A Brief History Of Gotham

There is no dark, sinister megacity like Gotham. As a kid I fell in love with the spiralling towers, the narrow, crime-infested streets, the lack of adequate lighting – it’s the real reason I’ve always liked Batman (and dark alleyways). The Batman franchise is Gotham: without Gotham, Batman is just another creepy billionaire spandex fetishist with an overly submissive butler.

But how has Gotham transferred to the big screen over the years? Just how can you adequately represent a city as broken and crime-infested as Batman’s home town?

BATMAN (1989)

First up we have Tim Burton’s attempt. Now I’m a hug fan of Burton’s Gotham – the very opening shot of the film establishes the city as a dark metropolis littered with inhumanly large towers. The second shot is at street level, and its a street from a world where urban planning is not a thing: the roads are narrow, the pavements crowded, the buildings have a strong industrial look to them, and Metropolis-esque bridges are stacked high above. Art Deco statues abound. Sure, it looks a little like New York, but a New York with eighteen times the population and a city government undergoing a severe crystal meth problem. Is it night, or are the buildings just blocking out the sun?

Gotham is presented as a twentieth-century nightmare, and surreal enough to warrant the term: the citizens wear clothing from every decade of the century: swinging from the fedoras of the thirties, suits from the fifties, to the terrible abuses of denim of the eighties. The city never underwent the de-industrialision of the seventies, so smokestacks and factories can be found even downtown. Video cameras exist, but reporters insist on using smoky flashbulb photography – and everything is plastered in enough neon to burn through the retinas of even the most cataract-ridden eyes. It’s unnerving, atmospheric – and more importantly, it’s fun.

DYSTOPIA RATING: A
The climax of the film takes place in Gotham’s rickety old Cathedral, which must be at least eighty stories tall – apparently even the city’s 19th century forefathers were going for the ‘demented urban hell’ look.

BATMAN RETURNS

The sequel did little to alter the feel of the city – though if anything the towers grew larger and the grim statues more abundant. As the film takes place in winter the streets are coated in a thick layer of snow – and the presence of Christmas decorations do little to distract from the relentless gloom. The film focuses on the sewers, which are distressingly large, and some attention is paid to city hall, which looks like Stalin’s heaven – I guess the mayor is just a fan of big strong men suggestively pumping away at levers?

DYSTOPIA RATING: A-
Everything is pretty much the same as before, though the police cars received a downgrade, somehow looking older in style than they did three years previously. Special mention goes to the zoo, which is dark, creepy, and has some form of hideous crab as its centrepiece. Definitely not suited for a child’s day out.

BATMAN FOREVER

Joel Schumacher kept Burton’s basic principle when it came to Gotham: the city is still filled with gargantuan towers and narrow streets – unlike Burton’s films we actually get an aerial view of the city during a tiny amount of daylight, and we can see the brownish Manhatten-esque architecture is once more littered with industrial factories and elevated walkways.

The night scenes, however, show the real difference. Schumacher clearly decided that Burton’s Gotham was too grey and depressing for his films, and so flooded his sets with every neon light he could get his hands on. Each building is up-lit with a different garish colour, most of which you wouldn’t see outside of a convention for drag queen clowns.

DYSTOPIA RATING: B-
The film isn’t great but this article is about Gotham: though it lacks the character of Burton’s city, this brighter version isn’t so bad, and comes closer to the traditional cyberpunk landscape (especially with the Asian motifs). Special mention this time goes to Wayne Manor, and not in a good way: gone is the imposing, Gothic version, replaced by a fairly boring Georgian building. Bah.

BATMAN AND ROBIN

Here the Burton/Schumacher vision starts to collapse – someone should have been keeping an eye on those angry statues, because they’ve grown. Oh, how they’ve grown…

Now I’m a big fan of roads suspended hundreds of feet up in the air, but driving toward the hulking, eyeless face of a colossus after working a 13-hour shift (where exactly do the citizens of Gotham work anyway? They’re all either police officers, reporters, or Batman) – well, it’s bound to cause a few accidents. And by ‘accidents’ I mean ‘vehicles-falling-from-the-sky-onto-hapless-citizens’.

