Penguin as Prufrock

I am having a very nice time watching Gotham on Netflix. As you may know, it’s the “prequel” to Batman — a tale of what transpired in the fictional city of Gotham in the years from when young Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed to when he grew into the eponymous superhero.

For me, by far the most compelling character is The Penguin. Every time Oswald Cobblepot comes on screen, his gradual transformation into Gotham’s weirdest supervillain grips me the same way Heath Ledger’s Joker gripped you when you first saw The Dark Knight.

For it is the Penguin who holds the key to the underlying dynamic of the Batman saga. Bruce Wayne may have experienced tragedy, but he is still brilliant, handsome, fabulously privileged, and psychically whole. Oswald Cobblepot is none of those things.

He is, in point of fact, that guy, the loser, the unmanly man, the nebbish who will never get the girl. Popular culture has known him by many names — William Collins, Julius Kelp, Barney Fife, Arnold Horshack and Screech Powers are just a few among many.

But Oswald Cobblepot is different, because he is the doppelgänger of Bruce Wayne. Wayne is consumed with rage at the murder of his parents, but because he is a heroic figure, he uses that rage to launch a righteous crusade to rescue Gotham itself.

Yet Cobblepot is consumed with a kind of rage that Bruce Wayne could never even begin to understand: The rage of the loser, the man who is merely ridiculous, who is sexually irrelevant, who can never be the hero.

This is a far fiercer and more dangerous kind of anger than the one that drives Batman, for it is pure existential fury. Spiritually, he is the bastard spawn of J. Alfred Prufrock and Pirate Jenny, and what could be more dangerous than that?

We may find The Penguin repulsive, but we understand the rage that fuels his power, and we cannot turn our eyes away.

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