Gotham Inc.: Warner Brothers and their Intellectual Property

A hooded dark-clad figure scrambles athletically over rooftops. She halts beside a gargoyle, pondering this moody metropolis, her hunting ground, before descending with cat-like grace to the bustling streets for some balletic pick-pocketing; but the night in this city holds far darker creatures than her. Quick, what fictional city is this in? If you answered “Gotham”, where skyscrapers somehow co-exist with more gargoyles than all French cathedrals combined, then you’ve proved the importance of that intellectual property to Warner Bros.

Warner Bros presented their slate for 2015 in the Light House Cinema last week, and, as WB national account manager Stephen McConkey noted, for the first time, the whole gamut of their interests was presented – movies, TV shows, computer games. To see it all at once was slightly overwhelming.

Imagine that in the next few weeks you binge-watch Game of Thrones Season 4, go to see American Sniper, listen to Jonny Greenwood’s Inherent Vice soundtrack, play Dying Light on your Xbox 1, and read a Geoff Johns Green Lantern comic. To you these are discrete, even disparate, activities, but to WB they’re all part of the same all-encompassing product slate.

McConkey said that Warner Bros’ intellectual property was a big asset for the company. The four games showcased; Dying Light, Mortal Kombat X, Batman: Arkham Knight, Mad Max: Fury Road; bore this out.

Launching a Mortal Kombat game with new (somewhat excessive) powers for Raiden plays into nostalgia on the part of older gamers, while launching a new Mad Max game introduces something that’s entirely fresh for younger gamers, so that only Dying Light is a truly original outing.

In 2015’s summer movie slate it was startling to see that Point Break is being remade with extreme sports athletes, but these days what is past really is prologue. Mad Max: Fury Road, Entourage, Pan, The Man from UNCLE – all these titles to some degree lean on past productions.

At the same time McConkey spoke about WB’s traditional support of directors. They were proud to be releasing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and the latest from long-time WB cohort Clint Eastwood, American Sniper (now a most unexpected mega-hit).

You could even mischievously chuckle at noticing that Steven Soderbergh, retired from directing movies like the Ocean’s franchise for Warners, is now making TV show The Knick for Cinemax; and Warner will be releasing its DVD.

Is there a tension between these two approaches? Well, the support for film-makers (like Stanley Kubrick) who don’t necessarily make a lot of money for the studio but do bring it prestige goes back to the earliest moguls in Hollywood, who would now and again deliberately throw away money to make a film of undoubted artistic merit almost as an expiation for making profitable shlock the rest of the time.

But then again Warner Brothers have been throwing money at Christopher Nolan to make mind-bending personal films on an epic scale, because he was able to exploit their most valuable intellectual property… The Batman.

Mark Harris argued in 2011 that marketers now ran Hollywood, so everything had to be an existing brand. Entourage comes to cinemas after 8 successful seasons on HBO, Pan plays on your knowledge that its good guy James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) becomes a sadistic pirate captain, Mad Max: Fury Road gleefully exploits its budget to restage Mad Max 2 carnage on a vaster canvas, while the longest shot of all, The Man from UNCLE, taps into the current odd nostalgia for an imaginary 1960s as much as the characters, theme tune, and deadpan absurdity of its TV exemplar.

Harris’ point thus appears to be borne out, except that nothing in this summer schedule is as eagerly anticipated as their former cohort that’s now been pushed to March 2016. Batman V Superman. And that film draws a distinction between the notions of brands and intellectual property, for the simple reason that someone like Harris seems incapable of appreciating how much downright fun it might be for writers and directors to be handed the keys to the DC Universe. There’s a reason that people of the calibre of Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar, JJ Abrams, Tim Burton and Darren Aronofsky all circled around the cinematic DCU at the turn of the century.

They were attracted by an intellectual property, not a brand, and the chance to refashion that intellectual property as they saw fit.

Any fresh production of these properties ideally receives the benefit of a mythic shiver on the audience’s part when for the first time they see a new Superman fly, a new Batman emerge from the shadows, or a new Joker deliver his first lethal one-liner. Even a show as constantly misfiring as Smallville was able to tap into that goodwill when they revealed their Lois Lane, and Brainiac, and finally, finally let Clark don the cape.

Which brings us to Gotham

If the difference between a brand and intellectual property is the possibilities for refashioning then show-runner Bruno Heller (The Mentalist) faces a greater challenge than film director Zack Snyder does with Batman V Superman. Snyder in depicting the eruption of a super-powered alien into the life of a forty-something Batman is already tonally far removed from Nolan’s Batverse, whereas Heller must tread extremely carefully to avoid merely repeating Batman Begins.