Still, the gloomy, dystopic towers are still there, blocking out the sunlight and giving something of the right vibe. The most interesting thing about Batman and Robin’s Gotham is the slightly eccentric (read: batshit insane) use of lighting in the city’s public museums:

Perfect. ‘Museums’ are places where people go to have anonymous sex whilst playing laser tag in a discotheque right? Got it.

DYSTOPIA RATING: D
The slightly silly portrayal of the city is far from the worst thing about this film – and at least it features Arkham Asylum, the very best of Gotham’s medieval approach to mental health problems.

BATMAN BEGINS

Now for the Nolan films. I’m going to come out right now and say upfront that I fucking hate Chris Nolan and hope he dies in an avalanche. Now we can concentrate on what he did to Gotham. This first movie tones down the previous incarnations of the city. I can see why the decision was made – Batman and Robin being such a shitfest of a film that a complete reboot was required. Chicago was used for a lot of the architecture, but an inhumanly gargantuan metropolis was created using CGI:

There was an attempt to remain faithful to the original comic books: canon maps of the city were used as the plan for Batman Begins. The dark dystopia was found in the Narrows, a vast slum with relatively decent public transportation in the form of a strangely linear monorail track with Bruce’s corporate HQ at the very centre (why Wayne Tower needed a direct line going straight to the slums is anyone’s guess, but I’m just going to let this one go and presume they’re burning poor people as fuel). So we have a sprawling city, futuristic (if weird) transport, and a colossal shanty town based on Kowloon Walled City – the closest the real world has come to cyberpunk outside of Tokyo. So far, so good.

DYSTOPIA RATING: C
Sure, sunlight actually reaches the majority of the city’s streets, but they were going for ‘gritty and realistic’ and I can almost accept that.

THE DARK KNIGHT

This is where Nolan drops the ball and lets it shatter into a thousand shitty, broken pieces. Now first up there’s the problem that (spoiler) at the end of the previous film the Narrows were destroyed. This may have given a dark, exciting climax to Begins, but it left The Dark Knight with nothing in the way of gloom. Chicago is still used as the model for Gotham, but gone is the sprawl established in the aerial shots, and the boring, normal city is used for the the street-level scenes. In fact, it looks cleaner and more orderly than in real life.

A hospital is blown up, but it’s a simple, regular hospital. It’s even a beige colour, and anything other than ‘nightmare black’ or ‘soul-sucking-depression grey’ is a bad choice for a building in Gotham.

DYSTOPIA RATING: D-
This clean and rosy city of blandness pissed me off even more than the Bush-era War on Terror propaganda.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Now I have no idea what happened here, but at a guess I would say that Nolan was too busy snorting cocaine out of piles of prostitutes filled with money (that’s a thing, right?) to bother making a Gotham at all. For the last Batman film he used Manhattan. That’s it. They even used Trump Towers for Wayne’s corporate headquarters. I’m not including a picture because, well, go on Google image search and type ‘Manhattan’. Or close your eyes and picture it, because almost everything else ever filmed is set there.

Yes, for the plot they needed an island this time, because (spoiler, whatever, I don’t give a fuck) the city is sealed off and an evil pseudo left-wing revolution takes place. But no, for pointlessly enraged geeks like me that does not mean you get to take the entire canon city and replace it with one that already exists. We have Superman for that, and no-one likes Superman. The streets of New York are even unrealistically empty of traffic and people. I know that William Safire once said that Gotham is “New York below 14th Street”, but he did not say Gotham is “New York on a quiet Sunday when everyone is home watching TV and not committing crime.”

It even makes me long for the giant homoerotic statues. At least they looked stern.

