Fox’s new show Gotham takes place in a miserable world where no one has ever heard of Batman, which makes Gotham somewhat less realistic than Game of Thrones. Two years after the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trifecta, Bruce Wayne’s alter ego is everywhere. In video games, there’s the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight, the final act of an acclaimed trilogy. In comic books, DC has eight monthly series with the word Batman in the title, and that doesn’t include sundry spinoff titles like Batwoman and Batgirl and Nightwing and Batwing. Hell, even the LEGO Batman is a transmedia superstar: Stealing scenes in The LEGO Movie, headlining a hit videogame franchise.
On the movie horizon, there’s 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the thrilling showbiz soap opera where a Hollywood studio puts its financial future in the hands of Ben Affleck and the dude who made Sucker Punch. Batman’s cultural presence is now so all-encompassing that beloved arthouse snoot Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñarritú has directed a movie called Birdman, starring bygone-Batman Michael Keaton as a fading actor haunted by the superhero he once played in a movie. If there were no such thing as trademark infringement, Birdman would be called Batman vs. The Fourth Wall: Dawn of Metaphor.
In this context, the Gotham premiere almost felt like a dare. If you make a Batman TV show without Batman, will people show up? They did: 8 million of them, to be exact. So: Have we reached Peak Batman?
It sure feels that way, and it’s weird to look back and consider how we got here. Nolan’s Batman Begins swooped onto screens in 2005: Post 9/11, mid-Iraq War, just a few weeks pre-Katrina. The Dark Knight debuted amid the 2008 presidential election, just before the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy. Strange times for any superhero movie, and in retrospect, it’s fascinating how un-superhero-like the movies were.
Batman has the most famous evildoers in comic books. But in the Nolan films, there’s no Riddler, no Poison Ivy, no Penguin; Two-Face isn’t really Two-Face until the last twenty minutes of Dark Knight. Across three movies, best-villain-ever Joker gets about as much screen time as Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane, two neo- Sandinista cultist-monks who kinda vibed “terrorist” if you squinted. Ponder this: In three movies, the world’s greatest detective hardly ever solves anything.
And this was the point.By scrubbing the Bat-mythology clean of its more outré affectations, Nolan repositioned Batman as the defining moral fantasy of the 2000s:a righteous man who lives above the system, a symbol of the goodness inside every person’s soul. The trilogy’s final act carried that symbolism into hyperbole: Batman has three resurrections in The Dark Knight Rises. (Christ only managed the one.) That’s about where Gotham begins, actually, getting straight to the Biblical stuff before even the first commercial break. “There will be
light, Bruce,” Young Jim Gordon tells Younger Bruce Wayne. Will there be? Our anxieties have shifted. Our general fear of exterior attack has transformed into general suspicion of our own interior rot.
Which means it’s time for a Batman who challenges his own status quo; a Batman story where the ultimate message is more complicated than “Thank Goodness There’s A Batman.” To see how this might look, check out the brilliant and short-lived comic Gotham Central, which debuted in 2003 and is basically The Dark Knight rewritten by David Simon. It investigates the bitter days and long nights of the policemen in a dirty city, facing down nightmares that Batman’s too busy to handle. It’s like the TV show Gotham without the promise of a Bat-messiah, and although it’s nine years old, it still feels more of-the-moment than anything in the Gotham pilot.
Maybe it’s time to imagine a Batman who doesn’t have boundless resources; to imagine a Gotham that isn’t a parody of ’70s New York, but a lacerating satire of post-gentrification Manhattan. Maybe it’s time to cast Jennifer Lawrence in a Batwoman film. Part of the wish fulfillment of Batman is that he’s outside the system. The danger of Peak Batman is that he simply is the system—and that means it’s time for a new hero to rise.