This review is spoiler-free.
Cards on the table: I did not have high hopes forPennyworth. Gritty prequel about Batmans butler sounds like a parody of unnecessary superhero spin-offs, but against all odds it rules?Pennyworth genuinely rules! The script is deliciously snappy, the faux-historical setting is Arkham Asylum-level bonkers, and a sincere, likeable protagonist tempers the shows edgier elements. PictureAgent Carters witty vintage adventures injected with the rapid-fire chaos ofGotham orRiverdale.
CREATORS: Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon
The deliriously awesome series follows Bruce Waynes butler Alfred as a young man in an otherworldly vision of 1960s London.
Set in the 1960s, Pennyworth introducesAlfred before he became the Wayne familys butler. Hes a young SAS veteran who starts a security business in London, with Thomas and Martha Wayne (ne Kane) among his first clients. On paper this sounds like fairly standard prequel material, except its clear within minutes thatPennyworthis much, much weirder than expected.
Its also hilarious. Accompanied by a Rolling Stones needle drop, the first episode opens with an aristocratic fox hunt, interrupted by singer Paloma Faith (!) playing a criminal fixer whose Yorkshire dialogue drips with retro slang. Clad in a fur stole, she delivers a supervillain monologue while brandishing a riding crop, and then the show launches into a credits sequence full of cartoonishly morbid imagery. Im already in love.
Pennyworths version of 1960s Britain is about as realistic as Gotham City. Its a delirious theme park vision of English culture, replete with Cockney rhyming slang, gun-toting beefeaters, a cameo from Queen Elizabeth, and an alt-history concept that slowly emerges as the season progresses. InPennyworths London, WWII barrage balloons still float overhead. Criminals get put in medieval stocks, and an elderly Jack the Ripper has a recurring role. Alfred works as a bouncer at a go-go club, and the show treats viewers to theatrical torture scenes in the Tower of London.
Created by Bruno Heller (Gotham, HBOs Rome), Pennyworthis a British production with a British cast and crew, so this absurd setting is grounded in an understanding of the British class systemwhile also being confidently over-the-top. Just take this exchange from a later episode, when Alfred and Martha Kane (an American) walk past a maypole in the town square of a creepy English village. (For further context, Alfred speaks in a pitch-perfect recreation of Michael Caines accent and deadpan intonation.)
MARTHA: Whats it for?
ALFRED: Wouldnt like to say, Miss. To a lady.
MARTHA: Pretend Im not a lady.
ALFRED: Its for sex orgies, Miss. Very set in their ways, these country people.
This kind of malarkey is why it took a superhuman effort not to live-tweet my review screeners. Instead of introducing itself with po-faced explanations,Pennyworth dives straight into a dystopia that takes the more ridiculous aspects of English culture and cranks them up to 11. ThinkV for Vendetta, but with more laughs.
Most iterations of the Batman story introduce Alfred as an old mana supportive mentor who embodies the stereotype of a discreet English butler, eternally unruffled by Bruce Waynes dramatic life. I was concerned that Pennyworth mightecho recent Batman adaptations by being too grim and macho, but the show quickly sets Alfred up as a soft-hearted, chivalrous hero.His years in the SAS gave him deadly survival skills and grace under pressure, but while the show is occasionally brutal, Alfred himself is not. Jack Bannona lanky, Harry Styles-esque figure with a marvelous widows peakplays Alfred as a slightly chauvinistic product of his time, with a quiet sense of humor and a stiff upper lip. He didnt escape his military service unscathed, but hes pragmatic about the skills it gave him. He also retains a (possibly misguided) love for queen and country, which ties into the season-wide arc.
Pennyworth offers a Batman-worthy Rogues Gallery of colorful villains, mostly connected to a rivalry between two political gangs: the far-right Raven Society, and the leftist No-Name League. Both sides run the gamut from high-level espionage to thuggish street fights, jockeying for power in an increasingly fascistic society. Thomas Wayne and Martha Kane (who at this point are still strangers) are American interlopers in this feud, meeting Alfred separately in his capacity as a security consultant.
With this kind of prequel, I always have a specific question: Does the mom get an interesting role?Pop culture is obsessed with daddy issues, but moms often get sidelined. Like Tony Starks mother (andCaptain Kirks, and the moms in dozens of classic Disney movies), Martha is a virtual nonentity in Batmans life, while Thomas Wayne looms large. So Imvery happy to report that Martha gets a cool role here, and after watching five episodes, I still cant predict what theyre going to do with her and Thomas.
The young Martha Kane is an idealistic adventurer, but shes more nuanced than a hypercompetent Strong Female Character archetype. Shes trained but inexperienced, highlighting the difference between Alfred and his civilian friends. At 26, hes already a 10-year veteran of various unspecified battlefields, giving him a strong stomach for violence and a desire to avoid it if possible. Lacking that life experience herself, Martha is more gung-ho, clashing with Alfreds old-fashioned desire to keep women safe on the sidelines.
Pennyworth achieves a rare balancing act here: The show isnt sexist in itself, but its hero displays a period-appropriate level of mild sexism. Alfreds girlfriendEsm (Emma Corrin) has an even trickier role. As a normal person who gets dragged into her partners dangerous lifestyle, she could easily become a one-note damsel in distress. Fortunately, their relationship is compelling and fast-paced, further complicated by the class divide between his East End roots and her posh background.
Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith) and Lord Hardwood (Jason Flemyng) are Pennyworthsstandout villains, playing into the Batman trope of being totally unhinged. Harwood is a wealthy politician whose ongoing arc is lurid enough for an especially gory Victorian penny dreadful. Meanwhile, Bet Sykes is obsessive and whimsically vicious, falling somewhere betweenBuffy the Vampire Slayers Drusilla and a Dickensian villain. As you can probably tell from the trailer, Bet is queer, and some viewers may see her as an example of the predatory lesbian trope. I didnt personally find her offensive (in fact, shes one of my favorite characters, and Faith is a delight), but your mileage may vary. At any rate, shes not the only queer character in the show, and her sexuality is a minor element of her story, since her most important relationship is with her sister Peggy.
With minimal connection to the Batman mythos,Pennyworthcomes with a sense of joyful freedomfreedom to get enthusiastically weird, and to have fun with self-indulgent music choices and ostentatious production design. If I were to assign one reaction to this show, it would be a disbelieving shriek of delight.