Well, here he is!
[Note: This analysis was written before “Gotham” premiered and I since followed it up with a post that serves as a character study, which can view here: http://wp.me/p3XAIW-EQ]
Cobblepot’s formal character description says he has “the brains of a chess grandmaster and the morals of a jackal [who] hides his sadistic lust for power behind an exquisitely polite demeanor.” But I think I can sum him up in six adjectives: Dark. Brooding. Smoldering. Sexy. Truly swoon-worthy.
Actor Robin Lord Taylor has been in his fair share of films and starred in an episode of “The Walking Dead;” and if you can put that on your resume, that’s pretty darn cool. His performance in “The Walking Dead” was brief but based on what I saw, I’m eager to see him try his hand at a larger, more in-depth role. Early reviews have touted that Taylor steals the show, and I’m inclined to believe that. He definitely has one of the more charismatic characters in “Gotham” to flesh out, so I’m excited to see his interpretation of the Penguin’s younger self.
To its credit, “Gotham” sounds like it’s going to give Oswald Cobblepot the morals, social graces, and business sense of an old-school gangster (more on that below) and extend to him a classy look and coolness factor befitting an extra in an AFI music video (get it – cool, penguin? Never mind.)
But much like some of the other character revamps on “Gotham,” people are taking issue with this reboot, too. One commenter actually lamented why this take on the Penguin is not a “short, fat, ugly guy.”
If there is one thing that “Gotham” has already shown, it’s that it has taken a well-known Batman villain who, unfortunately, has gotten some campy treatments over the years, and gives him a refreshed, smoldering charm. (Smoldering being defined here as “molten sexuality.”) In most versions, the Penguin resembles a rather un-sexy fellow who looks more like Cartman from “South Park” if Cartman wore suits, a top hat, and had a nose.
Now this look, on the other hand, is more like it:
There are unmistakable vestiges of the Penguin-to-be here: the feathery hair; the aquiline nose; the signature gait; the contrast between dark hair and pale skin (you know – black and white, like a penguin?); the classy ensembles; and even the rounded glasses (rather than a monocle).
This new look for the Penguin, rather than trying to be carbon copy of the past, is a revision. In fact, that’s what all of “Gotham”‘s characters are, and I tend to think of these characters as cover songs: they have elements common to the original versions but are still their own unique creations.
That being said, seeing how Oswald Cobblepot becomes one of Batman’s smartest, cleverest villains will be fun as well as compelling. It’s one thing for a villain to be a spiteful, awful person who is a poor excuse for a human being, but it’s another thing for a villain to not always be doing evil. In terms of character exploration, villains can be more interesting to study than heroes since heroes are supposed to be good; they’re often imperfect, sometimes morally torn, but ultimately they do what’s right. But villains and neer-do-wells cover a larger swath of territory, tending to fall into a spectrum with the extremes being evil (the worst) and bad (the “best”). Oswald Cobblepot definitely belongs on this spectrum but it’s worth comparing him to some other fictional not-so-do-gooders to see exactly where he fits in and why.
On one end of the spectrum are evil villains – these folks never perform any deed that could ever be construed as “good,” so they’re the worst of the worst. One great example would be Harry Potter‘s own baddie, Lord Voldemort: he’s a merciless murder who never does anything that could even remotely be considered a good deed, not even rescuing a cat out of a tree (though maybe he’d rescue a snake).
On the other end of the spectrum is bad, which isn’t good in a heroic sense yet it’s far from unabashed treachery. One character for me that best sums up this would be Merle Dixon from “The Walking Dead.” He’s a delinquent neer-do-well who more than once has kidnapped people; beat up people; threatened people; and acted as the Governor’s right-hand man, which allowed him to do a whole host of wrongs. But sometimes Merle acted to protect others, which would be seen as good; so he normally reacted wrongly yet sometimes behaved in ways that showed his conscience was working, though not all of the time and not always for the right reasons.
But the majority of nefarious characters fall along the midpoints of the spectrum and, as you might have guessed, the Penguin resides in the middle, not on the far ends. He’s not utterly wicked (hence that label of “evil” on his character poster, which, to be fair, is on every “Gotham” character poster, isn’t entirely accurate) but he’s too morally flawed to be just plain ol’ bad. So where does that leave him in terms of defining his placement as a villain?
For the sake of comparison, consider another one of my favorite villains, the Governor, from (once again) “The Walking Dead.” Granted, there were instances where the Governor showed compassion and even put himself in harm’s way: these were good deeds seemingly done for the right reasons. But make no mistake – the Governor was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” On the surface, the Governor and the Penguin share striking similarities: they are violent, heartless, power-hungry men who use and manipulate other people to achieve their own aims. They even have one-word monikers!
Despite this, the Penguin is no where close to reaching Governor-like wickedness. Need I remind you that the Governor committed acts like this?
I think even the Penguin wouldn’t stoop to this level of sheer brutality. (And if you have to ask what this is…um…trust me, you don’t want to know.)
