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When J.K. Simmons joins Warner Bros’ Justice League Part 1 as Commission Gordon, he’ll become the latest in a long line of lawmen who’ve had to deal with sharing a city with the Dark Knight, and the world with an increasingly powerful, dangerous group of super beings, whether heroic flying ubermensch or creepy clowns.
While the fruits of Simmons’ efforts won’t be seen for some time — Justice League won’t be released until late next year — it is, at least, possible to consider the previous onscreen James Gordons and wonder what they each brought to the role. (Please note, however, that only live-action Gordons are being counted; when animated versions are factored in, the list would more than triple in size and include such names as Gary Cole and Bryan Cranston, surprisingly.)
Lyle Talbot (Batman and Robin, 1949)
Talbot, perhaps best known for playing Joe Randolph in The Adventures on Ozzie and Harriet, was saddled with the task of creating the first live-action Gordon in the 15-episode movie serial from the late ‘40s. The character was only a decade old when this was created, and it shows; the version seen onscreen here resembles the patriarchal figure most fans would recognize today in very few ways, being instead a generic cop boss with a penchant for exclamation.
Neil Hamilton (Batman, 1966-1968)
If Talbot didn’t really fit the bill of the comic book Gordon, the same is true of Hamilton, the Gordon of the 1960s camp TV incarnation of the Bat-mythos. Where is the mustache that the comic book version sported? Where are the glasses? Where is the gravitas? Nowhere to be found, but that doesn’t mean that the perpetually impressed, upright Gordon that Hamilton created didn’t become iconic in its own right.
Pat Hingle (Batman/Batman Returns/Batman Forever/Batman & Robin 1989-1997)
An important course correction from the Hamilton era, Pat Hingle not only had facial hair, but he played the role of Gotham City’s top cop relatively straight — or, at least, as far as one can be in Tim Burton’s gothic melodramas or Joel Schumacher’s over-the-top neon eye-candy-fests. He was gruff, he was angry, but one thing that remained lacking was the lack of a friendship with the Dark Knight himself. That wouldn’t arrive for a few more years …
Gary Oldman (Batman Begins/The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight Rises, 2005-2012)
While one can quibble about much of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (Would it have killed anyone to make Bane more intelligible? Did The Dark Knight really need the Two-Face plot at all?), there’s no denying that Gary Oldman brought the comic book James Gordon to life in a way that no one else had managed before. Not only is he a visual fit for the comic book character, but the personality is all there — the frustration, the desire to do good in a bad world and the shared purpose (and sense of humor, as dark as it may be) with Batman. This, let’s be honest, is the bar that J.K. Simmons is going to have to clear.
Ben McKenzie (Gotham, 2014-)
Of course, Simmons is unlikely be the only live-action Gordon onscreen when Justice League debuts; while he plays the older cop who has to deal with Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, Ben McKenzie plays a younger version of the character in Fox’s Gotham who has to interact with Wayne as a kid, just after his parents were murdered. While he (obviously) lacks the visual cues of the comic book version, who is at least two decades older, he’s clearly the same Gordon where it counts — a man trying his best (and occasionally failing) in a city that seems almost cursed to bring out the worst in everyone.
Will Simmons’ Gordon mix elements of each of these performances together to create the Ultimate Commissioner Gordon? It’s far too early to say, but one thing should be noted: He should make sure he’s in shape, just in case the movies decide to follow the recent comic book storyline that put Gordon into the Batsuit in his own right for some time.
Justice League, Part 1 will be released in 2017.
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Behind The Screen
Venice Film Festival