Comic-Con: 'Gotham' EP on Gordon's Origin Story and Lessons From Other Genre Shows

Gotham Still - H 2014
Jessica Miglio/FOX

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Mentalist's Bruno Heller is set to make the biggest Comic-Con debut a showrunner can make with Fox's Gotham, the origin story of James Gordon, the cop who eventually becomes Batman's trusted ally. The series will make its world premiere in San Diego when the pilot screens as the anchor of Warner Bros. Television/DC Entertainment's three-hour panel Saturday night (at 8 p.m. in Hall H).

THR spoke with Heller about the pressures of bringing characters like Gordon (played by Southland's Ben McKenzie), the Penguin, Catwoman and young Bruce Wayne to TV; the rules of Gotham's universe; and how the series will honor fanboys while ensuring that nonfans won't glaze over with dread.

How will Gotham separate itself from other superhero shows we've seen before?

This is about heroes, but there are no superpowers. It's precisely about what to do when you don't have superheroes to call on when the world starts turning bad. What do ordinary men and women do? That's much more what the show is about. It's both grounded and a dream world in the sense that Gotham is for everybody an idea of an American city.

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What makes James Gordon's origin story so compelling?

He is the Mary and Joseph of this particular nativity. He's the moral core; even when Batman arrives, he's the moral core of Gotham. He's the real person who, in a way, gives permission and birth to the Batman legend by allowing Batman to flourish. He's a character who's been there from the start, so he's a great narrator for the story of how Gotham declined to the point that it needed someone like the Batman. He's both a hero and a moral center that people can relate to in a way that it's tough to relate to Batman because Batman is a man out of time and place, whereas Gordon is a real human being.

How are you looking to balance procedural and serialized, while still giving diehard fans what they want?

It is a serialized show. It's hard to sell such a rich story without making it serialized. But it's about cops, so there's a procedural stand-alone element every week. This is not ancient history; even the general audience has a basic understanding. As much as we want to pay due respect to the fans, the show is designed to work both ways. As long as we're respectful and intelligent about the inside baseball stuff and tell stories that are sufficiently compelling to a larger audience, then I think we can do both.

Where does Gotham fall between the kitschy Batman TV show and the Dark Knight films?

If it fell anywhere, it's between those two in the sense that it pays due homage to the dystopian world of modern Batman, but it also has some of the humor and fun of the old show. You couldn't do a campy show like Adam West's Batman anymore, nor would a bleak, dystopian version of the story work on TV.

What kind of fears do you have about tackling these iconic characters?

There's no fear. There's certainly pressure and tension, and in this medium, there is always a certain amount of that. Everyone involved understands the weight of the legacy, but when you're actually doing it, you can't worry.

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What have you learned from other big genre shows?

Treat it as fun. You can't be too solemn; you can't be too serious about it, even when dealing with a more serious subject. You have to have a sense of playfulness and possibility, because otherwise the weight of past versions and people's expectations can weigh things down. We're trying to entertain people on a moment-by-moment basis.

Superman origin series Smallville had a hard-and-fast rule about "no tights, no flights" until the series finale. Do you guys have a similar mantra?

There are no hard-and-fast rules. It's our intention to keep it within the world of ordinary people. Our commitment is to a physical reality. There's essentially one rule: that we're true to the timeline and chronology of Bruce Wayne. Everything else is up for grabs.

You've got the DC canon behind you. Are there any limitations to what you can or can't do? Robin?

Robin has not come up. No one is off limits as long as we're dealing with the pre-Batman mythology. There are some characters, like the Joker, who appear in the Batman mythology after Batman does, but that doesn't mean the man who becomes Joker cannot appear earlier. There's essentially one rule: That we're true to the timeline and chronology of Bruce Wayne. Everything else is up for grabs within the parameters of a show that is not going to go into the supernatural and the super-powered.

Would you use actors who have appeared in other Batman properties?

What we're trying not to do is cross-pollinate in off-putting ways. We're trying to keep the crossing as fresh and as modern as possible. As time rolls on, no doubt there will be more of that to a degree, because we are dealing with a different time frame than any other show, it's difficult to see how you could move people from one project to another, but we are certainly open to it.