Gotham’s cold open is arresting, tracking a teenage Selina Kyle (Carmen Bicondova) across the city until she happens upon the murder of the Waynes. That familiar slaying gets a new twist by Catwoman’s presence at the scene and the presentation of Batman’s formative trauma as merely a random incident in someone else’s life. But Heller and director Danny Cannon go further; the double murder is bloodier than usual, and the scream of the young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is staged with the now almost parodic crane swoop – except, instead of the “NOOOOO!!!” we’ve become rightfully contemptuous of (see X-Men: Origins – Wolverine…), the air is ripped apart by a pre-pubescent shriek.

Previewed on a big screen, the pilot shows the same visual elan that Danny Cannon and director of photography David Stockton brought to their TV reimagining of Nikita. But Nikita was on The CW, Gotham is on Fox; and Gotham’s ensemble sprawls. While Selina’s silent circling of the orphaned Bruce is set up to be developed later, the focus of the show is the young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), who has arrived to Gotham PD as the new partner of corrupt Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). They pull the case of the Waynes’ murder, and end up under investigation themselves by MCU cops Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), who dislike Bullock because of his deal-making friendship with mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith).

As their investigation goes in circles Gordon feels compelled to promise Bruce and his guardian Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) that he will throw away his badge if he cannot solve the double homicide. But with his fiancé Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) acting suspiciously, his CSI team including the half-crazed Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) (who will become the Riddler), and his presence troubling Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman), it’s questionable if Gordon will live long enough to quit the force…

There is much to like. Cannon and Heller have taken the look of Nolan’s Gotham, and added back in Gothic elements. Pertwee’s Alfred is tougher than we’ve seen before, McKenzie’s Gordon oozes stolid integrity, Logue’s Bullock is amiably dirty, but the revelation is Doman’s avuncular Falcone – a world away from Nolan’s use of the character; here Falcone represents the forces of order trying to edge Gotham away from chaos, and surprises Gordon by revealing a semi-friendship with his DA father.

Heller, however, goes a bit overboard with a veritable ‘Where’s Wally?’ game of future super-villains: Riddler, The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor as Fish’s sadistic henchman), Catwoman, and (possibly) Joker and Ivy. There are other qualms. Fish Mooney feels like a placeholder villain until the real super-villains arise, and, though this show obviously bears some relation to Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central comics, Heller has set it up to focus on Gotham PD as they don’t battle super-villains and aren’t helped by Batman… If ever a show had a time-jump in its future it’s Gotham.

But the ending of the show leads back to other concerns. Hans Zimmer’s ‘Time’ from Inception plays over a pivotal scene between Gordon, Bruce and Alfred. Because Warners own that score, just as when REM were releasing their greatest hits album in 2003 a Smallville episode featured three REM songs – as cross-divisional promotion within Warners. Right now the CW is airing The Flash and Arrow, two contrasting treatments of DC properties, and the CW has cannily used crossover episodes to establish its two DC shows as being in the same universe (and the same network). Marvel has put minor players from its movies in Agents of Shield episodes for similar reasons – to strengthen the overall universe’s brand. Gotham stands alone…

Airing on Fox, it can’t crossover with fellow DC properties The Flash or Arrow without great difficulty, and even if it could it would just create a nightmare of continuity problems. A show without Batman cannot encourage viewers to watch Flash and Green Arrow in action, and shows with superheroes cannot encourage viewers to watch a procedural with colourful nascent villains. Gotham’s split focus; between Gordon and Bullock and Bruce and Selina; suggests that Gotham is a CW show that’s somehow on the wrong network and trying to hide that fact by mixing a tortured romance appeal to the YA audience with grittier crime procedural.

The 2015 WB slate features a new Batman game; Batman: Arkham Knight; and a new Batman TV show, while we wait for Batman V Superman. But while Nolan’s Bat-films and the Arkham computer games burnished each other in cross-promotion, Gotham’s lack of Batman means it cannot synch up with a game which trades on the notion that fans will be delirious at the idea of playing as Harley Quinn and of controlling a newly re-designed Bat-mobile.

Gotham also can’t possibly have any crossover with Batman V Superman, emphasising its splendid isolation. Indeed it acts almost as a placeholder, to keep things ticking over until the Batfleck swoops down upon us all in March 2016.

But Marvel have no placeholders, everything they do is part of a plan. Their intellectual property is arguably lesser (Ant-Man? Ant-Man?!), but their brand has become unassailable through constant crossovers. The WB hold the trump card (Bat-card?) of intellectual property in this game of cinematic franchises, but it’s entirely possible that their tradition of loyalty to directors will get in the way of unveiling the winning hand of a concomitantly commanding brand. Marvel have been ruthless in serving the overall brand through relentless crossovers between movies, even if it means shafting gifted directors like Edgar Wright on those individual movies.

Warner Bros’ intellectual property excites talented writer/directors. In a climate where Universal’s horror stable is becoming a coherent franchise-friendly universe, the WB’s challenge will be to combine traditional loyalty to directors with service to the overall brand.

 

Gotham premieres on RTE 2 at 9pm Monday 26th January.

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