Comics Alliance Ruins Your Fun: Why A Commissioner Gordon TV Show Might Not Be The Best Idea
If you were paying attention to the Internet while you were watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Tuesday night, then you saw the latest volley in the ongoing war between DC and Marvel for control of mass media. This time, it was an announcement, perfectly timed to coincide with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s debut, of a new television series focusing on the origin story of Gotham City's Commissioner Gordon. And as you might expect, like a lot of people, I've got an opinion on the matter.
Look: We all know that there's nothing that says "entitled Internet fan" more than rushing to breathlessly praise or angrily condemn a piece of media that does not technically exist yet, but as long as people are going to be talking about it, we might as well take our shots. And since I'm someone who clearly hates everything, I'm going to go ahead and take my position: doing a TV show about Jim Gordon in the years before he meets Batman is not a very good idea. Now let's fight about it!
Here's my main point: Doing a Batman story without Batman doesn't work.
Whether or not his name's in the title, Gotham City is a Batman story, and we know this because it is called "Gotham City." Batman may exist in a world of great characters and incredible story potential, but all of that stuff exists because it's in orbit around Batman himself. When you remove Batman from that equation and set it in a time before he exists, then you're taking all that stuff away -- or at least removing its reason for existing and instead having to do those weird Smallvilleian gymnastics to make it all make some kind of sense.
Argument #1: Why not? Smallville ran for ten years as a Superman show that didn't have Superman.
One of the most well-known pieces of trivia in comics is that it actually started out as a show about a young Bruce Wayne traveling the world and training to become Batman. But at some point during the development, Paul Dini, a pretty good choice for showrunner when you're trying to do a show about Batman, realized that it was pointless to do a show designed to tease the audience with a guy training to become Batman if there was never a plan to actually show him becoming Batman and using all that stuff that he learned. So instead the focus of the show switched over to a young Clark Kent and did a few years of stories about how puberty gives you boners and heat vision before becoming successful enough to run into the exact same problem.
The thing is, even though it stuck to its "no tights, no flights" rule -- which was infuriatingly insane once Hawkman and Dr. Fate were showing up with big ol' feathery wings and magical helmets, respectively -- Smallville was never a show that wasn't about Superman. They can call him "The Red-Blue Blur" all they want, but it's always Clark Kent as the focus, and when it got to the point that a grown-up Clark with a job at the Daily Planet was sneaking off to fight Doomsday and found the Justice League, they'd pretty much given up on the illusion that it was anything but. I certainly can't argue that the show wasn't popular because running for ten years and pretty much defining the character for a generation of TV viewers ain't no joke, but I'd definitely argue that it wasn't good, and a big part of that is that it had to fight against its own premise.
Doing an origin story for Jim Gordon -- and is there anything more 2013 than doing an origin story for a character who doesn't need one? -- seems like it's bound to go the same way, especially when it's being pitched (per Deadline) as a show where Gordon fights "the villains who made Gotham City famous." There are a couple of ways this can go down, and neither one seems very appealing to me. If he's fighting the actual villains, if Jim Gordon can take down Gotham City's arch-criminals, then doesn't that seriously undermine the need for Batman? And if he's just fighting Cryogenic Scientist Victor Fries and Criminal Botanist Pamela Isley and Crossword Puzzle Enthusiast Edward Nygma, what's the point? And if there aren't supervillains, isn't it just a cop show in a sea of cop shows with better gimmicks?
You can go to a movie theater and watch a big-budget summer blockbuster with Thor fighting Frost Giants in Asgard or Superman flying around being sad about the Phantom Zone or whatever. Are we really still so hard up for superhero references in media that we get excited when someone on TV says the words "Harvey Dent?" And if they do go the Smallville route, then how many episodes is it going to take before Millionaire Philanthropist Bruce Wayne takes an interest in these strange crimes and starts hanging out at the police station frowning at things? Season two, mininum.
Argument #2: But I like Jim Gordon! He's a great character!