DYSTOPIA RATING: F. F F F F F. F IS FOR ‘FUCK, I HOPE CHRIS NOLAN FALLS IN A FATAL SKIING ACCIDENT AND FINDS HIMSELF SLOWLY FREEZING TO DEATH UNDER FIFTY FUCKTONS OF SNOW, FURROWING HIS WAY SLOWLY THROUGH IN A FUTILE ATTEMPT TO FIND HIS WAY TO DAYLIGHT AND FAILING, FINDING HIS FINGERS TOO FROZEN AND FROSTBITTEN TO MOVE, THEN FURLING INTO THE FOETAL POSITION AND FEELING THE FIRM GRIP OF A FURIOUS GOD READY TO FETCH HIM FOR THE FIERY UNDERWORLD. HE IS THEN FORGOTTEN ABOUT FOREVER.’

Or, just try not to think about it and watch Batman Returns again and again. I love that film.

Redfern
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  • M

    Brilliant.

    I’m off to paint some things nightmare black and soul-sucking-depression grey

  • http://twitter.com/tomdriley Tom Riley

    I still haven’t forgiven Joel Schumacher for “Holy rusted metal Batman!”

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  • Oscar Jimenez

    Thank god. I myself hate Nolan’s portrait of Batman -and of Alfred, Ra’s, the Joker, Scarecrow, and everyone else’s except for Gordon, and I think that was just an accident-. And I also hate the fact that he fooled me for a while, as I actually thought I liked Begins when I first saw it; then he churned out the Dark Night, I saw it and then reality hit me on the head like a ten ton ACME anvil.

    I nicknamed that movie ‘The NYPD Blurne Conspiracy Halloween Special’ after suffering it, and I think It’ll keep that moniker for a while until I get to see ‘Rises’ for free. Just for the laughs, you know.

    • http://twitter.com/RedfernJon Redfern Jon Barrett

      So glad others feel this way – the Nolan Batman worship feels like a cult! ‘The Editing Room’ did a great spoof on ‘Rises’, where they point out that all women in Nolan films are either simplistic helpless innocents or evil femme fatales. Wonder when the next reboot will be!

      • nich obert

        You mean like roughly 90% of movies?

        Women in movies only exist as extensions of men.. The stats on the % of Hollywood movies with 1 or fewer named women are pretty nuts, or how few women get lines that aren’t about men.

        This isn’t to give Nolan a pass as much as to say anyone who saw His movies and thought THAT was what needed skewering should go back through their film collection. The exceptions are buried under a fucking mountain of rule.

        Thought the Nolan films were pretty sweet. Not epic, but better than the vast majority of comic hook movies. I feel like any time people argue about if a film is left or right wing propaganda, there’s something interesting going on.. The best example being Starship Troopers, the greatest anti-war movie of our generation, insanely misunderstood Molotov cocktail to Its own source material.

    • Tal Schwarz

      I agree for the most part, but I actually liked Scarecrow. Cillian Murphy gave us the best villain of the whole trilogy; not a huge accomplishment, but he’s worth mentioning.
      TDK could be the most overrated movie of all time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.markel.5 Chris Markel

    hahaha this was hilarious and well-written. i like how you’re one of the very few people with balls enough to challenge the God-like status of Nolan’s trilogy in the public mind. i think Nolan did a nice job, and i’ve got nothin’ against him. but for the benefit of those worshiping his films, as a little reality check/slap in the face, i’m gonna go ahead & finish off here with ‘fuck christopher nolan’. ; )

  • This Is A TesT

    Spot on descriptions!

  • Tal Schwarz

    I think the best thing about the Schumacher films was Gotham City, though he didn’t even do that as well as Burton. That, or the modernized Robin suit (minus the nipples). I’m actually a fan of the giant statues… but imagine how much that would cost in real life. And his CGI cityscapes weren’t all that convincing. All of these CGI heavy movies look like uncanny valley cartoons… the days of miniatures, forced perspective, and animatronics were brighter days indeed.