Pennyworth is ostensibly a Batman prequel, exploring who Alfred was before he ever started stitching up The Dark Knight’s wounds, but it takes four episodes before there’s any mention of Gotham City. That’s not necessarily a huge problem, since Pennyworth is very much set in ’60s London, but it is indicative of a particularly big issue that the show does have: Pennyworth can’t decide if it wants to tell a Batman story or if it wants to tell a completely original story about people named after Batman characters—including Alfred’s future boss, Thomas Wayne, who shows up within the first 10 minutes of the first episode while trying to wrangle his wild sister, Patricia, when he bumps into young Alfred Pennyworth.
It’s a fine meeting on its own, with the reveal of Thomas Wayne’s name getting a little musical cue (of course), but him having a sister—something that has never been a factor in accepted Batman canon—is a bizarrely massive and unwarranted alteration to the Batman canon. If Thomas has a sister, that means Bruce still has family when his parents are killed. It means he doesn’t necessarily have to live with Alfred and dedicate his every waking moment to an obsession with justice. It means this isn’t necessarily a show about the guy who will eventually raise Batman, and if that’s the case, what’s the point of it? It’s worth noting that Patricia never comes up again in the episodes screened for critics, so it’s entirely possible that she dies later on in the show. However, even if that does happen, why introduce a new member of the Wayne family just to distract mythology-obsessed Batman nerds and then kill her off? Why do something so inconsequential?
That’s a question that hangs over the entirety of Pennyworth, which would almost be more entertaining if you changed some of the names and jettisoned the comic book connection entirely—at least then there’d be no distracting questions about why Thomas Wayne has a sister and why he’s secretly working for the government instead of becoming a rich doctor back home. As it stands, though, the show is as entertaining as it is frustrating, feeling sort of like an adaptation of a comic based on Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies (with all of the Britishness that implies). It has style. It has interesting spy intrigue and snappy acton. It has weirdly theatrical villains. It has anachronistic needle drops. And yet, every detour to explore the motivations of a side character, whether its Alfred’s old buddies from his decade in the SAS or Hainsley Lloyd Bennett’s Harley Quinn-inspired Bet Sykes, feel counter to the show’s stated purpose—which is exploring what Alfred’s life was like before he started throwing away uneaten breakfasts for a billionaire playboy who likes beating up criminals.
It’s a shame, too, because the show really is a fun watch. On a purely aesthetic level, it looks pretty neat. London always appears dark and gloomy and just a little fake (the CGI budget can’t be that big), with the sky looking a little unusually green or gray. Also, people have a tendency to wear long, flowing coats, and a group of cops in one episode all have masks and big logos on their chests (the one and only time there’s some kind of tactile connection to what Batman will be). As for the acting, star Jack Bannon has a great take on Alfred, clearly echoing Michael Caine’s version of the character from Christoper Nolan’s movies (he definitely watched that “some men want to watch the world burn” speech once or twice), and he puts his lanky frame to good use in some particularly energetic fight scenes.
Ben Aldridge’s Thomas Wayne also carries the warm gravitas you’d expect from the character, even if he’s in London on a mission to suppress a fascist revolution in London instead of hanging out in Gotham as a rich doctor. The same goes for Emma Paetz’s Martha Kane (the future Mrs. Wayne), who is also secretly working for the government and who also seems to recognize the importance of her role in the world—even if her actual actions don’t feel quite so crucial.
The villains don’t fare quite as well. Pennyworth is more enthralled with the aforementioned Bet Sykes than her character really warrants, as it mostly seems like she’s there to be manic and evil and to suddenly and inexplicably fall in love with Alfred’s girlfriend. There’s also Jason Flemyng’s Lord Harwood, a man who shows up wearing a fantastic cape but is almost immediately taken down and disfigured when Alfred foils his initial scheme. Both of them work for the Raven Society, the group behind the fascist revolution, with Thomas and Martha acting on behalf of the No-Name League, a more liberal counterpart to the Raven Society that would prefer to retain the status quo and/or institute a more socialist regime (it’s kind of unclear).
There’s a lot of talk about a brewing civil war between the two factions, but it consistently feels like something that is only happening in the background because Alfred himself doesn’t really care who wins—even as both sides repeatedly use him to do their dirty work. There’s apparently nobody else in London who is as good at being a bodyguard or an assassin as he is (on a related note, he completely obliterates a man’s head with a shotgun in one episode, and the sequence is so graphically violent that it might actually make you forget that this is related to Batman).
Alfred is essentially a freelance James Bond without the staunch loyalty to Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which theoretically sets the show up to be some kind of battle for his soul, but he’s barely more than a passive participant in that fight. One could argue that this is laying the groundwork for an eventual acceptance of the strong moral core that he will pass on to the young Master Bruce, but that kind of leap is only possible because the show is called Pennyworth and we know that his two American friends will leave him to take care of their kid after they get murdered. However, as established, the show doesn’t seem particularly interested in leaning on its connection to Batman, so why give it that excuse?
Pennyworth is a surprisingly engaging spy show, but it never earns its status as a dedicated prequel about one of the most well-known—and yet still vaguely mysterious—figures in the entire superhero canon. We know who Alfred Pennyworth becomes and we know what he means to Batman, but every incarnation of the character offers a different suggestion for where he comes from. Pennyworth isn’t interested in offering a definitive answer, or even an answer at all, and yet there’s still something in it that feels worth watching. That might be the biggest crime here.