Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Gotham – A Tale of Two Television Series

by Aaron Einhorn
Last night, Christina and I had some friends (and fellow members of the Heroes Alliance Ohio team) over to watch the premiere/pilot episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and while we were waiting for the episode to air, we saw the news about Warner Brother’s new show for 2014 – Gotham.

“Wait,” you might say, “Warner Brothers is going to make a show to directly compete with Marvel, focusing on the ordinary policemen who make up the police force of Gotham City? Isn’t that a case of copying their rival?”

Well, no. For one thing, AoS will already be in to its second season by the time Gotham airs. For another, AoS is a show that is much larger in scope than Gotham. Coulson and company are clearly globe-trotters, taking on threats and concerns all around the world – Gotham will be focused on Jim Gordon in a pre-Batman Gotham City. We may see some action in the outer burroughs , but we can expect the show to be much more local than global.

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Furthermore, AoS takes place within the timeline and constraints of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action of the show picks up several months after The Avengers, and the conflict of the first episode ties directly in to the events of Iron Man 3 – which coincidentally came out on Blu-Ray/DVD the same day that the first episode aired. Conversely, Gotham will probably not be tied to any existing version of the DC films. In theory it could take place in the same setting as Nolan’s films, but Gary Oldman is unlikely (and indeed, unable) to come back and reprise his role as Gordon. Similarly, the reboot that the Batman universe is in store for will be placing an older, experienced Batman into Man of Steel – which doesn’t fit into the scope of the show either.

The bigger difference is right there in the names of the shows. Marvel’s offering proclaims itself Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a throughline in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and the first episode showed us Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill, Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, clips from The Avengers, action figures of each of the heroes, and most of the heroes mentioned either indirectly or by name.

”Technically, I don’t think Thor’s a god.”
“Well, you haven’t been near his arms.”

AoS is unapologetically, unabashedly a part of the greater Marvel superheroic film universe. We’re going to see bright, flashy elements. We will probably see costumes of some sort as the show develops – not that the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms are far off on their own, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo is prominent across the sets. Heck, in the episode, when someone asks what they just saw, Coulson responds with “That’s a superhero.”

Meanwhile, in both DC’s films and in recent, successful television shows (Smallville, Arrow, Man of Steel), costumes are all-but forbidden and the phrase superhero is never heard. (Despite DC having half of the trademark on that phrase.) You’ll here heroes called “vigilantes,” or “costumed crime-fighters,” but “superhero”? Never.

James_Gordon-1The title of this show is Gotham. It’s not G.C.P.D (an actual comic title) or Gordon, it’s Gotham. It follows the mold of Smallville, hiding the show’s comic roots, and it promises that we will never see Batman. We may see Gotham’s famous villains, but I’m sure that it will be Selina Kyle and Edward Nigma and Oswald Cobblepot that we see, not Catwoman or the Riddler or Penguin. (And my suspicion is we won’t actually see most of the well-known villains, and that the show will instead focus on the crime bosses of the Batman mythos.)

We’re seeing two competing philosophies about using comics as the base for film and television in action. And it isn’t my place to say which is right and which is wrong, but I think my preference is clear. Marvel has embraced the comic book roots of their characters and their world, and that is visible everywhere from the overall tone, to the dialogue, to the pace, to the costumes and codenames.

DC on the other hand, continues to do everything they can to mask that the show or film is based on comics. “Please, excuse the fact that these characters came from ‘funnybooks’,” they seem to say. “Really, they can be compelling despite that. We promise not to do anything too flashy with superpowers or costumes. We won’t even call them Superman or Green Arrow.”

All I know for sure is that I am eagerly awaiting the second issue episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., while I have little incentive or desire to find out anything more about Gotham.