Gotham’s begun to develop an odd pattern. Just as “Selina Kyle” used Selina Kyle as a minor cog in a much larger machine, this week’s “Arkham” is only a little bit about comicdom’s most iconic loony bin.
There was about as much actual Arkham Asylum in “Arkham” as there were women dressed as cats in “Selina Kyle” (really, just that one poor schmoe who ended up barbecued outside the gates), but to a lesser degree, a fair chunk of the episode was rooted in the Arkham landgrab. Politician killing (the Arkham vote machine) and shoring up mob cred still count.
So in honor of “Arkham,” let’s dig into the history behind this most spookiest of mental institutions.
This October, amazingly enough, is the 40th anniversary of Arkham Asylum. It was in October of 1974 that the jumbo, 100-page “Batman #258” hit the stands, an issue comprised mostly of old re-run stories from the ’50s, but also a new tale entitled “The Threat of the Two-Headed Coin.” Written by Denny O’Neil and with art by Irv Novick, the story introduced us to one Arkham Hospital (named after the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, frequent monster spot in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft), where both Two-Face and some nobody named General Harris were being housed.
Harris’s cronies break in and free him – at which point Harris demonstrates why he was a generic villain no one remembers, and invites the clearly insane Two-Face to be a part of his coup. Naturally, the coup (an equally boilerplate, Doctor Evil-style “give me a bunch of stuff or I nuke the government” deal) goes horribly awry, Two-Face gets control of their nuke and Batman has to punch him back into incarceration.
In the next decade and a half, Arkham would go from Hospital to Asylum, and would gain a sufficiently creepy backstory (built by Amadeus Arkham in honor of his mentally unsound mom until he went all nutty himself and became an inmate). At that point it had solidified into the Arkham we’re all so very familiar with. Surely, you know the basics: it houses Gotham’s many supervillains, but doesn’t house them particularly well, leading to near-daily instances of mass-murdering clowns, pyromaniacs or crocodile mutants breaking out into free society. Typically, the crazies kill a bunch of good honest folks, Batman throws them back in Arkham, and we endlessly debate the whole “no-kill rule” thing that was so prevalent in last week’s Gotham.
There’s also Arkham Asylum’s tendency to give a case of the crazies to anyone who works there. Not just founder Amadeus, but also his son Jeremiah (who always had a hair-trigger grasp on his sanity, eventually becoming a version of the Black Mask). There’s also the Scarecrow, Harley Quinn and Hugo Strange (a genius psychiatrist with a dangerous Bat obsession), who were all Arkham employees at some point along various continuities.
Now that we’re all Arkham experts, we can apply that storied knowledge to “Arkham.” Or we could, in theory, but “Arkham” mostly uses its namesake as a focal point for so much mafia bickering to come.
Take Penguin, who’s doing his usual Penguinish things. He’s worming his way into everyone’s reluctant good graces; landing a cozy snitching gig with Gordon while simultaneously earning a healthy career boost from the Maroni side of the Gotham City mob. All this while still being an upsetting man-boy murderer who no one should trust with even the smallest task. Important life lesson: if anyone currently employed by the mafia ever asks you to steal several sacks of money from the mafia, then follows that up with a box of complementary cannoli you’ve just got to eat, right now…. maybe think before risking your life on delicious pastry. We’ve all seen The Godfather here. Cannoli = death. It’s basic stuff.
As is the usual with Robin Lord Taylor, he’s astounding – the best performer on Gotham by a significant margin (Donal Logue would be closing in, but isn’t given nearly as much material to play with each week). At this point, it almost feels redundant. If Taylor continues on this hot streak, there’s not much more to say about the Penguin besides SO GOOD, and then a series of exasperated hand gestures.
Fish Mooney is doing more or less what Pengun is this week: prepping for the inevitable Maroni vs. Falcone clash, but she can’t quite compare to Taylor and his funny (murderous) little penguin walk. For one, Penguin’s acting while Fish is reacting, the former jump-starting a mob war, the other readying a weapon after the war’s begun. Then there’s Taylor’s performance, which tends to overshadow when two characters inhabit the same narrative trench. But hey, at least there’s the promise of Fish’s new seduction thug and whatever bloodied-lip weirdness she might bring to the fight.
With all this Gotham City politicking (clearly, Falcone and Maroni are the real politicians here – there’s a reason Gotham cast Richard Kind, an actor who’s spent decades perfecting the ineffectually nasal doofus, as the city’s highest elected official), there’s less time for our case of the week.
Not coincidentally, the case of Gladwell the Eye-Gouger is one of the least-developed ideas Gotham has attempted so far.
Yes, Gladwell’s killings link back to the Arkham land scramble that defined this hour. But the actual Gordon/Bullock vs. Gladwell stuff? Meh. Usually, we’re given some semblance of comic history as an anchor for our weekly villain. Even if it’s nothing much, there’s still something to add a sense of villainous heft.
Who is Richard Gladwell? Well, as anyone with an encyclopedic knowledge of DC Comics would be able to tell you: “I’ve got no freaking idea.” He’s mostly mystery. We don’t know his name (the real Richard Gladwell is a funky-smelling corpse that’s suffered years of identity theft). We don’t know his backstory (all we’ve got to go on is the identity theft). And we have no idea who hired him – were Falcone and Maroni really so foolish as to pay the same hit man to whack each other’s political puppets?
In any other instance, Gladwell would be a shoo-in for a long con villain. A character that upon first appearance is a complete unknown, but who pops in a few weeks later with a very distinguishing new characteristic. Maybe a cybernetic eyepiece and a fancy rifle, prompting everyone to proclaim, in unison, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, he was Deadshot the whole time!” For the ideal example, see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., who introduced the super-bland superhero Mike Peterson in the pilot episode, waited half a season, then encased him in a Deathlok cyborg body, prompting the same “Ohhhhhhhhhhh” from the audience.
Except Gladwell took at least ten bullets to the torso, and so far there’s been no mention of death-defying robot body parts in Gotham. So he’s dead.
Gladwell feels less like an honest villain and more like a means to an end. His voice is, admittedly, super awesome (kudos to actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim, for having a voice so deep in the bass register and knowing just how to wield it), but his murder gimmick had a very sharp drop-off from “unnerving mystery gadget” to “he’s basically just stabbing people with a pointy stick.”
“Arkham,” as a pretty-good-but-not-nearly-as-good-as-the-last-few-weeks hour of Gotham, will probably not be remembered much in the great pantheon of Bat-TV. But if we have the foresight to realize that a penguin bearing scrumptious dessert treats is not to be trusted, we can deduce that “Arkham” is more a transition piece than it is a showstopper. Plus, now that Fox finally caved and bought the last chunk of Gotham’s first season (until yesterday morning, the network had only purchased 16 of a full 22-episode season), those ending fireworks will be even more dazzling.
Related Topics: Batman