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The pilot episode of Gotham, the Batman prequel, is a textbook lesson for screenwriters on establishing your hero.

Building a Hero ‘Gotham’-Style

The pilot episode of Gotham, the Batman prequel, is a textbook lesson for screenwriters on establishing your hero. The two textbooks I have in mind are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (Blank Check, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot) and The Story Solution by Eric Edson (Lethal Vows, Uncaged Heart). Both give specific suggestions to the writer about facts an audience should learn and actions they should see in order to create sympathy for the hero – and make them want to continue to watch your TV show or movie.

Ben McKenzie James Gordon
Ben McKenzie as James Gordon

In Save the Cat, Snyder says that we need to create a character with whom the audience can identify, learn from, have a compelling reason to follow, believe deserves to win and feel has primal authentic stakes. And, as the title of the scriptwriting classic implies, the hero should save the cat.

Edson’s recipe in The Story Solution is a bit more specific. He suggests that we need to show that our hero is courageous, skillful, funny, just plain nice, in danger, loved by friends and family, hardworking, obsessed, and has been the victim of an unfair injury.

By the way, writers, you should accomplish all that in about the first ten minutes.

So, did Gotham writer Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome, Touching Evil) create a compelling hero?

(Warning: Spoilers below, if you’ve never seen a Batman movie.)

The premise of Gotham, which takes place in the present, is that the rookie detective assigned to investigate the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is the same person – James Gordon – who will someday be the Police Commissioner when Bruce grows up and becomes the caped crusader.

Camren Bicondova Catwoman
Camren Bicondova as Catwoman

The first character we meet is the future Catwoman, played by Camren Bicondova (Girlhouse, Battlefield America). After committing a robbery, to feed her cat, she ends up positioned on a fire escape where she observes the murder of the parents of young Bruce Wayne, played by David Mazouz (Touch, The Games Maker).

Then, the scene switches to Gotham City PD headquarters where a drug-addled criminal grabs the gun of a female officer, takes her hostage and demands “his pills.”  Instantly, a stand-off occurs with all the police in the HQ pointing their pistols at the criminal while he points a gun at the hostage’s head. Into this frozen tableau steps Detective James Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie (The O.C., Southland). “I got this,” he says, yelling at the other police to relax. He talks to the hostage taker, noticing an aspirin bottle on a desk, and uses it to distract the bad guy, punch him, take the gun, and rescue his co-worker. After the rescue, Gordon jokingly tells his fellow detectives that he is sorry for yelling at them.

In this short scene, which has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, we see that Gordon has courage, possesses both mental and physical skills, is funny and has saved the cat (i.e., the policewoman). We’re on our way to liking him.

Gordon and his supervisor/partner Detective Harvey Bullock, played by Donal Logue (Law and Order:SVU, Sons of Anarchy), are sent to investigate the Wayne murders. While Bullock tries to weasel out of the assignment which he views as too high profile, Gordon is already talking to the shattered Bruce Wayne.

David Mazouz Bruce Wayne
David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne

He sits next to Bruce, and talks to him like an older brother. He reassures him, saying, “I promise you, however dark the world may seem now, there will be light.” He shares that when he was a boy, a drunk driver hit his dad’s car, killing his father in front of him. He tells Bruce he understands what he is feeling and tells him: “I promise you, I will find the man who did this.”

In this scene we have learned that Gordon is an orphan, a victim of an unfair injury. He has a primal desire, an obsession, with seeing justice done. You can’t help but want him to be victorious, unless you’re a mugger or a corrupt cop, of course.

All that happened before the titles and the first commercial break at the nine-minute mark. The writer did his job, the director and actors did theirs, and we have a hero in Detective James Gordon whom we can care about.

If you’re a Batman fan, this is a series you won’t want to miss. Before this first episode is over, you’ll also meet the young Joker, Penguin and Poison Ivy. Even if you’re not a Batman fan, I think you’ll enjoy this.

If you’re a writer, watch at least the first ten minutes, then take one of your scripts and make it resonate for its hero like this one does.

Gotham plays Monday nights on Fox. Its website  has a mock-up of the Wayne murder crime scene for you to explore and a link to a fake website for The Gotham Chronicle newspaper.

Holy Gotham, Batman, this is good!

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About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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