Marc Alan Fishman: When Are Characters Not Real?
This past week we were given a pivotal episode of Gotham. Amidst all the gut-wrenching angst, two minor sub-plots reached fever pitch. In one, the soon-to-be Riddler finally snapped, and joined the “Murder-Because-I-Can’t-Take-It-Anymore” club. In the second, Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot finalizes his plans to murder Sal Maroni – after the don himself decides to push the buttons of the would-be Penguin. Both these plots were fantastically acted. Both left me seething as much of the characters on screen. But the actions taken by both men as depicted struck me as off-character compared to their comics origins. Disconcerting, but simply par for the course adaptations.
Ever since the pilot, Edward Nygma’s screen time has been dedicated to his pining for one Ms. Kringle, deep in the fileroom of the GCPD. And while Edward didn’t quite take no thank you as an answer for his advances… it would take her having to date a man who proclaims “some women just need a strong hand” to eventually turn Nygma into a killer. Was his repeated stabbing of Kringle’s meathead beau deserved? Sure, if you’re playing fast and loose with morality. But up to that point, the “Riddle Man” was eccentric but not psychopathic. A cursory glance of my own definition of what makes The Riddler doesn’t often cross the boundaries of passionate physical violence. In fact, really, it never does.
When I think of Edward Nygma? It’s too hard not to immediately recall “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich” from Batman: The Animated Series. In the episode, Nygma was a puzzle maker pushed to his limits by the greed of his boss. When pinned against the wall, Nygma wilted and took a full year to return to Gotham, reformed as the mastermind so many of us pin to the very core of the character. The Riddler is a thinker. He’s a player in a grand game. He’s a thief. He’s not blood-thirsty malcontent. In Gotham, the proclivities of the character remain in tact – he’s clever, obsessed with riddles, and seemingly more obsessed with matters of the mind than of physicality. But in the show, the creators are apt to force the psychosis onto Edward rather than really let it seep in from the corners. In the cartoon? The Riddler was a nuanced ne’er-do-well. In live action? He’s a living cartoon.
Where I found Nygma’s turn to the dark(er) side to be a bit foul, I’m of the opposite mind concerning young Penguin. While Mr. Taylor himself merely walks the walk of the would-be villain… he certainly wouldn’t be pinned in a lineup of actors one would think of when the casting turns to the oft-depicted Rubeneque rogue. But I digress.
As depicted throughout this first season, there’s been a ton to like about Oswald. His silver tongue and laughable frame allowed him to play in between heavy mafiosos like Loki must do at Asgardian cocktail parties. He talks his way into power and out of seedy situations. The Penguin is a schemer. He’s a would-be kingpin (no, not Kingpin) who fancies himself an ornate and public figurehead not unlike the dons he aspires to murder. When plunged into his enemies, Ozzie’s knife feels well-placed. From the very first time we meet him, he was always a bird of a darker feather… both on the page and the screen.
It leads me to the bigger question we comic book fans find ourselves asking when our magazine heroes become moving pictures. Where is the line drawn? In many cases, it’s been as spot-on as we could ever hope. Marv in Sin City. Hellboy. The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. Captain America in all those Marvel movies. In each depiction there was truly no wiggle room between the source and the eventual performance. But as with so many things, the devil is in the details.
Think of the Daredevil movie, circa 2003. While the character of course was white in the comics, casting a mountain of a man like Michael Clarke Duncan in the role of The Kingpin seemed more fitting. And the way he was played in the movie (in spite of the absolute atrocious writing) was true to the source. The Kingpin was a heavy-hitting don, with his fingers in a lot of criminal pies. He was classy, and he radiated power. I’d be hard-pressed not to ask our resident Black Panel creator Michael Davis how he personally graded the depiction. In sharp contrast, there’s Bullseye. What was once one of the most dangerous and professional killers in the MCU was represented by a scene-eating Irishman with his logo carved into his forehead. He rode loud obnoxious motorcycles, wore loud boots, and seemingly smirked at everything in apropos of common sense. Maybe he was high? What he wasn’t was Bullseye.
Ultimately, our characters are merely licenses. They are templates by which studios fill in enough detail in order to eventually deliver a new end-product. We, the gatekeepers of cool, typically judge these depictions against the knowledge we’d absorbed through years of private fandom. Those stalwart traits that drive the characters must remain in tact for us to wholly celebrate them. See: The Avengers. When they stray too far – become too Hollywood, too dark, too polished, or simply too unrecognizable? Well, that’s when we mock the hell out of them and demand justice. See: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
On second thought, maybe don’t see that movie. That hardly looks like the Batman and Superman I know. Natch.