Fox’s Batman prequel Gotham is officially starting to take flight. The show, which will chronicle the career of Detective James Gordon and the way the city’s crime was handled before the Caped Crusader swooped in, recently added four new cast members to its ranks. Joining Southland alum Ben McKenzie as Gordon will be Zabryna Guevara, who will play Captain Essen, Gordon’s boss and head of the GCPD homicide squad; Sean Pertwee, who will take on the role of Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family’s loyal butler; and Erin Richards as Barbara Kean, and ER doctor and Gordon’s fiancee. However, it’s the final bit of casting news that’s really going to excite Batmans fans: Robin Lord Taylor has been tapped to play Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, Batman’s most gentlemanly of arch-rivals.
The Penguin is one of Batman’s oldest and most conniving foes, and he has played a significant role in almost every Batman storyline since his introduction in 1941. However, it’s been some time since he was last seen onscreen in a live-action production; the character last appeared in Tim Burton’s 1992 film Batman Returns. He was famously left out of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and since his absence upset some fans who would have loved to see him terrorize Christian Bale, choosing the Penguin to be the main villain of Gotham could be a good way for the show to win over the more reluctant parties. Regardless of how physically deformed his character is interpreted to be, the Penguin tends to be one of the easier Batman villains to adapt, since his mafia connections and criminal behavior allow him to become implicated in just about any storyline.
It seems like those connections will play a significant role in his Gotham storyline, since according to the official character description, he “is a low-level psychopath for gangster Fish Mooney who hides his sadistic lust for power behind an exquisitely polite demeanor,” with “the brains of a chess grandmaster and the morals of a jackal.” Although the description does set up the possibility that the Penguin will first come to the attention of Det. Gordon through his work for Mooney, it is notably missing any mention of his affinity for birds and his high-tech, weapons-grade umbrellas. It’s possible that since the show will be focusing on the backstories and origin stories of many of its characters, the plot will start before Cobblepot has properly transformed into his villainous alter ego, and since he is described as being a “low-level” thug, it seems as if Gotham will chronicle his rise to super villainy, forcing him to face off against Gordon before he can take on Batman.
The show’s description of the Penguin also doesn’t mention any physical deformities that Cobblepot might have, although that is a characteristic that tends to vary in appearance and severity depending on the artist and the adaptation. In the comics, he is often depicted as being a short, rotund man with thinning hair and a beak-like nose — none of which are features that Taylor shares. Of course, since Gotham is designed as a prequel, viewers could see his looks grow increasingly similar to those of his comic counter parts over the show’s run… or they could be going for a more realistic approach, and simply find other ways to hint at the ways Cobblepot resembles his namesake bird. The more contentious issue, however, would be his missing flippers. Although the flippers were only developed for Burton’s film, where the Penguin was conceived as a former circus freak intent of getting revenge on all of the upper-class snobs who mistreated him, they were adapted into the comics and television cartoons for some time. Now, though, many artists have stopped drawing him with flippers for hands, and it seems to be more of a characteristic that can change depending on the storyline, and what the artist needs the Penguin to be.
It would make sense for Gotham to get rid of the flippers, especially if they’re going for a grittier, more realistic approach to the material. The description does leave room for Cobblepot to have a physical deformity, as it would likely not have any bearing on his employment, but it seems as if they are veering away from the “circus freak” backstory for the Penguin, in favor of having him climb the ranks of the criminal underworld, much like he did in the original comics. Like with his nose and stomach, there is still plenty of time and room in the storyline for him to develop the flippers later on, whether through some sort of tragic accident, or a conscious decision on his part. Since we’re still unsure of exactly how far ahead of Batman’s storyline the events of Gotham will take place, the writers have a lot of room to play with the different histories and personality traits in order to find one that works best for the story they wish to tell.
From the looks of it, choosing the Penguin to be the main villain of Gotham bodes well for the future of the series, as it gives them a great deal of possibilities in terms of plot and character development. As a character, the Penguin is eccentric enough to be compelling and unpredictable, and his different histories allow them to pick and choose the qualities that they need as they need them. At the same time, he is one of the few sane villains in the Batman universe, which makes it easier to ground him in a more realistic universe. Since the protagonist of the show is Gordon and not Batman, the villain needs to be someone he can play well off of, and since Gordon is generally more straight-laced and grounded in reality than Batman is, it helps to have a villain who can exist in that same realistic universe. Batman being a superhero allows for the villains to be more off-the-wall, but since Gordon is a police officer, it helps to have an antagonist who isn’t a complete cartoon.
Part of the reason that the Penguin was left out of Nolan’s films is because he wanted to make a point about the decline of humanity, which he did through a universe that was full of anarchy and chaos, both physical and mental. Because the Penguin is sane and more interested in furthering his own personal and business goals rather than causing chaos for chaos’ sake, he doesn’t quite fit in that universe — but that is exactly what makes him perfect for the universe of Gotham, which will allow him to grow from a low-level criminal into the super villain that we all know and love. The show already has a full-season order, which means the writers can get creative with how much they reveal of the Penguin’s transformation, and how quickly, and watching his career progress alongside Gordon’s will help give the show some dramatic tension, especially since we already know what the final result of that transformation is.
With the reveal of Taylor as the Penguin, it seems like Gotham is striving to create its own Batman mythology, one that not only looks at what turned Bruce Wayne into the Caped Crusader, but one that also tracks the way that Gotham City transitioned from your average, seedy metropolis to a haven for criminals, crawling with some of the most insane and unhinged characters in comic book history. Choosing to start tracking that journey with the Penguin is an unexpected choice, but it’s one that will likely pay off for the show in the long run.