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Can Gotham Pull Off a Superhero Show Without Any Superheroes?

4 minute read

At the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour on Sunday, Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller confirmed what many had already suspected: the titular city’s most famous resident, Batman, will never appear on the show. The announcement didn’t come as a surprise: Gotham is the origin story of Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), meaning that the series’ events take place years — decades, even — before the Caped Crusader’s arrival (though a young Bruce Wayne will appear).

But the choice is also a bold one. Fox has a lot riding on Gotham, the network’s first foray into the superhero genre — a genre poised to begin making an impact in television as explosive as the one it’s already made in film. The natural inclination would be to pull out all the stops, to leave all avenues and possibilities open. Instead, Heller has closed the one door that would appeal more to mainstream audiences than any other.

It’s also probably the right decision. CW’s Arrow has earned a devoted following and a measure of critical acclaim by telling the origin story of its eponymous superhero (so much so that the network is attempting to replicate the formula with The Flash, which debuts this fall as well). But Green Arrow isn’t Batman. We could spend all day debating the merits and abilities of the two superheroes — both of whom belong to the DC Comics universe — but there’s no question who’s the bigger star. Arrow works as an origin story largely because he’s not one of that universe’s most prominent superheroes, and his story has mostly been told in print, rather than on a screen.

Batman, on the other hand, is a character with whom audiences have grown intimately familiar over the last two decades, most recently thanks to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Batman is no longer a mystery (and will become even less of one with Ben Affleck set to don the black suit for 2016’s Batman vs. Superman). In many ways, the city of Gotham still is.

A common refrain on Arrow is that Oliver Queen returned after a five-year shipwreck to “save” his hometown of Starling City. It’s hard to argue that Nolan’s Batman wasn’t endeavoring to do the same with Gotham City. But if we know how Batman ultimately saved Gotham, what remains is answering the question of why it needed saving in the first place.

Even more so than Starling City, Gotham City is a metropolis filled with colorful characters — many of them iconically unsavory ones. Just because Batman won’t be showing up in Gotham doesn’t mean many of his future adversaries won’t be around to serve as an unyielding stream of nemeses for Detective Gordon and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). Just as crucially, producers won’t have to worry about audiences believing that everything prior to Batman’s arrival was simply a prelude. And frankly, villains were always the more compelling characters in the Batman universe. Bruce Wayne isn’t without his fans, but even Nolan’s Batman films were at their best when someone other than the Dark Knight — most notably Heath Ledger’s Joker — was stealing the show.

That’s not necessarily the case in the Marvel universe, where ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been attempting to pull off a similar trick. Though the show managed to score a second season, critical and commercial response was middling. Part of the series’ shortcomings was due to the fact that the Avengers themselves weren’t involved — not to mention a lack of any particularly memorable villains. More significantly, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have a setting like Gotham — arguably the most developed and best-known in all of superherodom (which is not a real word but should be).

It’s telling that the show isn’t named Gordon. Gotham City itself will be as much the focus of the series as any of the characters inside it. What exactly that means, we won’t know until September. But if the city was vital enough for Batman to save it over and again, maybe it’ll be worth it for Gotham viewers to immerse themselves in the lore of Batman’s hometown — even if he never shows up at all.

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