Yeah, listen: I agree with you. I love Jim Gordon more than most people love Batman, mostly because I love Batman more than most people love oxygen. The climax of No Man's Land, where he chooses the law over revenge even when there's nothing enforcing it, not even Batman? There aren't a lot of characters who can pull off that kind of emotional climax. That scene in Batman: Year One where he goes after Flass and gives him the baseball bat just to even things up?
That's the single best scene in a comic book that's full of "best scenes." So believe me, I like the character and stories about him a lot.
But again, everything that makes him unique in a crowed field of hard-nosed cops getting the job done even with a high cost is rooted in the idea that he lives in Batman's Gotham City. Between the sprawling empire of Law & Order spin-offs and TNT's penchant for showing Castle like eighty times a day in defiance of how time works, we're pretty good on cop shows where people don't live in a world where murder clowns are trying to poison the reservoir and people are running around with ice guns. Why bother doing what's already been done instead of keeping the things that make him a unique character?
Argument #3: Gotham Central is a great comic, and that's a book that's all about the cops in Gotham City.
Again, 100% agreed. Gotham Central is one of the best comics of the past decade, hands down, and the book that gave us what might actually be the best Joker story of all time. If that's actually the idea that they're basing the show on, then that sounds great. But from what they've released -- which, again, is like two sentences in a press release for a show that hasn't been made yet -- Gotham City isn't Gotham Central. Greg Rucka, Gotham Central's co creator, said as much himself, presumably because he's being asked about it a lot these days.
Thing is, Gotham Central isn't a comic about cops in Gotham City before Batman, or even a comic that doesn't acknowledge Batman. He's part of the book, even if he's not the main focus. He's part of the premise of the story; it's a comic about cops dealing with a level of crime that makes Batman necessary, whether they like it or, as is more often the case, not. It's about how normal people deal with a world where superheroes and villains are playing out their own private wars where normal people are just off-screen collateral damage. It's a comic where police officers have to bring down a guy with an ice gun. If you remove Batman -- and in doing so, you also remove those villains specifically created to reflect, contrast and compliment Batman -- then what's left? It's an ensemble cop drama where they talk about Arkham Asylum every now and then.
Argument #4: Hey moron, you can't see the future.
Well that's a little rude of you, imaginary person I'm arguing with. I didn't think you'd sink so low as to make personal attacks.
But you know what? You're right. At this point, literally everything anyone who's not working on the show is saying about it is pure speculation, and there's a chance that I'm completely wrong. I mean, I'm not, because I'm never wrong, but for the sake of argument I'll concede that point. There are a million ways that everything I just wrote could be completely off-base. The show could be retooled before it debuts. The press release could've gotten it wrong. They might be holding back details because, you know, they just announced it. The people working on it could be well aware of the challenges in doing a Batman show without Batman and be taking efforts to counteract them and make something that builds on that mythology while standing on its own. Hell, given S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ratings, they might just scrap the whole "no Batman" idea and just do a similar story about the regular people on the fringes DC's superheroic battles, which is always an interesting premise that seems pretty easy to do on a TV budget.
So maybe calling it a "bad idea" is a little harsh, but at the very least, a Jim Gordon origin story is both unnecessary and problematic. But you know, there is a way to make an origin story about one of Batman's supporting characters work, and it's so simple that I'm surprised it's not what's being pitched.
Do it about Alfred.
Seriously: Alfred's a Shakespearean actor who's also a British secret agent who is also a butler. That's a hook that I don't think has ever been done on TV before, and you can do plenty of adventures about traveling around the world, honing the skills that make him an invaluable asset in Batman's war against crime. You can have Thomas and Martha Wayne in it, a young couple who haven't had a kid yet but talk constantly about how much they'd love to see their son grow up past the age of 8 and how they sure do hope they don't get gunned down in an alley. Have him run into all the villains that would've been around before Batman arrived who would've presented a problem that someone with his skills would've been sent to deal with, like Ra's al-Ghul or Boss Thorne, or even a young Hugo Strange. Heck, have your cake and team him up in Chicago with a young Detective Gordon and have him talk about how Gordon oughtta move to Gotham City. Just get that dude from Sleepy Hollow to do a bunch of pushups, he'd be great.
Just do that. And then I can write another column about how that'll probably suck too. It's a win-win.