and it’s certainly the weakest show of this particular triad – but it’s telling that it reared its head just now, as if in direct opposition to the prevailing trend. Black Sails may have the same levels of sex and violence you’d expect from the likes of Game of Thrones*, but its main MO is adventure and intrigue, not some half-baked exploration of moral ambiguity. And while Gotham, being a prequel to an established comic book property, appears to play in the same sandbox as most of the reboot-and-remake happy mainstream, it resists the urge to ‘grimdark’, giving us a Gotham Cityscape that is less Nolan, more Burton.

John Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

This is of course not to say that I won’t be tuning into Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul – the pilot of which I found terrific – nor that television can’t be anything except pulp. But I’m finding more pleasure in taking in this kind of genre fare at the moment. Mostly because the likes of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men et al have proven themselves to ultimately be all about dissatisfied and/or stifled macho men eager to live out their machismo, and largely succeeding in doing so. There’s very little about that I find profound, and the fact that we’re treating it as something novel and worthy of our time all on its own is a bit disconcerting.

I would rather have my macho men as flat archetypes, to be taken with a pinch of salt. Better than than being lured into contemplating their aggressive contours as something to take in fully and even – the implication being – to be emulated.

*Game of Thrones is an interesting exception that proves the rule: by presenting us with a fantasy world that is directly informed by episodes from ‘real life’ medieval history, it blends both realism and romance.

READ RELATED: We Need to Talk About Genre

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Gotham Nights | Top Three Batman Adaptations

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox's Batman prequel series Gotham

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham

The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.

Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.

Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels ­– which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.

The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.

There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.

Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).

2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.

It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.

Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical ­– just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).

It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.

But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.

It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).

The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting us to make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.