This week, Fox successfully stole a little of ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. thunder when the network announced it would be making a straight-to-series order for Gotham — a new TV show, set in the Batman universe, that will follow future commissioner James Gordon's exploits in the Gotham City Police Department in the years before Batman emerges as the city's principal crime fighter.
At the moment, we know almost nothing about Gotham. There are no confirmed actors, and no confirmed characters besides James Gordon and "the villains that put Gotham on the map" — a list that could include anyone from the members of the Falcone crime family to more colorful troublemakers like The Joker, Catwoman, or The Penguin. We don't even know if it will exist in the same universe as films like The Dark Knight Rises or the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.
But we do know one key detail about Gotham: That the Batman-less spin-off will take place before every other Batman story we've ever seen adapted for film and television. At heart, that means Gotham is yet another origin story — like Batman Begins, or Green Lantern, or Man of Steel, or the majority of the many, many other superhero movies released over the past decade.
There's a lot of promise in the idea of a regular person solving crimes in a superheroic universe. (Even if it's an idea that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is already tackling with a fair level of success right now.) And as far as characters go, James Gordon is a far richer protagonist than any of the characters introduced in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pilot.
But by focusing on Gotham City before the emergence of Batman, Gotham is missing the opportunity to tell a far riskier and potentially far more interesting story: That of a post-Batman Gotham City, in which Gordon and the city's police officers are forced to adjust to a world where they don't have the Caped Crusader to swoop in and save them anymore.
When I first read about the idea of a Batman-less spin-off, the idea of a post-Batman series jumped to mind because it's exactly the story that the WB attempted to tackle — with unfortunately underwhelming results — in 2002's Birds of Prey. The all-but-forgotten series followed Helena Kyle, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, as she attempted to defend a city that had been abandoned by her father.
Birds of Prey lasted just a single season, and its failure was the victim of both timing and execution — but there's enormously untapped potential in the concept. The show's 2003 finale was just a decade ago, but in that decade, Hollywood studios have completely revolutionized what can be done with a superhero film. Birds of Prey landed at a time when X-Men and Spider-Man had just begun to set the tone for the contemporary superhero genre. It was the first live-action story set in the Batman universe since 1997's legendarily awful Batman & Robin. But it was also a full three years before Christopher Nolan successfully revived the Dark Knight with 2005's Batman Begins.
Of course, we also live in the brave new world of reboots, which means that next year we'll be getting a whole new Batman less than a decade since Christopher Nolan launched his Dark Knight trilogy, and just two years since he ended it. (If you somehow missed the massive internet firestorm last month, that new Batman is Ben Affleck, who will costar opposite Henry Cavill's Superman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.)
But the beauty of a post-Batman Gotham would be that the series could fit into any category: An extension of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, a launching pad for a Man of Steel sequel, or a self-contained story in the vein of Smallville. The Dark Knight Rises ended with Bruce Wayne faking his own death and abandoning Gotham City for good. But the film ends before we learn how Gotham City has adjusted to a world without its primary defender — and whether or not any remaining villains have taken advantage of it. (The Dark Knight Rises hints that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, John "Robin" Blake, will pick up where Bruce Wayne left off — but that's a coda that could either be used or easily be written away.)
If DC would rather use the show to shore up support for the Man of Steel sequel, a fascinating approach would be to position the series as a kind of midquel, set while Affleck's Batman clashes with Superman in Metropolis. And as a standalone, it would offer fans an angle they've never seen in the modern (and increasingly over-saturated) superhero landscape.
I'm hoping Gotham will live up to its potential, but on paper, it's something we've seen before. James Gordon's tenure as a rookie cop has been explored, both at the start of Batman Begins and in direct-to-DVD movies like Batman: Year One. Plus, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has "police procedural in a superhero universe" pretty well locked up as it is.
But as audiences adjust to this brief time period before Batman reappears on the silver screen, there's no potential story that's more interesting than exploring how the rest of Gotham City would adjust to life without him, too.