Review: ‘Pennyworth’ Tells the Batman Story Before Batman Was Born

Like Benjamin Button, Batman’s butler keeps getting younger. Traditionally a more elderly gent, Alfred Pennyworth reverted to early middle age in the Batman prequel series “Gotham.” Now he has his own series, “Pennyworth,” beginning Sunday on Epix, and in it he’s a robust 26-year-old who goes by Alfie and is determined not to follow in the footsteps of his butler father.

He also keeps getting tougher, a process that began with Michael Caine’s portrayal in the “Dark Knight” films. Now he’s a full-fledged, if reluctant, action hero, a combat-stressed veteran of the British special forces with flashbacks to extreme violence in some indeterminate jungle.

A peaceable man aspiring to a conventionally prosperous middle-class existence, whose talent for mayhem emerges when he sees injustice — this is an Alfred whose conflicted soul calls to mind that of his future employer. It also fits the template of Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, the writer-producers behind both “Gotham” and “Pennyworth,” who once again put comic-book material at the service of dark, stylized melodrama.

Heller, who wrote the five (of 10) episodes available for review, and Cannon obviously love the process of world-building, and the most interesting thing about “Pennyworth” in the early going is their grimly atmospheric vision of an alternate 1960s London. It’s visually situated between a hazy Constable landscape, a rubble-strewn neorealist film and a steampunk dystopia. (The inventive production design is by Mark Scruton.) Barrage balloons still float overhead, executions are televised and a Nazi-like outfit called the Raven Society — having outlasted the real-life British Union of Fascists by three decades — conducts a shadowy campaign to overthrow the government.

Alfred (Jack Bannon), newly returned to civilian life, hopes to use his military training to launch a security business with his fellow commandos Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) and Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett), but in the meantime he’s working as a bouncer at a posh nightclub. It’s there that he meets a visiting American businessman, Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), not yet the father of a budding caped crusader named Bruce. Wayne is about to become embroiled with the Raven Society, and to drag Albert and his mates in with him.

(Those who pay attention to these things will note that “Pennyworth” offers a modified version of the latter-day mythology from DC Comics’ Earth One story line, in which Alfred makes the birth of Batman possible by saving Thomas Wayne’s life.)

Bannon, who played the son of Inspector Thursday in the “Inspector Morse” prequel “Endeavour,” is a charming, resourceful and alert performer, and his Alfred — with an aggressively pompadoured widow’s peak that embodies the nervous energy of a generation — is a consistently engaging presence at the center of the series. Bannon is well matched by Emma Corrin as Esme, the dance-hall girl and aspiring actress Alfred falls for, and their initial scenes together have a life and a tenderness that you don’t usually get from television romance.

As in “Gotham,” though, Heller and Cannon are better at the setup than at the continuing execution. They want serious, kitchen-sink-style drama, with class conflict and political relevance and poisonous family strife. But they also want, or at least feel required to provide, comic-book exaggeration, with world-ending plot twists and caricatured villains and occasional hyper-violence and gore. That combination may be the selling point in theory, but in practice it’s kind of a drag — rather than amplifying or enriching each other, the straight-ahead drama and the comic contrivances cancel each other out. It’s harder to take either one seriously in the presence of the other.

It doesn’t help that so far the villains of “Pennyworth” — Jason Flemyng as an Oswald Mosley-style aristocrat, Paloma Faith as his psycho flunky — are a somewhat dull lot, without the baroque flourishes of Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin or Cory Michael Smith’s Riddler in “Gotham.” Bannon’s doing good work, but he could use some help, and this time Batman is definitely not coming to the rescue.


Sundays on Epix

Mike Hale is a television critic. He also writes about online video, film and media. He came to The Times in 1995 and worked as an editor in Sports, Arts & Leisure and Weekend Arts before becoming a critic in 2009. @mikehalenyt Facebook

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