And I’m being fair here: my assessment of the Penguin isn’t based on what I suspect “Gotham” is going to do with him, my like of the character in general, or my own obvious bias that I think Robin Lord Taylor is not physically unattractive. I’m familiar with the Penguin’s multiple incarnations, including Danny DeVito’s take in Batman Begins, Burgess Meredith’s version on the Adam West TV series, the animated Batman series of the 90s, a few of the comics, and some of the video games. So I feel pretty confident in saying (unless I’m really missing something here) that there are some lines even Cobblepot wouldn’t cross, which makes him look like a daggone saint next to the Governor.
Yet there is a villainous figure the Penguin more closely resembles. Enter Mr. Scarface himself, Tony Montana. Tony was violent, heartless, power-craving, and knew how to play people to get what he wanted. Yet as merciless as he was, Tony still had some standards. Blowing up a government official was a-okay in his book, but blowing up said government official and his wife and kids was a line Tony refused to cross. And he took no issue in standing up for what he believed in, even if it meant taking out a fellow baddie. These two “good” deeds – saving a life and killing a bad guy – make Tony far from evil, not as “good” as bad, but certainly not as bad as the Governor.
So what does all of this have to do with our dear Penguin? Oswald falls in the middle of the spectrum, very much like fellow crime lord Tony Montana. The Penguin isn’t pure evil like Lord Voldemort but he’s not bad like Merle Dixon since his moral compass is frequently off-kilter. He’s power-driven, ambitious, and not afraid to spill blood though within certain parameters, which is more like the business-minded Tony Montana and less like the literal head-chopping Governor.
But quite unlike both characters, the Penguin has done more “good” deeds, namely ratting on some of Gotham’s baddies though assuredly for selfish reasons such as keeping himself out of prison and/or eliminating the competition. Yet the fact other criminals are no longer a threat does, by proxy, make his actions somewhat redeemable, motivations and perhaps modus operandi aside. Likewise, his conscience is present but it’s chiefly forgotten about unless a situation causes it to manifest itself, usually unawares.
This revised take on the Penguin, as Robin Lord Taylor explains, is before Cobblepot “realizes his potential as a violent, psychopathic person.” For the record, Cobblepot’s younger self, at least in “Gotham”‘s context, is labeled a “low-level psychopath,” meaning he possesses psychopathic tendencies but not the full range of symptoms. An extremely condensed definition of psychopathy is a socio-psychological disorder marked by anti-social tendencies and a lack of empathy for others. But the Penguin resides on a low end of this scale since he uses his sundry relationships to get what he wants though he doesn’t entirely block himself off from the rest of the world. Likewise, he isn’t entirely devoid of empathy since, at least according to his character’s canon-based biography, he had a deep-seated affection for this mother’s pet birds. One mark of possible psychopathy in a person is cruelty towards both people and animals; therefore, the fact the Penguin (at least in comic book form) has displayed compassion and concern for another living being means he isn’t that far gone. Overall, Cobblepot is not a good guy by any means but he’s certainly not the worst of the worst – he’s not above using violence though not abject brutality, and his ability to demonstrate genuine empathy is diminished though not entirely dead.
Case in point – I’m going to unleash a spoiler from the “Gotham” pilot, so if you’d rather be surprised, you might want to skip this part…
Oswald decides to make a move to elevate his status and rat on who he knows killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, which, by proxy, means ratting on his own boss, Fish Mooney. The cops ask why he would try to get his own crime boss in trouble. Oswald’s reply? “That poor orphan boy pricked my conscience.”
Yeah, sure, right. That’s 99% bull. The cops know it’s bull and the Penguin knows it’s bull, so he’s not fooling anybody. But notice I said 99%. There is at least one possible nugget of truth here. Aside from the fact that turning in a killer can be seen as a good deed (though Cobblepot clearly doesn’t have that in mind), his logic (minus the bull) may possess a certain degree of sympathy.
In his canon-based biography, Oswald’s childhood was marked by his father’s death, leaving him to be raised by his mother. Carol Kane has been cast to play his kooky mother on the show but no one (to my knowledge) has been cast to play his father, so I’m assuming the writers are basing this off of the Penguin’s original biography. Thus, Cobblepot’s pity on Bruce might not be entirely invented, and sympathy is a trait derived from one’s conscience since it takes a certain degree of moral sensitivity to feel sorry for someone. So, the Penguin might be driven by a tiny grain of sympathy based on the experience of losing a parent at a young age himself. Though it’s cold comfort at best.
(Get it? Cold comfort…I really need to stop it with these puns.)
Okay, spoiler over.
Now, if you ask most people who their favorite Batman villain is, they will inevitably say the Joker. I’m not sure if that’s because the Joker is hailed as such an awesome villain or if it’s assumed to be the most socially acceptable answer to give. It’s a bit like asking people what their favorite Michael Jackson video is and the answer is, inevitably, “Thriller.” Don’t get me wrong – “Thriller” is revolutionary but it’s not my favorite. Mine would be “Smooth Criminal,” which has, in my opinion, better lyrics and musical arrangement as well as a grander production value and more epic choreography.
