Gotham Creator Bruno Heller: ‘Origin Stories Are the Meat of the Genre’


Every generation tells the Batman story it wants to hear. In Fox’s Gotham, the universe’s most malleable superhero is reduced to a spoiled little squirt who fits in the Occupy era: Down with the plutocrat, up with the everyman.

Gotham creator Bruno Heller didn’t intend his latest series to be a variation on the pointy-eared icon, but as a riff on Batman’s chaotic world. Staring grimly into the eye of the storm is the one character who will get to know Gotham as deeply as Bruce Wayne will: future-commissioner Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), at present a rookie detective assigned to the homicide case of 1-percenters Thomas and Martha Wayne. Partnered with Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), a shrugger and a scoffer in the pocket of Mafia don Carmine Falcone (John Doman), the zealously upstanding Gordon is presented with weekly evidence that his new home is being carved up between the crazy and the corrupt.

Recalling the New York of the 1970s and the Detroit of today, Gotham presents a tale of two cities: the disintegrating rats’ nest it is now and the newly hopeful metropolis of the future (when Batman will finally arrive to save it). With characters that fall on the spectrum between the cartoonish and the vicious, the city seems at once grounded in a specific vision and floating across time.

“It has something of the seventies, eighties, and nineties in it,” Heller says of his Gotham. “It’s meant to be timeless. Gotham is sort of a dream world, but the intention is [also] that it’s everybody’s past: for a 17-year-old, but also for an old geezer like me at 54.”

“People buy into that immediately,” he affirms. “They sort of understand it instinctively without worrying about exactly what year this is because it isn’t an exact year. It’s ‘the past.'”

Heller didn’t grow up idolizing Batman. “The comic books were very hard to get hold of when I was a kid,” explains London-born creator of HBO’s Rome and CBS’s Mentalist. “He was a distant but beloved character in British popular culture of the time.” Some years later, he was drawn to the “tougher and more gothic tone” in the comic books he could get his hands on.

In developing Gotham, Heller might not have wallowed in his own memories, but he ostensibly doesn’t mind if audiences indulge in a pinch of nostalgia. The series is clearly indebted to its forerunners, borrowing from Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns a convincing mix of grimness and camp. In the series’ third episode, for example, a member of the 99 percent uses weather balloons to assassinate a corrupt tycoon: He ties him to a cluster of balloons and he floats away — until atmospheric pressure pops the balloons and sends the businessman to hurling back down to earth.

Heller and his staff are also continuing the recent superhero-movie focus on origin stories, while distinguishing Gotham from the five other superhero shows that will air this TV season on broadcast networks.

“Superheroes, by definition, defy the real world,” he says, “which means that their problems are not as relatable as human problems. That’s why I prefer to work in this human world, and why we make [Gotham] the way that we do. It’s partly because [super-powered tales are] not my wheelhouse, but I also think this is a more interesting world.

“The origin stories of all these characters have always seemed to me to be the meat of the genre; that’s where the real fun is.” There’s preteen Bruce (David Mazouz) orphanhood, of course, but also the rogues’ gallery of Selina Kyle/the future Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), an acrobatic street kid; Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), a nervous and disloyal henchman; and more familiar evildoers to come.

But one of Heller’s favorite characters is an original: the ambitious Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith in a standout performance), a petite nightclub owner in slinky dresses and black, claw-like nails with plans on her boss Carmine Falcone’s throne. “Jada is really killing that role,” Heller says. “[She’s] fun to watch — and fun to write. That world needed a bit of that kind of ferocious female energy in it.”

Pinkett Smith’s Mooney orders beatdowns like she’s ordering dessert — arguably with the same amount of relish — while, in the second episode, pipsqueak Selina removes a would-be kidnapper’s eyeballs. Then there’s the wonderfully tense relationship between good-guy Jim and his too-sexy-for-him fiancée Barbara (Erin Richards) — “the epitome of a Gotham City woman,” according to Heller: “Sophisticated, suave, worldly.” Jim and Barbara’s already thorny relationship is further threatened by her ex, the experienced detective (and out lesbian) Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena).

“It was just a natural thing to do,” he says of the decision to add well-rounded female characters. “This show has to appeal to a larger audience than just the fanboys, and women are half the world, so they should be half the show. I love writing strong female characters. It’s a very macho world, and it needs, not lightness, but… that female energy to really make it sing.”

Gotham‘s emphasis on Jim Gordon and its femmes fatales doesn’t mean the series neglects poor Bruce. After his parents’ death early in the pilot, he develops a skewed father-son relationship with his butler-guardian Alfred (Sean Pertwee), a gleeful reinvention of the faithful manservant that seriously explores the latter’s role in his young charge’s somewhat loony fate. (When they want to make the world a better place, most kajillionaire philanthropists just donate to charity, rather than skulking around their respective cities as a ninja vigilante.)

“Michael Caine did a beautiful job [playing the manservant] in the movies,” Heller says, but “we knew we didn’t want to do that sort of old-fashioned, fusty Alfred. So, on the page, it was nearly there. As soon as Sean Pertwee came in with that wonderful voice of his and all his charisma and presence, he just immediately clicked. It allowed us to write that character with far more ‘oomph’ and wry humor and masculine strength.

“There’s a triangle forming between Gordon, who’s very much a man of law and order — ethical and righteous, in the best possible sense of those terms,” Heller continues, “whereas Alfred is more of — for want of a better word — a ‘rogue’ element.

“Obviously, for Batman to come about, whoever was raising young Bruce Wayne had to be a fairly liberal parent in some ways. Bruce did not form that character and create Batman on his own. Someone had to allow him to do that, someone had to enable him.”

Indeed, in the old-new Gotham, a petri-dish for colorful villainy, partnerships turn sour and romances wilt. Even preternaturally kind protectors screw up their life’s mission.

“[Alfred] couldn’t be simply a nice, caring guy who was making the tea and making sure Bruce was safe,” Heller argues. “He was to some degree encouraging, or enabling, that journey towards ‘the Dark Knight.’ He has to have some edge on him, or some degree of questionable morality because he allows that journey.”