Prequels – they’ve become the rage. And we have Smallville to thank for this.
Smallville (2001) told the story of a young Clark Kent as he developed his powers and learned about his heritage and his role on Earth – the foundation of why he’d one day become Superman.
For the most part, Smallville works. Casting is great, with Tom Welling (Clark Kent) and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) brilliant in their roles. The writers also recognized the spirit of the Superman character, instead of making him the gloomy, mopey, emo Superman who appears in Zack Snyder’s two interpretations (Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman). Where the show can struggle is it can be formulaic (a freak of week Clark has to tackle – although this isn’t surprising with twenty-plus episodes per season), and in the continuity the canon has to recognize once the characters move to Metropolis. But otherwise, it’s definitely worth watching.
Then Christopher Nolan gave us Batman Begins (2005), which looks at how Bruce Wayne became Batman – beyond the murder of his parents which fuels him, but also looking at his physical and psychological training. Nolan also grounds the character so that everything we see could just about be possible in our world.
Gotham (2014) tells the story of the younger Bruce Wayne, picking up the story shortly after Thomas and Martha Wayne are killed, and follows Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) tackling police corruption and a city run by the underworld, as well as the emergence of villains from the Batman mythology. Effectively, everybody gets a prequel story, which sounds great in theory.
The casting is generally good. Robin Lord Taylor is exceptional as Oswald Cobblepot, the man who’ll one day become the Penguin. McKenzie is solid as Gordon, as is Donal Louge as his questionable partner, Harvey Bullock. The show looks great, too.
But that’s about it.
What Doesn’t Work
Gotham is already overrun with crime and the police department is corrupt. How much worse can it get?
Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) spends a lot of his time in his study, whining. Even if you knew nothing about the Batman mythology, you would’ve thought that after his parents were killed, he’d throw himself into becoming stronger so the same fate never befalls him, e.g. getting self-defense lessons, learning karate, lifting a weight or two, and so on. We’re talking about a kid who’s meant to be so messed up that he eventually becomes Batman. Wayne in Gotham is a whiny brat. I can only foresee that this Bruce Wayne will become Bratman.
Lots of the crimes that do happen are offbeat (for the want of a better word) – a precursor, no doubt, to what Gotham will one day become, although (as a friend put it) it feels more like it’s a precursor to the Adam West Batman (1966) series. For example, in an early episode, a murderer kills their victims by strapping a weather balloon to their wrists so they float up into the sky. The detective work behind investigating these crimes is banal.
Most of the villains from Batman’s rogues’ gallery are loitering around in one form or another. Bratty Wayne even hangs around with a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who’ll become Catwoman. And all these characters revolve around Gordon. You wonder why these relationships don’t come into play when Gordon is promoted to Commissioner. It seems he knows everybody. He has a perverse friendship with Cobbeplot.
That’s not to say you can’t make these relationships work. Smallville did it, with Clark becoming friends with Lex Luthor (before he became evil), and falling in love with Lois Lane (Erica Durance). But in Gotham the use of these characters feels more like a menagerie of name-dropping.
How I Would’ve Done It
Because it’s a television series, I’m not going to look at a specific story, but setting up the world to sustain a season’s worth of stories.
Foremost, the city of Gotham needs a revamp. It needs to be beautiful, with low crime rates. It should be the city where everybody wants to live. The police department is beyond reproach. The Mayor – backed by Thomas and Martha Wayne – has a zero tolerance for crime. This set-up works better because we can see the city decline. We can see the underworld start to run the city. We can see the police department grow corrupt. This also gives impetus as to why Bruce Wayne becomes Batman – he’s trying to return the city to what it was and, by an extension of that, undo the murder of his parents. We have an arc then: what the city was, and what it becomes. We also have motivation.
Following Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths, Wayne Enterprise founders as there’s spills on the board with various directors trying to take control – some trying to uphold the Waynes’ benevolent programs, while others are more interested in profit. This affects the city and the incumbent Mayor.
Fast-forward a couple of years. One of my issues in the existing Gotham is Bruce just seems too young to have any direct influence on the story. Push him up to fourteen or fifteen and he can start to fraternize with adults without being considered just a brat. He has trained obsessively, running through disciplines (e.g. karate, kung fu, etc.), retaining the best instructors from around the world. At night, he goes out and hangs around with the wrong crowds, trying to understand what makes these people tick. The murder of his parents haunts him. His daredevil behavior desensitizes him to fear.
A detective is reassigned to the Gotham Police Department, and finds not that they’re corrupt, but complacent. They’ve had it good too long. This is a worry because there’s scuttlebutt of a new crime boss who’s organizing the underworld and extending their influence. As the story goes on, the detective learns about other detectives who begin to accept bribes. The crime boss’s influence grows pervasive. He gets behind a political candidate to oppose the Mayor, who’s begun struggling without the backing of the Waynes. The boss tries to eliminate his rivals. This begins a gang war – the first time Gotham has experienced such bloodshed.
So far, I haven’t used any names from the Batman canon, outside of Bruce Wayne. These would all be new characters. The established characters regiment the universe, where – at this point – the universe should be nebulous. This gives greater license to maneuver. Then those existing characters can gradually be seeded in as Gotham continues to devolve, with a view that the universe grows more colourful and idiosyncratic as it goes on.