Everything about the pilot episode of Gotham Knights that could go wrong has gone spectacularly off the rails.
It’s a year ending with a number, so, once again, someone’s launching a live-action TV show rooted in Batman’s mythology but doesn’t star Batman. That show, following in the footsteps of Gotham and Pennyworth: The Origins of Batman’s Butler, is none other than Gotham Knights. A brand-new CW production, it aims to be a “next generation” tale of sorts. The audience follows a motley group of teens possessed of assorted connections to Batman characters, old and new. By the time the first episodes wrap, viewers will undoubtedly want to shine a signal into the sky to summon a better TV show.
Gotham Knights begins with a whole lot of backstory. In this universe, Bruce Wayne/Batman adopted a child who has grown into a surly teenager named Turner Hayes (Oscar Morgan). Writers Natalie Abrams, Chad Fiveash, and James Stoteraux barrel through establishing High School Drama for Hayes. Soon, however, it starts to really feel like Gotham with the addition of a heist. It involves the other main ensemble players—Harper (Fallon Smythe) and Cullen Row (Tyler DiChara) (created by artist Greg Capullo and writer Scott Snyder), and Duela (Olivia Rose Keegan) (created by artist Irv Novick and writer Bob Rozakis).
With the players (hastily) established, Gotham Knights drops its bombshell: Bruce Wayne has been murdered. The Row siblings and Duela are the lead suspects after coincidentally breaking into Wayne’s office shortly after his murder. Meanwhile, Hayes discovers his father’s Batcave. That’s Gotham Knights’ first 12 minutes, before the title screen even drops. Big genre shows tend to go heavy on set-up in their first episodes. Still, even considering that, Gotham Knights crams itself with exposition to the point of self-sabotage.
Worse, the show’s focus on set-up leaves little time for shading its leading players or establishing the dynamic they might share. Turner Hayes, for instance, goes through an emotional whirlwind in the first act alone. But if Joe Chill held a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about Hayes’ personality or other unique traits.
I know Duela, The Joker’s daughter, hates her father. Past that, though, she doesn’t leave much of an impression. She mostly comes off like a Hot Topic version of Chop Top from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The stale writing robs the show’s protagonists of discernible voices. The Row siblings and Duela are noticeably interchangeable when it comes to how they speak and what they’re saying. Who wants to watch a TV show where everyone is impossible to tell apart?
Gotham Knights looks dreadful from top to bottom.
In place of personality, Gotham Knights breathlessly piles on references to longstanding Batman players and places such as Harley Quinn and Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately, it’s far less interested in introducing fresh beats and characters. By the end of the episode, it’s unclear why anyone would want to keep watching Gotham Knights’ ensemble.
Even staler, though, are Gotham Knights’ visuals. As over a decade of ArrowVerse programming has shown, there’s a limit to recreating the look and feel of a bombastic superhero comic on a CW budget. However, the best of these shows find creative ways to capture some of the feel of the source material. On the other hand, Gotham Knights looks dreadful from top to bottom.
Director Danny Cannon slathers on sickening layers of color grading and relies on uninspired uses of contrasting hues. For example, note the use of bright red in a funeral sequence awash in greys and dark blues. More frustratingly, anytime there’s a hand-to-hand combat sequence, Gotham Knights’ jerky editing and camerawork make understanding its action—let alone getting lost in it—impossible.
The most disappointing of Gotham Knights’ visuals, though, comes with the appearance of Carrie Kelley’s Robin (Navia Robinson) (created by Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley, and Frank Miller) in the final 10-ish minutes of the episode. Sadly, Gotham Knights shows no interest in recreating Kelley’s delightfully vibrant Robin regalia from the comics. Instead, she shows up fighting crime in a dark grey outfit that could belong to any costumed vigilante. Only the green-colored lens in her glasses recall her beloved Robin costume.
Gotham Knights’ drab approach to Carrie Kelley is emblematic of everything that the show does poorly. It’s too timid ever to take real chancesor to be 41 minutes of goofy fun. It’s a hodgepodge of bland characters spouting Batman easter eggs, with nary a trace of dramatic tension or visual flair in sight. This isn’t the first time the world has seen an inexpensive TV show that turns on Gotham City without Batman. But even the worst Gotham episode had more to offer than the inaugural installment of Gotham Knights.
Gotham Knights has already begun shouting, “Vengeance!” from the rooftops on The CW.