Like perpetually conflicted district attorney Harvey Dent, I find myself of two minds regarding the new Fox television show Gotham based in the years before Bruce Wayne donned the cape and cowl. Early indications proved more inspiring than recent news. Entertainment Weekly reports:
…The network’s licensing deal with Warner Bros. includes the rights to ALL the classic Batman characters — The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin and Batman himself. They will all be young versions of the characters and the show will tell how each became the psychologically damaged character we love today.
“This is all of the classic Batman characters,” [Fox chairman Kevin] Reilly said during the panel. “It follows the arc of how they all became what they were. I’ve read the script its really good. It’s going to be this operatic soap that has a slightly larger-than-life quality.”
Batman will be followed from the time he’s a child to “the final episode of the series when he puts on the cape.”
That formula should sound familiar to viewers of Smallville, the ten season exploration of Clark Kent’s journey from high school junior to Man of Steel. Around the time of Smallville’s debut, a young Bruce Wayne show was considered by Warner Brothers. It was reportedly scuttled by Christopher Nolan, who did not want to shift focus from The Dark Knight film franchise.
Nolan’s objection may factor into why we currently have Arrow, a series on the CW network following lesser known billionaire vigilante Oliver Queen as he battles many of the same villains who make up Batman’s rogues gallery – Deadshot, Ra’s al Ghul, and Deathstroke among them. In many ways, Arrow seems to beat around the Batman bush.
The announcement of Fox’s Gotham, timed as it was around the reveal of director Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel sequel in which Batman will headline, seemed likely to steer clear of Bruce Wayne and focus on police lieutenant and future commissioner James Gordon. That led many to believe that Gotham might be a police procedural set in a comic book world, much as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a secret agent thriller set in a comic book world. These new revelations from Fox head Reilly indicate that Nolan’s lockout has been lifted, and the adventures of young Bruce Wayne are upon us.
Arrow has been a worthy show in its own right, garnishing a familiar narrative with fresh nuance. The tone proves darker and more mature than Smallville was, and evokes images of how a Batman live-action drama might look.
A large part of what helps Arrow succeed is its liberation from “prequel” constraints. The show follows two different time periods, a present during which Oliver Queen gallivants about Starling City as a hooded vigilante, and a past where Queen was stranded on a remote island and suffered trials which molded him into a hero. In this way, Arrow overcomes the limitations of Smallville, which in latter seasons dealt awkwardly with Clark not being Superman. After high school and college and moving to Metropolis, why isn’t this guy in a cape already?
My fear for Gotham is that it will languish in a drawn out origin story and never deliver past exposition. How interesting is the Joker before he becomes the Joker? And how does he remain interesting without becoming the Joker? Do I even want to know how he came to be? Or did Nolan get it right in The Dark Knight when he obscured the clown’s origin?
Should these characters even know each other at an early age? It might make sense for Bruce to have known Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot or Harvey “Two Face” Dent as teenagers. But the entire rogue’s gallery? This thing could easily become ridiculous.
One hopeful possibility lays in parallel narratives which crossover only when appropriate and fit into a larger tapestry. Seeing how Bruce Wayne’s youth parallels his future villains’ could be interesting. But with no hope of eventual payoff, with no hope of these characters engaging full-on, the whole thing may come off as one big tease.
Here’s hoping Reilly spoke out of turn. As an executive yapping off the cuff, he may have misrepresented the creative direction of the show. While Bruce Wayne and his future rogues gallery may be in Gotham, they may not be the focus. God help us if it all builds to prom night at Gotham High.