In the same way, the Joker isn’t my favorite Batman villain: for me, he’s just okay. He’s a well-executed character to be perfectly honest, but I just don’t find him as interesting as everyone says I’m supposed to. I’m also not sure how I should feel about the Joker. Should I be scared? Is he a parody figure? Is he just plain nuts or is he so smart he’s crazy? Is it okay to laugh at him or should I be hiding under my bed? I don’t really get the Joker, so he makes me feel ambivalent. I guess I like my villains a little more level-headed. And lacking face paint.
Instead, my favorite Batman villain has been, and always will be, the Penguin. He’s more epic in scope to me with far more interesting angles to his character and personality. Plus, I know what to think of him – he is someone to fear more out of his intellect and lack of a correctly functioning moral compass than proclamations of insanity or explosive stunts. Likewise, I’m well-versed in Mafia culture and mob history, so I totally know where the Penguin is coming from.
He’s a gangster!
Granted, he’s never technically given that title but that’s exactly what he is by nature. He’s a crime lord who rarely commits any of his nefarious deeds in person, he hires a bevy of baddies to do his bidding so he never or rarely gets any actual blood on his hands, and he influences Gotham from the inside out. Just like an “actual” mobster, a true “smooth criminal.” So is it any wonder that the villain he comes closest to in my comparison exercise is Tony Montana?
(Holy cow, Batman! I just realized how similar these images are – the look of restrained rage, the predatory-esque pose, the “I’m seconds away from inflicting serious injury on you” stare. Not to mention the wispy hair and fashion. Are these characters related in some weird parallel fictional universe? What we need now is a “Gotham”/Scarface crossover…sorry – I was just rambling again. Moving on.)
Film commentator Marilyn Yaquinto, in her book Pump ‘Em Full of Lead, observed that the gangster has a timeless quality, just like the sins he commits. He’s been…dubbed a twentieth century Macbeth armed with a smoking gun. Those who dabble in the social sciences have called the gangster a fitting metaphor for the battered myth of the American dream. She goes on to say that although gangster characters’ stories involve their criminal exploits, the backbone of their tales is their metamorphosis. Translation: most villains, gangsters included, don’t start out bad, evil, or all points in between. They become that way through the choices (or lack thereof) that they make.
As a gangster (let’s call him what he is, folks), the Penguin possesses a certain timelessness because these types of power-hungry persons of low moral standing have always been around, even in real life. They represent an inversion of the “American dream,” which is a cultural metanarrative that says if you work long and hard at something, you can accomplish your dreams.
This ideology gets turned on its head in the hands of the gangster who certainly works long and hard and achieves his dreams – just not in the 2.5 kids and white picket fence kind. Overall, these types of characters explore what happens when someone holds all of the proverbial cards and knows how to play the odds to get what they want though they may do some good along the way without actively meaning to. As Taylor stated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “[Cobblepot] knows the world. He know the big players. He knows who he has to pit against whom to get what he wants, which is the power….he runs everybody. He plays all sides. He has his hands in everything.” Just like a true gangster!
Just to note – I used the term gangster not gangsta. The Penguin is clearly the former. Though according to the Far East Movement’s song “Like a G6,” all you need to do to be a gangsta is open bottles of alcohol in your house (as in “poppin’ bottles at the crib”). So maybe that definition fits, too, provided Oswald keeps a stash of booze at his place.
And if he doesn’t, I bet he has plenty of ice. In an Igloo cooler. ‘Cause he likes to chill. Okay, I’ll stop.
Regardless, we know Cobblepot is the (future) boss and Gotham is his world – everyone else is just living in it.
Look at this face – this has “I’m the king and I freakin’ own this place!” written all over it. Or maybe he’s channeling his inner Kanye West: “I’m the best Batman villain of all time! The best Batman villain of all time!”
And the Penguin is one of the best Batman villains of all time! Though, seriously, what’s up with this shirt/sweater combo? It’s a bit thrift shop-ish, if you ask me. But Oswald is known for his sense of style, so I’ll let that one slide. Besides, if there’s any man in “Gotham” who I’d like to see pull off tacky shirts, it’s him.
So how best to sum up all of my drivel here?
1). The Penguin is a compelling character in all of his forms as he is far from heroic but not utterly despicable. He shows what can happen when someone takes concealed anger and ambitions for power too far. Rather than pointing fingers at him and saying, “That’s the bad guy,” we can glimpse a piece of ourselves when we are at our worst – when we manipulate other people, when we let our ambitions go unchecked, and when we allow personal failures and insecurities to drive us into less-than-honorable decisions. Yet we’re never lacking the ability to do anything good. Very much like our dear Penguin, who is a true gangster at his core.
2). Oswald Cobblepot (this version at least) is hot.