Fox’s Gotham, chronicling the pre-Batman days of the Dark Knight’s hometown, is one of this fall’s most anticipated new shows. But what few comic fans know is that this story almost came to TV nearly 15 years ago – and helped bring many other DC Comics characters to the small screen without even airing, or shooting, a single episode.
The tale of this TV show that wasn’t has circulated among fans for years, but with Gotham coming up, along with such DC Comics TV series as The Flash, Constantine and the continuing run of Arrow, we thought it was time to take a fresh look back at the show that almost was – and how its influence is still felt today.
This is the story of the Batman-without-Batman show that set the tone for many of today’s comics-to-TV projects. This is the story of a teen billionaire without a cape and cowl, his friends and enemies, and Barbara Gordon on a skateboard. This is the story of Bruce Wayne.
The tale of Bruce Wayne goes back to 1999 and a screenwriter named Tim McCanlies. In 1999, McCanlies scripted the animated film The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird, to widespread critical acclaim (and not-so-great box office, though time has long since earned it an audience). McCanlies’ work has shown the influence of comics, including the use of classic Superman comics inIron Giant, and his writing/directing effort Secondhand Lions featuring original artwork from Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the same year Giant came out, he pitched the pilot of Bruce Wayne to Tollin/Robbins Productions. If that name sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. We’ll get to it later.
Bruce Wayne attracted some interest from HBO – this was the same year the pay-cable network broke out out with original programming, thanks to The Sopranos – but seemed destined for a place on Warner Bros.’ network The WB, now The CW. With shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek helping the smaller network attracting the coveted “young people,” demographic, something that combined a tested concept like Batman with an “origin story” concept like The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles seemed like a sure thing.
Despite positive reviews on Ain’t It Cool News and other websites, the 62-page pilot script of Bruce Wayne was never actually filmed – but like The Iron Giant, achieved a sort of word-of-mouth success. PDF copies have long been passed around the Internet and among fans, becoming one of those fan-favorite “What if?” projects – a vision that was never fully realized.
Now, if you want to read the Bruce Wayne pilot…well, we can’t link to it, but it’s out there. A few simple Google searches using such terms as “Bruce Wayne PDF” and such should turn it up in the first few results.
But for the less search-engine-inclined, here’s a brief summary of the script, and where the series would have gone.
The Bruce Wayne pilot is framed by narration by ever-faithful Wayne family butler Alfred, left tending cataloging materials from “The Early Years” in what’s referred to as a “cavern” in the script (three guesses as to what this cavern really is, and the first two don’t count). Flash back to London, where Alfred bails an about-to-turn-18 Bruce out of holding for getting into a fight, with news – he’s been summoned back to Gotham.
Bruce, it seems has some anger issues and no idea where to focus them. And it’s something the public is speculating on – he’s been gone from Gotham for 12 years, and is now old enough to assume control of the family company, WayneCorp. It’s something that has everyone from shrinks to Wall Street analysts to TV gossip host Vicki Vale speculating – what will he do next?
As Alfred points out, merely beating up would-be muggers isn’t healthy and could open Bruce up to lawsuits. But Bruce soon makes some friends, including a spiky-haired 13-year-old tomboy named Barbara Gordon with a skateboard in her backpack and a tendency to go “undercover” while playing teen detective; her father, Sgt. Jim Gordon, the cop who never solved the case of Bruce’s parents’ murder; old friend and current WayneCorp intern Lucius Fox; and Bruce’s former school chum and current party-boy law student Harvey Dent ,who tends to hang with a Holly Golightly-esque society bad girl by the name of Selina Kyle (spelled “Selena” in the script).
There are also several characters original to the script as well, including Harvey’s sister Susan, in whom Bruce takes a romantic interest, Lucius Fox’s mother Billie, and Charles Palantine, the acting head of WayneCorp, whose paternal interest in Bruce is levied by his desire to have him not poke into the company’s affairs.
By the end of the pilot, Bruce has discovered that the people left in charge of WayneCorp aren’t the most scrupulous, and figured out “something I’m good at” – fighting the corruption in his city, albeit hiding behind his playboy image as he takes over the family business. As he poses for a photo with Harvey, Lucius and his other friends, the picture is seen with present-day Alfred in the Batcave, as he narrates the proposed series’ theme:
"It's an enormous task, perhaps even a hopeless one...to attempt to explain why a man, this man, finally saw no recourse, no other way open to him but to finally put on... a mask."
