Fox’s new show Gotham takes place in a miserable world where no one has ever heard of Batman. This 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 videogames, there’s Batman: Arkham Knight. In comic books, DC has eight series with the word Batman in the title, and that doesn’t include spin-offs like Batwoman and Batwing. Hell, even the LEGO Batman is a transmedia superstar, stealing scenes in The LEGO Movie and 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 major studio puts its financial future in the hands of Ben Affleck and the dude who made Sucker Punch. Batman’s presence is now so all-encompassing that beloved art-house snoot Alejandro González Iñárritu has directed a movie called Birdman, starring bygone Batman Michael Keaton as an actor haunted by the superhero he once played. If there were no such thing as trademark law, Birdman would be called Batman v 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. Eight million of them.
So. Have we reached Peak Batman?
It sure feels that way, and it’s weird to consider how we got here. Nolan’s Batman Begins swooped onto screens in 2005: post-9/11, mid–Iraq War. The Dark Knight debuted in 2008, just before the bottom fell out of the economy. Strange times for a superhero movie, and the movies themselves were strangely un-superhero-like.
Batman has the most famous villains in comics. But in the Nolan films, there’s no Riddler, no Penguin. Across three movies, the Joker gets about as much screen time as Ra’s al Ghul and Bane, two neo-Sandinista cultist-monks who kinda vibe ”terrorist” if you squint. And across three movies, the world’s greatest detective hardly ever solves anything.
This was the point. By scrubbing the Bat mythology clean of its 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 soul. The trilogy’s final act carried that symbolism into hyperbole: Batman has three resurrections in The Dark Knight Rises. (Christ managed only the one.)
In its premiere episode, Gotham got to the biblical before the first commercial break. ”There will be light, Bruce,” Jim Gordon tells Bruce Wayne. Will there? Our anxieties have shifted. Our general fear of exterior attack has morphed 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.” 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. The worst thing that could happen to Batman is that he gets stuck where he is now. 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.