This review contains no spoilers.
We’re not in Gotham anymore. Instead, this is Pennyworth, a modish Batman (or Batman-adjacent) prequel series on Epix about Bruce Wayne’s faithful manservant/sidekick/surrogate father Alfred, set in London’s swinging ’60s when he was a young man and not quite a butler.
The show, developed by the creative team behind Fox’s Gotham, Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon (who also directed the pilot), focuses on the adventures of Alfred, or “Alfie,” and includes Bruce’s dad, Thomas Wayne. But this isn’t a Batman show, at least not yet. And that’s a good thing.
Instead, the pilot is fun British adventure with action, eccentric villains, secret societies, wit, and bawdy humor. As much as the London setting pays homage to Gotham and Batman: The Animated Series – and, dare I suggest, even Batman 1966’s “Londinium Larcenies” episodes – Pennyworth succeeds best when compared to The Avengers (as in the espionage TV series) and almost entirely divorced of the Caped Crusader. Additionally, Cannon and Heller borrow from the espionage world of James Bond, as well as the colorful hooligans and criminal underworlds of Guy Ritchie films.
Pennyworth reflects on the referred-to past of Alfred as a former special forces soldier in the British Special Air Service unit. In Gotham, Sean Pertwee brilliantly played Alfred as a gent with a sordid past who was as likely to brawl with louts as he was to serve tea to Master Bruce. Here, Jack Bannon is charming and light with a Cockney accent, but his affability masks the PTSD due to his actions during wartime. Bannon’s portrayal reminds one of both Pertwee’s performance, as well as Michael Caine’s in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy (based on the wartime flashbacks of Alfie, it’s easy to imagine him working for the local government in Burma when he encountered that Joker-esque character).
Here, he works as a nightclub bouncer with aspirations of becoming private security – much to the disapproval of his butler father. And it is as a bouncer we see Alfie cross paths with Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), a straight-laced financial forensic analyst who uncovers misdeeds and conspiracies and is pretty far personality-wise from the billionaire playboy son he’ll eventually have.
As Alfie attempts to separate Thomas’ sister from some shady characters in a nightclub, he delivers a line about how important keeping one’s health is – just before he is forced to dispatch of them. That’s the thing about Alfred; he is the type who wants to put his history of violence behind him, but like so many enjoyable fictional characters, he is so gifted at being violent and resorts to it as necessary.
And it is necessary quite a lot because the shadowy Raven Society — led by Lord Harwood (Jason Flemyng in an ornate cape only a lord could wear) — and the No Name League have plans to reshape Great Britain, with or without the Queen’s support. As the Prime Minister says, “hidden springs are winding, and dark wheels are turning” in England and some of those men just want to watch the world burn.
Alfie wants none of it, but chance meetings pull him, his aspiring actress girlfriend Esme, and Wayne into the mix – as well as military pals Bazza and Dave Boy, who provide back-up and gunfire. The foursome of these two with Alfie and Wayne is an engaging dynamic to watch since Dave Boy simply wants to crack skulls and get drunk, while Wayne is attempting to navigate chaos with a logical mind, and Alfie is somewhere in the middle as a street smart and honorable man of little means trying to make his own name.
Harwood looms as the villain (though one suspects a greater big bad pulls the strings) with Bond-esque lamentations of necessary change that require bloodshed and empire toppling. But it is musician Paloma Faith as Bet Sykes who steals the villain spotlight and every scene she’s in. She appears to be a sweet, smallish woman, primped in appearance, but speaking in a nobody’s fool Northern UK accent. Despite a softness to her, she oozes threat as a henchwoman for the Raven Society. Faith is an incredible presence and conveys a barely-contained madness just under Sykes’ surface that makes her feel like a spiritual cousin to Harleen Quinzel.
Pennyworth is certainly at home in the British genre of capers and conspiracies. It is the definition of a romp, and as long as it doesn’t force battiness into the plot, it has the makings of a royal treat.
Pennyworth airs on Epix on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Find out more about Pennyworth here.
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