Why can’t Batman shows just be normal?
Batman is one of the most popular superheroes in just about every medium. His films are often the gold standard of comic book cinema; his comics usually top the charts (try to find a DC comic without Batman in it every month); he’s in a bunch of absolutely awesome cartoons; he even broke the curse of crappy superhero video games! But if there’s one thorn in the side of the multimedia Bat-Empire, it’s live-action TV. For whatever reason, the Caped Crusader can’t have a normal TV show.
Consider the new CW series Gotham knights. The show, which premiered on March 14, takes place in Gotham City where Bruce Wayne is killed and his secret identity as Batman is revealed to the world. His adopted son, Turner Hayes (Oscar Morgan, who plays a character created for the show) is framed for the murder and falls in with a motley crew of teenage outcasts. There are orphans Harper Row (Fallon Smythe) and her brother, Cullen (Tyler DiChiara); fellow student Stephanie Brown (Anna Lore, plays a character known for her alter ego The Spoiler); Carrie Kelley (Navia Robinson), the current Robin (it’s unclear if there were any more); and Duela (Olivia Rose Keegan), the Joker’s daughter.
Ultimately, the entire gang is implicated in Wayne’s murder, and they band together to clear their names and fight the true threat: the Court of Owls, a secret society that has been secretly pulling the strings of Gotham City for decades . In other words, it’s just another attempt at making a Batman show without Batman.
TV absolutely Loves a Batman-without-Batman show. They happen all the time. Gotham knights is no different than Birds of prey, the 2002 WB series about a version of the Huntress who was the superhuman daughter of Batman and Catwoman in a Gotham that ran out of Batman. Fox Gotham hilariously twisted himself in an attempt to show all of Batman’s famous villains, but at a time when Bruce was still a kid, ending with his first night out as Batman. HBO Max Titans very close to a Batman show at times, albeit one that tried to keep Batman off screen in favor of the occasional older Bruce Wayne. The CWs Batwoman, while about another hero, settled in a Gotham where Batman went missing and another had to pick up his cloak. And let’s not forget Pennyworth: The origin of Batman’s Butlera title that couldn’t be clearer than what executives think they’re doing here.
When it comes to TV, Batman’s superpower is absence. He’s a name to invoke to get people to come – and hopefully not be too upset about the bait and switch you’re pulling. For a long time, the reason for Batman’s weird TV status came down to brand maintenance. As the only truly successful superhero franchise in Hollywood, the executives at Warner Bros. not dilute the Bat brand, especially at a time when TV was considered inferior to film. (Smallvillethe long-running show about a young Clark Kent, started life as a celebrity show about Bruce Wayne.)
Batman was just off-limits to TV, and it’s possible he still is: the upcoming HBO Max shows to emerge from Matt Reeves’ The batter focus on the Penguin and Arkham Asylum, just outside Batman’s grasp. This is a strange feeling considering some of the characters’ biggest successes came from TV: first in the ’60s show starring Adam West that led to a full-on Bat-Mania, and again in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Serieskick-starting an entire universe of animated DC shows and establishing animation as a home for clever superhero stories for kids and adults.
Gotham knights comes at a strange time in superhero storytelling. In some ways it feels like the end of an era. The CW’s long-running Arrowverse comes to a close with this season of The flashand while the show isn’t the only non-Arrowverse DC series on the network, there is, too Star girl And Superman & Lois – it could be the last. This is perhaps why it feels like a throwback to another era of superhero television, where comic book characters have their names transposed over generic archetypes that bear little resemblance to the source material – like the villains of Lois & Clark or whatever Mutant X used to be.
But by focusing around the void of an absent Batman – the cast’s entire mission involves the hero’s death and unfinished business – Gotham knights does not in itself provide a reason to tune in. Ironically, this is something that the Arrowverse has managed to do for over a decade, almost to the end just to get anywhere near Batman. Those shows plowed on with what they had, rather than constantly drawing attention to what they didn’t have.
Gotham knights airs on The CW on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EDT, with episodes streaming on the CW app.