The Batman is dead. Long live … his previously unseen adopted son?
That’s the premise behind “Gotham Knights,” the CW’s latest (and last?) DC Comics-based TV series, potentially putting the pin in a remarkable 18-year run encompassing everything from “Smallville” to the expansive “Arrowverse” and the still-airing (for now) “Superman & Lois.” If this is indeed the end, it feels like a sad, destined-to-be-ignored footnote rather than a triumphant farewell.
Of course, the Dark Knight has always been a particularly sparkly gem in the DC crown, which probably accounts for why his solo exploits remain the dominion of feature films, leaving various television offerings to dig and scrape in the corners and crevices of the Batman mythos for storytelling opportunities. Just in the last 10 years we’ve gotten Batman’s city before Batman (Fox’s “Gotham”), Batman’s butler before Batman (Starz/HBO Max’s “Pennyworth”), Batman’s sidekick after Batman (HBO Max’s “Titans”) and now Batman’s son after Batman.
That’s a whole lot of time to spend in and around Gotham City. On the one hand it’s a remarkable testament to how well the Caped Crusader and his world have become part of our shared cultural landscape that even Gotham without its most famous denizen offers a raft of possibilities. Indeed, though entirely unrelated, this series shares the name and basic premise (Gotham’s heroes attempt to maintain justice after Batman’s untimely demise) of a video game that dropped just last year.
Unfortunately, this makes the CW’s “Gotham Knights” feel like even more of a missed opportunity. While there’s the kernel of an interesting idea at its core and some strong performances within the ensemble, it’s hampered by worldbuilding far too reliant on other interpretations of the myth for their resonance, and a core roster of young heroes not interesting enough to rouse our interest over the long haul.
In lieu of familiar Bat-affiliated heroes such as Nightwing or Batgirl (both of whom were likely rendered off limits due to other screen commitments, including a recently-axed feature film for the latter), the focus here is newly-created lead Turner Hayes (Oscar Morgan). Adopted by Bruce after being orphaned, Turner doesn’t learn until too late about his foster father’s penchant for beating up ne’er-do-wells every night while dressed in black.
After being framed for Wayne’s murder (tossed out the window of his downtown highrise), Turner teams with school chum Stephanie Brown (Anna Lore), on-the-run siblings Harper and Cullen Row (Fallon Smith, Tyler DiChiara), and Carrie Kelley (Navia Robinson), a.k.a. Robin (first introduced in the alternate future graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns” in 1986) to clear his name and maybe save Gotham City in the process. Also in the mix — and providing a welcome jolt of energy — is the Joker’s daughter, Duela (Olivia Rose Keegan), who’s no fan of her dad but isn’t fully onboard with the good guys either.
The biggest problem with “Gotham Knights” is how the most interesting character in this dynamic — the dear departed Dark Knight — is off the deck along with his most interesting surrogates, leaving the entire enterprise with the distinct feel of trying to turn table scraps into a meal.
Morgan does what he can but, as written, “brooding earnestly” and “brooding darkly” are about all we get from Turner. Given the way he’s shoehorned into a pre-existing universe, it really feels like they thought being Bruce Wayne-adjacent was enough. But since we never knew this version of Bruce, it’s difficult to find pathos in his relationship with a heretofore unknown son.
Of the young leads, the biggest mark is made by Olivia Rose Keegan, who really makes a feast out of the “Is she evil, crazy or both?” questions surrounding Duela and her daddy issues. Keegan projects equal parts sweetness and sass, all while remaining inscrutable as to her ultimate motives. Another strong presence in the cast is Misha Collins (“Supernatural”), as perpetually-harried District Attorney Harvey Dent, friend to both Bruce and Turner.
Given how Harvey plays a very specific role in the Bat-mythology as the villainous Two-Face, it’s a bit odd to see him with an unscarred face even after Batman has exited the stage, leaving his eventual fate in question. Nonetheless, Collins imbues Dent with a lived-in pathos. This is the “White Knight” played by Aaron Eckhart in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” with his optimism dimmed after too many years in the Gotham cauldron.
Dent’s aforementioned fall could very well come about as a result of the ongoing mystery surrounding the mysterious Court of Owls. Introduced by writer Scott Snyder into the comic books in 2012, the Court is a shadowy organization that, in the world of this series, is connected not only to Batman’s death, but also to the death of his parents and many other members of Gotham’s elites over the decades. (Seriously, after so many movies and TV shows over the years, the one question I’ve yet to see answered is why anyone would continue living in Gotham City by choice.)
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There’s an intriguing hook there, but it’s hamstrung by budgetary constraints and the need to devote screentime to the standard issue CW moments featuring teenagers gazing longingly at each other without expressing how they feel. There’s a whole lot of that packed into just the first six episodes, which inadvertently exposes the stitched-together nature of this project: Take a murder mystery, cross-pollinate with a teen soap and sprinkle in some superhero stuff to mine people’s affection for a beloved property.
It’s possible that “Gotham Knights” might have felt edgy or unique 20 years ago, when “Smallville’s” whole gimmick was doing a Superman story without actually showing Superman in costume. But in 2023 the superhero zeitgeist has mostly moved on — both on the big screen and small. There’s too much other quality content based on comic book universes populating the broadcast and streaming landscape to make this feel like anything other than an embarrassing afterthought.
“Gotham Knights” premieres at 9 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday, March 14, on The CW.