The Bruce Wayne pilot is, despite the dark undercurrents of Bruce’s origin, a witty, fast-paced and occasionally spirited adventure story, one that features a more wry, exuberant version of the young Dark Knight than we’re used to seeing. Bruce is someone who’s playful and headstrong, but still tormented by the event that took his family and destroyed his innocence – and not yet hardened by experience into the brooding figure we’ll one day know.
There’s a few groaner moments (Bruce remarks Harvey is the most “two-faced” person he knows, while Gordon admonishes a svelte detective named Bullock not to pound down the donuts) and a few logical jumps (Alfred repeatedly admonishes Bruce to not let people know about his fighting/acrobatic skills, yet is bewildered his employer one day puts on a mask?), but otherwise, it’s a fun, energetic script with a sweet father/son relationship between Bruce and Alfred at its center.
So how come it never got made?
Well, there are a couple reasons – including the network thinking there was a better idea in here.
The first problem was that while the negative critical reception to 1997’s Batman and Robin had led to plans to reboot the Batman film franchise, one of the possible ideas for a film version being bandied about was Batman: Year One, based on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s acclaimed storyline, which would have been done by future Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky. As such, it seemed like a bit too much of an overlap to have two different versions of Batman’s early years going on at once.
Plus, there were worries that having Batman on TV might weaken his possibilities for a big-screen comeback. According to a 2003 interview with Austin360, McCanlies claimed that Warner Bros. head of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura felt that the series would defeat the Batman property’s value as a film, despite McCanlies pleading with him that the word “Batman” would never even be uttered in the course of the series.
The result, according to McCanlies, was that di Bonaventura put a new Batman film in development, effectively quashing Bruce Wayne’s chances of making it to the air. Perhaps not coincidentally, the film that finally made it to theaters in 2005 explicitly dealt with its own vision of Batman’s early years – Batman Begins.
The second reason involves the secret origin of a show you probably do know.
McCanlies created a detailed proposal for several years worth of possible storylines for the Bruce Wayne series. As the series went on, Bruce would have dealt with corruption within WayneCorp and its ties to the Gotham mob, traveled the world to learn new skills, found himself getting involved with the criminal minds held in Arkham Asylum, tried working within traditional law enforcement, and encountered a number of figures who’d go on to become bigger parts of his life, including Oswald Cobblepot, Edward Nygma and Harleen Quinzel.
And in a two-part episode that McCanlies thought might make a nice spin-off if the show was successful, Bruce would meet a young journalist named Clark Kent at a newspaper convention in a story entitled “Smallville.”
Tollin/Robbins Productions saw some potential in that. So did The WB.
What happened next is lost to the sands of time and what McCanlies has indicated in a Crave Online interview was a lucrative nondisclosure agreement. But we all know the end result: Smallville, produced by Tollin/Robbins. premiered on The WB in the fall of 2001, and ran for 10 seasons, even continuing on in a DC Digital Comic to this day.
The version of Smallville that ultimately aired was developed by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and you won’t see Tim McCanlies’ name in the credits to any episode. From his comments, it sounds like McCanlies didn’t care for the direction they took with the series – but that he was also well-compensated for having come up with the idea, however inadvertently.
But though it was never made, Bruce Wayne helped inspire a new generation of DC Comics-based TV series.
Smallville was of course a smash – and begat an unsold pilot for an Aquaman series. That in turn led to Aquaman’s portrayer Justin Hartley portraying Green Arrow on Smallville – and once that series ended, a very different take on the Emerald Archer continued on the CW with Arrow, now entering its third season and boasting its own highly-anticipated spinoff, The Flash.
Without Smallville, those shows wouldn’t have been possible – and Smallville itself wouldn’t have been possible without Bruce Wayne.
In many ways, Bruce Wayne proved ahead of its time. A number of ideas in the pilot, from Bruce battling internal strife at his family’s company to the sarcastic-but-loving father/son relationship between Bruce and Alfred, showed up in different forms in Christopher Nolan’s films.
And of course, the idea of a Batman prequel has come up again, in the form of Gotham.
In a weird way, Bruce Wayne helped pave the way for Gotham, a series that deals with similar themes – but in a very different way. We’ll have to wait until this fall to see the unique take on the not-yet-Dark Knight and his city creator Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome ) has conceived, but remember this:
Before there was Batman, there was Gotham…but before Gotham, there was (almost) Bruce Wayne.
And while it might not have ever made it to the airwaves, the legacy of this unique series that never was is still felt today – and will be felt for many TV seasons to come.