Superheroes are all over television right now, from the gritty MCU dramas on Netflix to the full-fledged Arrowverse on The CW. But not everyone is convinced they belong there. Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival this week, writer/director Bruno Heller has said he “[doesn’t] think superheroes work very well on TV.” Which might not be all that notable, except that Heller is himself the showrunner of a superhero TV series, Fox’s Gotham.
The Hollywood Reporter captured Heller’s comments. “I don’t think superheroes work very well on TV,” said Heller. “Probably because of the costume thing.”
Heller added that that was why he’d chosen a regular human like James Gordon to lead his Batman prequel Gotham. “TV is about real people and faces, and not so much about magic and the supernatural things,” he said. He went on to describe his own show as “both a crime procedural and a mythic, epic, grand comic book saga,” adding, “It’s a tricky combination, because you have to keep it real and unreal at the same time.”
It’s an odd thing to say at a time when superhero shows are dominating the TV landscape. The successes of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Daredevil, etc. are proof that some shows can make superheroes work, even costumed ones. And outside of the superhero genre, there are plenty of series involving “magic and the supernatural things” that have done well, up to and including Game of Thrones. On the other hand, Heller’s whole show is about not putting Batman in the Batsuit — he’s said before that the show ends when Bruce Wayne puts on the cape and cowl — so in that light, maybe his comments make perfect sense.
Heller explained that Gotham is designed for both hardcore Batman fans and more casual viewers:
The comic book constituency has become so large and visible with the whole Comic-Con thing that it is very easy to assume that the audience is purely comic book enthusiasts. But I operate the show on the basis that it is a mistake to just go there. What we are trying to do is always give little Easter eggs, little gifts every episode to the real cognoscenti, but you don’t need to know more than the basic Batman myth.
Admittedly, I haven’t followed Gotham since season one. But as I recall, the Easter eggs weren’t really that little, which was why the show often felt like it was living under the shadow of its own future. It’s perfectly fine to eschew fanciful costumes and supernatural elements, even in a superhero show. Heck, just look at what Netflix did with a more grounded approach in Jessica Jones. But when the series itself keeps wink-wink-nudge-nudging viewers about the inevitable fates of its characters, the lack of costumes doesn’t feel “real,” it just feels distracting.
Heller’s comments aren’t really that offensive or outrageous (plenty of people don’t care for superhero shows) but they are baffling coming from a man who’s chosen to spend years of his life writing and producing what is essentially a superhero show, even if no one is currently sporting bat ears. Or does Heller’s perspective explain why Gotham is the way it is?