I have been known to outwardly hate prequel films. This is, in no small part, due to them tending to be terrible. It should come as little shock that I was extremely reticent about watching Gotham, DC’s attempt at a prequel story for the Batman franchise. As I have defended in past, the Batman origin story is the greatest origin story in film, and attempting to undertake it in a way which would not result in extreme disappointment for aficionados of the canon seemed dodgy, at best.
I was very, very wrong – and I’d like to examine why.
Why Prequels Usually Suck
Prequels generally tend to suck out loud – but why? It seems as though the origin of anything would occupy a treasured place in a film epistemology.
- Origin stories are usually already told. Turns out that virtually every Spiderman film franchise has burnt hours of our lives showing us the exact same origin story. Although the trope is periodically subverted (Batman (1989), at least one Hulk film), we usually have seen the origins of our favorite characters to one degree or another.
- Predestination and foregone conclusions: reverse engineering stories. When the conclusion is canon, it may be tempting for a screenwriter to “reverse engineer” their plot based on that conclusion. This leads to the concept that certain things have to happen because they have already happened. (If this seems oddly circuitous, it’s probably just bad phrasing on my part.) This doesn’t only infect/affect prequels, but also retconning existing universes – like Spock and Kirk’s unlikely friendship in J.J. Abrams' Star Wars audition reel or Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor’s preordained sexual escapades in Terminator: Genisys. The Star Wars Prequilogy (yeah, I port-manteau’d that – so what?) is especially guilty of this, having presented insanely unbelievable scenarios because … destiny.
- Destroying beloved canon. There’s a fine line between homage and blasphemy when it comes to canon – and it’s not always necessarily discernible at first glance. As Noel Murray pointed out in The problem with prequels, they tend to trade on the totemic and are “comfortingly familiar”; this can function to distance, rather than embrace, fandom when a prequel installment changes some pillar of a film canon’s epistemological system. (A simple example is how Abrams, over the course of two prequel films, manages to remove the need for starships by allowing trans-warp teleportation and magic Lazarus-style resurrections with MacGuffin blood.)
- We don’t need to know everything. A serious criticism I’ve had regarding many modern film and television properties is that they don’t leave anything to the imagination. To pick on the Prequilogy for a moment (and who doesn’t love to do that), no one really cared that midichlorians make you one of the Elites in your universe, or that Darth Vader was apparently the product of a virgin birth. Those things weaken the canon, point out horrific plot holes, and aren’t anywhere nearly as impressive as whatever your imagination could have come up with. In the same way that the disemboweling scene in “Braveheart” is so disturbing because you can only see Wallace’s reactions to the horrors he’s suffering, leaving things to the imagination is paramount in creating an immersive film universe which stands up on its own.
Gotham seems to succeed where others fail because it’s not a prequel, or, at least, not strictly one. The events in its arcs take place before most of the canonical Batman mythos, but it isn’t a prequel of any of the existing Batman canons. It introduces characters which break any sort of canonical consistency with the Burton/Schumacher and Nolan arcs, but we’re perfectly fine with it, as it doesn’t pretend to attempt to achieve epistemological consistency.
There is an overarching character arc which forms the core of the Batman mythos, and it has been adhered to by the Bruno Heller and the rest of the writing staff of Gotham.
They also don’t have The Batman in season one. At all.
You get to see Young Master Bruce stumble and plod his way into becoming a great detective (remember, that’s what The Batman does in between kicking the crap out of baddies) at the same time you see the antithetical fall of Gotham into the state where it needs The Batman. (I’d love to take credit for this part of the argument, but I owe huge chunks of it to SEK.)
It’s worth pointing out that Heller also leaves out the yang to Batman’s ying, The Joker, in the first season. My supposition is that we’re going to see something that we never saw in Nolan’s treatment of The Joker: a backstory. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that, at the moment. In the same way that the Batman canon relies very heavily on there being a very solid backstory for The Batman, the origins of The Joker are exceptionally fluid and ill-defined. It could be said that, in some meta-context, that part of The Joker’s canon exists in an orthagonal orientation to The Batman because the characters are such specific polar opposites.
In the end, Gotham is what a prequel is supposed to be: setting the stage for something larger, not rehashing known canon with new actors.