2.5 million views in one day: it’s clear that the people are hungry for more Batman stories.

I’ll say this: it looks pretty good. Done right, Gotham could be an amazing, must-watch piece of television. But man, I’m seeing a lot of red flags that make me wonder if Warner Brothers can thread the needle on this one.

There’s been a lot of talk about how Warners has lost its magic touch in the last few years. After the boom years of Bat-Mania and Warner Bros. Studio Stores in the 1990s, followed by a decade of huge profits from DVD sales, Harry Potter, and the Nolan Batman films, it seems that the company has struggled to find its next big cash cow. Years of micromanagement and creative incompetence hurt what should have been blockbuster moneymakers (Superman Returns, the Green Lantern movie, DC Comics’ badly bungled New 52 relaunch), leading to some seemingly desperate cash-grabs (I’d be surprised if Before Watchmen has turned a profit yet), amateurish oversight (see: dozens of DC graphic novels missing stories, poorly restored, recalled for various stupid reasons, etc.) and severe brand mismanagement (see: DC’s handling of Teen Titans/Tiny Titans, moving Beware the Batman to a 3:00 A.M. timeslot, replacing the Stephanie Brown Batgirl character with an un-paralyzed Barbara Gordon and ignoring the original, iconic Harley Quinn).

10172604_10202311761179527_6230099650443896661_nAnd now that Marvel has done the impossible by creating an entire cinematic universe of interconnected movies and TV series, the eyes of the world are on Warners to see if it can (financially, if not creatively) replicate that success. DC Comics has been in Marvel’s shadow in the eyes of fandom since the 1960s, and I can only imagine the mental gymnastics that DC/Warners must go through to try to not be Marvel must be crazy, especially when it ends up repeatedly shooting itself in the foot.

I mean, have you seen the unaired Wonder Woman TV pilot by David E. Kelley? Or the rejected Joss Whedon screenplay for a Wonder Woman feature film? How do Warners executives justify their salaries when they have no radar for creative talent? (And am I in the wrong business?) 

Anyway, now that Superman and Wonder Woman appear to be in the (relatively) safe hands of Christopher Nolan (a.k.a. Warners’ billion-dollar baby) and Zack Snyder, and a new movie Batman has been cast, it looks like the studio is doubling down on keeping a live-action version of Batman in the public eye.

Which is a really smart idea. Batman is by far Warner’s biggest moneymaking property. I could argue that the various Batman-related cartoon series did more to build up the Batman fanbase over the last 25 years, but the insane success of the Nolan Bat-films means OF COURSE people expect more “realistic,” live-action Bat-stories. The dark, ultra-detailed Arkham videogames (along with the crazy, hyper-violent Injustice) have been big sellers. And DC Comics has done pretty well with its “New 52” Batman stories, with Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo’s Batman and J.H. Williams III/W. Haden Blackman and Amy Reeder/Trevor McCarthy’s Batwoman being particularly good. But DC hasn’t done the greatest job of presenting the best classic print Batman stories in the last few years, with incomplete, artist-centric collections that overlook a lot of great material that deserves exposure to a new audience. So OF COURSE the existing Bat-audience’s main frame of reference for Batman material is the newer, uber-dark material.

On the one hand, it seems like a safe move by making Gotham look and feel like the corrupt cesspit we’ve seen in other recent Bat-product. It’s dark, everyone wears gray and black, it’s probably raining, and everyone seems anxious and upset. But “dark” doesn’t equal “cool,” and if the long-overdue success of Joss Whedon’s work has taught us anything, it’s that there has to be an element of fun to balance the gloom, or it quickly leads to moribundity.

10298770_10202311760459509_6625566147089296511_nThe challenge with any “prequel” series is whether it can logically connect to the classic mythology that the fanbase knows and loves. The Star Wars prequels legendarily botched the job, but made boatloads of money and – thanks to constant merchandising and cultivating the younger fanbase – didn’t do long-term damage to the overall brand. Gotham has an advantage here, because a lot of fans are used to seeing multiple interpretations of the Batman world released at the same time. (The wonderful, lighthearted Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoons being a perfect example.)

But there are still core elements to the Batman story that people expect, and it’ll be quite a trick to tell compelling stories without straying too far from what defines the characters. The possibility of Jim Gordon having a bigger influence on a young Bruce Wayne’s outlook is intriguing. I just wonder how long the audience will suspend its disbelief that every major Batman character knows each other from an early age (if that’s what this show ends up doing): that could get pretty silly if it’s not handled very delicately.

I hope the tone of the show varies a lot more than the marketing. Fatigue from this kind of Batman story was already setting in by The Dark Knight Rises. I’m not sure “THERE’S A WAR COMING” is the best way to present this tale. We’ve already seen that in Dark Knight Rises and the Arkham games. I want to see something new.

I wonder if “You have a little danger in your eye” is going to be the new “honest to blog.” Ugh.

While I’m cautiously optimistic that Gotham could be really good (I’ll give it a season: it’s taken Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. nearly that long to become great), it would be very easy to mismanage this show, especially since “too many cooks” was what ruined Green Lantern: well, that and choosing to go with the Hal Jordan version instead of the African-American John Stewart version from the Justice League cartoons that all the kids knew. Hollywood conservatism is alive and well.

My biggest question right now is probably how long it’ll take Jim Gordon to grow his trademark moustache.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Gotham when it debuts this fall on Fox.

Author: Mike Hansen

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