Friday, March 21, 2014

Prequel Paralysis: Why I can't get excited for FOX's 'Gotham'

'Variety' have just released the first official image for 'Gotham', the new prequel series, set in the early days of James Gordon's career with the Gotham City Police Department. While the showrunners have promised that the origins of some of The Dark Knight's villains will be explored, given the timeline of the series, Batman himself won't be appearing - Bruce Wayne will be just 13-years old at the start of the series, having just witnessed the murder of his parents. By the close of the story, Bruce will have donned the cape and cowl. 

Like many fans, I've been clamouring for years for a police procedural set in Gotham City, where Batman isn't a main character and only occasionally appears in the background of the series, instead putting the focus squarely on the normal men and women of the GCPD who have to deal with the hardships of regular law enforcement in a city occupied by freaks. This was the premise for 'Gotham Central', a series of comics that ran throughout the 00s to critical acclaim, developing characters like Crispus Allen and Renée Montoya.

My biggest problem with 'Gotham' is that there's no reason why it couldn't have just been 'Gotham Central'. You could still have Jim Gordon and all the supporting cops, and Batman could be a periphery character whose presence is felt rather than seen. Instead the producers are going down the Smallville route, and in doing so, are already setting themselves up for the same kind of story difficulties that series regularly ran into. Prequels by their very nature are a flawed enterprise - they're always built around the premise that we know what's going to happen and therefore have built-in expectations about how those events should come to pass. Prequel stories use this expectation to tease the viewers with tantalising promises that we're nearing ever close to some kind of rebirth of the status quo - but viewers forget that once the status quo arrives, the story has to end. Certainly this is true of "Smallville", but it's also kind of the case with the Star Wars prequels, and similarly with J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" films, which promised a grand new destination for the Original crew, only to have them jump through the same "Not quite there yet" hoops in two consecutive films. It feels like the only reason it's being placed in the past is so that it conveniently doesn't have to tie in with Zach Snyder's upcoming 'Batman vs Superman' film or subsequent films. 

The other problem is the promise of villainy - the tradition of the Batman formula has always been that Gotham was always a city under siege by crime and corruption and then Batman came along and then everything changed, including crime itself, which transformed into something capable battling Batman. That's what makes 'The Dark Knight' such a perfect Batman film; we've already seen Batman bring down  more ordinary types of criminals to the point where at the start of the film, a pair of gangbangers don't even want to go out at night because they're afraid of running into him. But then the Joker comes along as a symbol of crime fighting back. It's perfect and beautiful and part of why Batman and the Joker are such brilliant characters. 

The problem is though that if you have Jim Gordon battling Two-Face and the Riddler and all these costumed crazies long before Batman actually shows up, the whole formula has been diluted to something a lot more bland and less complex. 'Gotham' is in a tricky situation of being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't: they could do an ordinary cop show with the GCPD going up against normal mobsters but that wouldn't be visually exciting or all that different from the nine kajillion police procedurals already on the air. So naturally they'll pile in the supervillains and if 'Smallville' is anything to go by, Bruce Wayne will probably find himself acquainted with most of his enemies before he ever even puts on a Batsuit. 


One thing I will say about 'Gotham' is that so far, the casting choices have been quite good. I've liked Ben McKenzie since his days on 'The O.C.' where he always pulled off a quiet intensity in a show that was dominated by a lot of motormouth characters. Similarly, Donal Logue is a solid choice for Harvey Bullock, a character who has been annoyingly absent from all of the Batman films (even though there have been numerous characters who fit the mold). I'm not crazy about some of the other choices - they all seem a bit too pretty for the parts they're playing, but anything is possible. 

Ultimately, I'm not writing the show, I don't know how it's going to turn out and I certainly think there's every reason why it could be an entertaining crime drama in its own right. After all, it's not really fair to compare this to 'Smallville', a show that ran on a completely different network, presumably aimed at a different target demographic. But right now I question the validity of their use of the source material - it all feels a bit forced. 

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