In ‘Dark Knight,’ The Often-Incompetent Jim Gordon Actually Knows What He’s Doing

Gary Oldman's cop isn't as dependent on Batman as the character has been in the past.

Batman has the cape. The Joker gets all the best lines. Two-Face is the most theatrical character in the “Batman” universe. The Penguin has all those eccentric umbrellas. And the Riddler often becomes the scene-stealing comical relief.

But next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the simplest Bob Kane/ Bill Finger creation, a character who has developed into the complex soul behind so many story lines: James “Jim” Worthington Gordon.

“[Batman] is one man; I’ve got a police force,” grinned Gary Oldman , who reprises his role as Gotham’s most incorruptible cop in next week’s “The Dark Knight.” “It’s kind of like, ‘I can handle myself very well, thank you.’ ”

Unfortunately, this hasn’t always been the case. To the generation that came of age in the 1960s, Gordon is best remembered as a gray-haired senior citizen who would run to the Batphone every time someone was jaywalking. The next wave of Batfans saw Gordon receive even less respect, as the character became increasingly relegated to the background for the Tim Burton/ Joel Shumacher movies.

But to truly understand writer/director Christopher Nolan ‘s new-school take on Commissioner Gordon, you have to go back to the beginning.

Batman’s key confidante first appeared in 1939′s Detective Comics #27, preceding characters such as Two-Face, the Joker and even Robin the Boy Wonder. From day one, he was depicted as a man of great integrity who sometimes finds his by-the-book ways clashing with Batman’s vigilante nature but often comes to the caped crusader for help when his investigations hit a brick wall. In earlier incarnations, Gordon even went so far as to officially deputize Batman — and in 1942, he altered a Klieg searchlight, summoning the hero with a light in the sky that would come to be called the Bat Signal.

“In the case of Gordon, it’s somebody who does it by the book,” comic book writer Jeph Loeb said of the character’s intrinsic nature. “He doesn’t care whether or not people run around in costumes, as long as they do it by the book. Otherwise, you’re the same as the bad guys.”

Much of the Batman/Gordon relationship became a cliché in the ’50s and ’60s, as he became the police commissioner who stood around and spouted plot exposition while Batman (and often Robin) went out on the missions. Similar characters could be found all over police and superhero dramas of the day.

The rarely seen “Batman & Robin” serials of 1949 set up Gordon as a commissioner who couldn’t even deduce that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were Batman and Robin, although the character was nonetheless solidly portrayed by Ed Wood regular Lyle Talbot. In 1966, the hit TV show “Batman” premiered with veteran actor Neil Hamilton as Gordon and Stafford Repp as comically clueless Police Chief O’Hara. Utterly dependent on Batman and Robin, the two rarely left the safety of the commissioner’s office, unless the plot required that they be taken hostage.

Hamilton received a few minutes of screen time in the deliriously campy 1966 “Batman” film but the character wouldn’t be seen on film again until Burton cast veteran actor Pat Hingle in the role of Commissioner Gordon in 1989′s “Batman” film opposite Michael Keaton. As the sequels “Batman Returns,” “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” got progressively worse, we saw less and less of Pringle. The actor’s final appearance in the role would have him working alongside Uma Thurman, a former wife to Oldman, who’d pick up the role a decade later.

In various incarnations, Gordon has known (or not known, or not cared to know) Batman’s identity. Various members of his family have been mutilated, murdered and/or tortured alongside him. He has been depicted as dumb enough to not recognize his own daughter Barbara as Batgirl, or brilliant enough to outmaneuver Gotham’s most cunning criminals.

“I’d really say [our films] are a very large survey of the comic history,” Nolan explained recently, citing the key comics that brought Gordon back to respectability. “The Long Halloween has a great, triangular relationship between Harvey Dent and Gordon and Batman, and that’s something we very much drew from.”

Indeed, it is landmark comic books such as Frank Miller’s late-’80s series Batman: Year One, Alan Moore’s 1988 classic The Killing Joke and Loeb’s mid-’90s limited-series The Long Halloween that defined the modern, more complex Jim Gordon.

“The person that I’ve always identified with, and I write to all the time, that I most admire in that cast is Gordon,” Loeb said. “He’s the voice of humanity in The Long Halloween and in Dark Victory and in Hush. … His love of justice is at the expense of a marriage that’s falling apart, his relationship with his son and daughter. Those are very, very real things that I think people can hold on to. Here’s this guy who forms this alliance with a vigilante, because he realizes that the kind of crime that’s going on out there can only be dealt with in one way. The police are not capable of dealing with the Joker. Only Batman can. So for the greater good of getting that person off the streets, you have to form an alliance with someone who you don’t believe should be doing what he’s doing. That’s incredibly interesting to me.”

“That was the mandate we set for ourselves with ‘Batman Begins,’ and that we’ve continued on ‘The Dark Knight’: to just try to make it real,” explained David Goyer, a screenwriter on both films. “Which is not really that revolutionary, but I think it’s led to a couple of good movies.”

“It felt like the approach taken in a lot of the comic books that we all love,” added his “Knight” writing partner, Jonathan Nolan. “The Frank Miller vision of Batman and the Alan Moore vision of Batman seem to have that in common.”

“And Jeph Loeb’s too in The Long Halloween,” Goyer added.

“He can move around the system,” Oldman said of the modern-day beat cop/ sergeant/ lieutenant/ commissioner. “I get promoted [in 'Knight']. … The character was created in 1939. I remember on the first one, I snooped around on the Internet.

“Didn’t he get a divorce and stuff like that?” Oldman asked, referring to a development in the late-’80s Secret Origins series that also dove into the constantly evolving origin of his daughter Barbara. “There’s all sorts of things that have happened to Gordon.”

And if Oldman, Nolan and millions of fans all over the world have their way, the story of this 69-year-old character and his unlikely accomplice has many more chapters left to tell.

“Gordon has a great deal of admiration for him at the end, but [Batman] is more than ever now the dark knight, the outsider,” Oldman said. “I’m intrigued now to see: If there is a third one, what he’s going to do?”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Dark Knight.”

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