There is no Batman in Gotham Knights, unless you count a brief wide shot of Bruce Wayne in his office and a closer one of his bloodied corpse on the sidewalk. That is, indeed, the whole point of Gotham Knights: The series is set in the panicked aftermath of the Caped Crusader’s death, as his adopted son Turner (Oscar Morgan) tries to catch his dad’s killer and in the process emerges as a hero in his own right.
But even in his absence, Batman casts a long shadow — one Gotham Knights struggles to get out from under in the six hourlong episodes sent to critics. It’s Batman’s work that links nearly all the characters, Batman’s death that finally brings them all together, Batman’s history they’re made to sift through and Batman’s legacy they work to live up to. Amid all that Bat-business, the show’s own identity tends to get a little lost.
The Bottom Line
Sacrifices character at the altar of superhero business.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 14 (The CW)
Cast: Oscar Morgan, Misha Collins, Navia Ziraili Robinson, Olivia Rose Keegan, Anna Lore, Fallon Smythe, Tyler DiChiara, Rahart Adams
Creators: Chad Fiveash, James Stoteraux, Natalie Abrams
In concept, Gotham Knights, created by Natalie Abrams, Chad Fiveash and James Stoteraux, would seem to represent a marriage of two The CW staples, the superhero saga and the teen soap (Full disclosure: Abrams is married to a member of the THR staff.) You might even mistake Turner, upon first impression, for a supporting player on a series like Gossip Girl or All American — he’s popular, gifted, conventionally attractive and unfathomably wealthy, with just enough of a rebellious streak to invite his prep-school classmates for booze-fueled ragers at Wayne Manor when Dad’s away on work.
Once Bruce is found dead, however, Gotham Knights tilts heavily toward superhero business at the expense of its interpersonal drama. In fairness, the former is more obviously urgent. Turner discovers that he’s being framed for the murder, along with three other, markedly less privileged teens: runaway siblings Harper (Fallon Smythe) and Cullen (Tyler DiChiara), plus Duela (Olivia Rose Keegan), the estranged daughter of the Joker. (Duela even gets to stick her head out the window of a stolen cop car, just like her dad did in that one movie.) As law enforcement closes in, the quartet are forced to lay low while working in secret to crack the case and clear their names for themselves.
As a murder mystery, Gotham Knights is crammed with twists steeped in a deep and mostly endearing affection for Bat-lore. Each cryptic clue seems to bring the gang in contact with another well-known group of baddies, from the Mutants to the McKillens to the Court of Owls. And each revelation seems to stretch further and further back into the annals of Wayne history, until at one point the teams deduce that the real key to solving Bruce’s murder lies in a separate case from a century ago. Meanwhile, their episodic missions start to attract the attention of the rest of the city, who crown their mysterious new heroes the “Gotham Knights.”
But it all feels weightless when the Knights themselves are so flimsily conceived. Turner, one of the show’s truly original creations — a child of Bruce Wayne who is not any of the half-dozen or so other children of Bruce Wayne introduced in the comics over the years — seems to have inherited his father’s reserve but not the intensity or darkness that made him so intriguing, and Morgan proves able to do only so much with dialogue mostly devoid of humor or nuance. Similarly, although Keegan makes a big first impression as erratic, unpredictable Duela, that only makes it more frustrating that she’s offered so few other notes to play.
Anna Lore fares a little better as Stephanie, a friend of Turner’s whose combination of loyalty, vulnerability and playfulness make her one of the show’s more relatable characters. (That her dad happens to be the classic villain Cluemaster, played by Ethan Embry, is sure to become devastatingly relevant at some point.) And Navia Ziraili Robinson comes out best of all as former Batman sidekick Carrie Kelley, bringing a much-needed warmth and groundedness to the series. Not coincidentally, they’re also the characters we actually get to see carrying on lives outside the central mission, juggling family concerns and school work alongside their vigilante activities. The core team’s single-minded devotion to their quest may be understandable and admirable, but it’s hard not to wish they’d take more breaks to show what else they might be capable of — to hang out, hook up or otherwise just have a bit of fun.
Instead, they’re dragged down by the show’s tell-don’t-show approach to character development. When Turner and Carrie confess to being mutually jealous over the other’s unique bond with Batman, for instance, the emotional impact is blunted by how little detail we get about what those relationships were actually like when Bruce was alive. Likewise, though the series heavily telegraphs the fate of Turner’s ally, district attorney Harvey Dent (Misha Collins) — at one point cutting to a shot of Harvey’s face half in deep shadow after a character describes him as “two-faced” — it never gets around to making him a character deep or interesting enough to care about in the first place.
All the while, Gotham Knights defaults to the grim tone of most recent live-action Batman and Batman-adjacent adaptations, sweetened only slightly by long, sentimental conversations in which the characters explain their feelings to each other. The lugubrious tone is reflected by a murky visual palette, with much of its action set in dimly lit rooms, parking garages and alleyways, where making out the action can pose something of a challenge. Occasionally, the series’ taste for grittiness pays off. There’s a beheading very early in the season that made me gasp, and an unsettling take on Joe Chill by Doug Bradley in episode six that almost makes the prospect of relitigating the deaths of Martha and Thomas Wayne yet again seem worth it.
Without enough style or personality to shed new light on this world, though, Gotham Knights‘ darkness starts to look awfully dull. Maybe there really is a fresh future for the DC franchise lurking in there somewhere, and it just needs some time to emerge; certainly, the cast chemistry is promising enough to hope for better from this gang. But if they’re really determined to blaze a new trail forward for Gotham City, these knights will need to start by not retreating so readily into its past.
‘Gotham Knights’ Review: The CW’s Superhero Soap Struggles to Find Its Identity