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REVIEW: Batman's Butler Gets a Muddled Origin in Pennyworth

One of the most effective jokes in last year's Teen Titans Go! to the Movies was the cavalcade of clearly superfluous Batman spinoff movies being produced before Robin got to star in his own film. It was obviously ridiculous, for example, that Batman's butler Alfred would get his own spotlight before an established hero like the Boy Wonder. And yet the new Epix series Pennyworth is like that joke come to life and taken incredibly seriously. There still hasn't been a solo Robin movie or television drama, but Alfred is now starring in his own pointlessly gritty prestige-cable show.

Pennyworth creator Bruno Heller is no stranger to producing Batman content without the Caped Crusader himself, as the developer of Fox's Gotham, which wrapped its five-season run earlier this year. That series chronicled the early years of Batman ally Jim Gordon, but at least it was set in the Dark Knight's hometown, and could draw on the rich legacy of Batman villains. Pennyworth is set even earlier, before Bruce Wayne has been born or his parents have even gotten together, and it's an ocean away from Gotham City, in a sort of alternate-history version of 1960s London.

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Portrayed by Jack Bannon, Alfred Pennyworth is a 26-year-old military veteran working as a nightclub bouncer and attempting to start his own security consulting firm. He's played as a working-class bruiser with a hidden soulful side, which mostly comes out when he starts dating dancer and actress Esme (Emma Corrin). Bannon also imbues Alfred with a strong hint of Michael Caine's distinctive accent, making a connection to the character of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (rather than the Alfred of Gotham, played by Sean Pertwee). Bannon's Alfred even frequently goes by the nickname Alfie, possibly a reference to one of Caine's most famous early roles, in the 1966 movie of the same name.

Although Alfred has enlisted his army buddies Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) and Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) as his right-hand men in his new venture, the trio never really gets around to starting their company. They're instead drawn into a clandestine battle between two organizations vying for power in Great Britain, the fascist Raven Society and the left-wing No-Name League. Both groups are initially presented as secret organizations, each working behind the scenes to undermine the government for its own ends. But by the fifth episode, these factions are openly warring in the streets and being mentioned in TV news reports, making it difficult to get a handle on their place in society, or their methods for accomplishing their goals.

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Alfred is a reluctant participant in the groups' activities, drawn in by American operatives Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), aka Bruce Wayne's future parents. Thomas and Martha are portrayed so differently here that they connect to the existing DC comics characters in name only, and could easily have been renamed without any effect on the show. Alfred probably could, too, but at least his London upbringing, military service and butler father (Ian Puleston-Davies) are taken from versions of his comic-book backstory.

There are no other DC characters in the five episodes available for review, although, theoretically, Alfred could run into versions of Golden Age or early Silver Age heroes and villains. Instead, Heller (who wrote all five episodes) creates new antagonists with mostly underwhelming results. The two secret societies are led by generic shadowy figures who seem (and sometimes are) disposable, and local crime boss John Ripper doesn't inspired the terror of his serial-killer namesake. British pop singer Paloma Faith makes a strong impression as Bet Sykes, a sort of matronly henchwoman who becomes an increasingly important character as the show goes on, with unpredictable, shifting motivations.

Bet isn't exactly a major villain, however, and her subplots feel a little disconnected from the main story. Heller seems unsure of how much he wants to lean into the series' alternate-history setting, even though the sparse background details suggest a potentially intriguing universe. There are a handful of establishing shots with what look like airships flying overhead, and a TV broadcast mentions the still-existing German Reich, indicating a world in which the Axis Powers may have prevailed (to some degree) in World War II.

Alfred's somewhat-tedious war flashbacks cover an unspecified conflict somewhere in the Pacific, and the government metes out justice in televised executions and stockades in public squares. None of this stuff is particularly relevant to the plot or character development, though, and at this point there's no reason the show couldn't be set in a more historically accurate version of its time and place.

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As a dark action-adventure series, Pennyworth is passable at times, with occasionally exciting set pieces and an appealing (if superficially developed) lead character. As an addition to the Batman mythos, though, it's a complete waste, without any relevance to the well-known characters it portrays, or the larger world they'll eventually inhabit.

Tossed-off references to Gotham City don't make for effective world-building, and adding excessive swearing and explicit gore doesn't turn a stuffy butler into a hard-edged action hero. It just makes the show's creators come off as if they are trying too hard. Teen Titans Go! had it right: Making Alfred the lead character is an inherently silly proposition, and the grim, plodding Pennyworth completely misses the mark.

Starring Jack Bannon, Ben Aldridge, Ryan Fletcher, Hainsley Lloyd Bennett, Paloma Faith, Emma Paetz, Polly Walker and Jason Flemyng, Pennyworth premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Epix.

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