The Problems With Pennyworth
Pennyworth is the story of Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, years before Bruce Wayne was even born. But if we ignore all of what I just said, here’s what Pennyworth is actually about. At some undetermined point in the 1950s or 60s, a former SAS (Special Air Service, the most elite British military group) soldier tries to leave war behind and start a security firm with two of his squadmates, but after an encounter with an American playboy secretly working for the CIA, he finds himself drawn into a conflict for the soul of Britain between the fascistic, hard-right Raven Society and the more liberal but similarly vicious No-Name League.
That’s a show. That’s an interesting show. You could just make that show. But the entertainment industry being what it is, the premise becomes an easier pitch if you slap a Brand on it, so the ex-soldier is young Alfred Pennyworth, the rich playboy/CIA operative is Thomas Wayne, and the contact that drags Alfred into working with the No-Name League is Martha Kane. And the last name “Kane” might not mean anything to anyone not watching Batwoman (you should), but I think there have been enough jokes about Batman V Superman that “Martha” rings a bell.
And the thing is, the whole “ex-soldier stuck between rival factions” thing? It works. The give-and-take between the Raven Society and the No-Names is good, especially with Jason Flemyng as the Raven Society’s leader, Lord Harwood, who is brought low by the events of the pilot and has to claw his way back; Anna Chancellor as his would-be successor Dr. Frances Gaunt; and Coupling’s Sarah Alexander as Undine Thwaite, who schemes her way into running the No-Names. Jack Bannon is a legit-good leading man as Alfred; he’d be a decent contender for Best Male Lead in my annual Comic TV Rankings, if Watchmen, Preacher, The End of the F**king World, and The Boys didn’t also exist. This show could be legit great… except for the fact that they made it a Batman prequel so it’d be easier to sell.
Here are the problems with that.
As soon as they called it Pennyworth, Alfred Pennyworth needed to be a key part of every episode. So while the No-Names and the post-Harwood Ravens jockeyed for position, Alfred needed something to do… and that something was some women-in-refrigerators bullshit in which Alfred’s fiancée is murdered* for reasons having nothing to do with the main plot. So Alfred… and a Raven Society operative named Bet Sykes who decided she was in love with Alfred’s lady… have to hunt the killer down, while everyone else focuses on the main plot. Well, except for the part where Thomas and Martha get mixed up with a Satanist cult for two episodes.
Second… Thomas Wayne is a CIA agent, Martha Kane is a freelance spy, and Alfred Pennyworth ends up working for both to determine the future of the entire United Kingdom… so what the flipping heck happens to these people that they give it all up and move to Gotham. How do two secret agents settle into being socialites? What happened to Alfred that he bails on everything he’s trying to do and moves to America to be a butler? The season finale gives hints, but there’s clearly more to it… And how do Thomas and Martha survive all of this only to get killed by a mugger? It’s somehow worse than making Spider-man’s parents super-spies. Sure this might be the most interesting version of Martha Kane that’s ever been, but in context of where the story must go, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
And third… they try to imply Thomas Wayne might be killed by Raven Society agents cleaning house, but that is a bad bluff. The second you named one character Alfred Pennyworth and introduced him to a Thomas Wayne, you locked those two characters into a pre-determined destiny. That is the curse of the prequel… you run the risk of answering questions nobody was asking (hello, first third of Solo) and even if you avoid that, it’s not like anything super bad can happen to your protagonist, since we know where they end up. So you’d best have a story worth telling if you want to pull this off. (Hello last third of Solo.)
Pennyworth is like 70-80% of a good show, but it’s held back by being Pennyworth and not, like, The Kingsmen: 60s or Chuck: Origins or I don’t know, something without a pre-existing brand slapped on top of it.
But if you do want something with pre-existing Bat-branding, do what you have to do to track down the Harley Quinn animated series, because it is so goddamn funny.
Like I could do a full review talking about Lake Bell’s perfectly deadpan delivery as Poison Ivy, Ron Funches’ hilarious take on King Shark, Tony Hale’s hysterically misanthropic Dr. Psycho, the brilliant use of Kite Man (hell yeah), or just the general take-no-prisoners ridiculousness of their approach to the DC Universe, but this is all you need to know.
It is so goddamn funny.
Seriously, watch it if you can.
*I mean I guess that’s a spoiler but on the other hand Alfred very clearly doesn’t have a wife and only has one child**, so we have to have known his great love wasn’t going to end well, right?
**Julia Pennyworth, introduced in the comics in 2014, currently a recurring character on Batwoman, she’s awesome.
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