Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film I – Ill Met By Moonlight in the 20th Century

Batman's Gotham City on film

The tale of a paved and cracked actor. As Gotham turns one of the most the famous fictional cities into a television character, the first part of a look at how Batman’s city that has fared on screen, From the Manhattan of the 1940s to the nadir of 1990s excess…

“GOTHAM CITY… CITY OF JUSTICE, A CITY OF LOVE, A CITY OF PEACE, FOR EVERYONE OF US…” IS HOW R KELLY SERENEDED GOTHAM CITY ON THE TIE-IN ALBUM FOR 1997’S BATMAN AND ROBIN. One of the greatest mis-readings in popular music for one of the stupendously misguided films in cash cow history.

A jump to the comics may help. “I’ve forgotten what Gotham feels like… Night after night, hopelessness just tries to beat down anything good”.

That’s more like it. An optimistic analysis from the primary coloured, long-livid and original Green Lantern Alan Scott on a rare occasion he worked with the Dark Knight (Ed Brubaker’s Made of Wood).

From Green Lantern, through Catwoman, Gotham Central, all the spin-offs, contagions, earthquakes, Scott Snyder’s skilful rebooting as a City of Owls in the New 52 through to Lego:Batman, Arkham Origins and the expansive animated portrayals… Gotham has probably been detailed more than any other fictional city. Since it replaced New York as the Caped Crusader’s hometown in the 1940s it’s become a character in its own right, a definitive part of the myth of the Batman.

But on the big and small screens it’s a different story.

A Safe Place for Goats

The metaphor unleashed

Jokerside has crossed the borders of Gotham City before, particularly when looking at The Dark Knight Rises as the perfect Superman film

“The dark industrial East Coast port town of Gotham has been constantly abandoned by America in the comics, a sprawling metropolis that’s simply easier to forget should the going get too tough. The den of dark vigilantes, its name is far more piercing than other DC Comics fictional cities such as Star and Central City, but it also carries far more of a grain of truth. Rooted in New York, with a well etched structure and history sprawling back before the Old West, it’s not just an important character in the Batman universe in its own right, but a fine Dickensian caricature. To reinforce the fact, the name Gotham, long a nickname for New York, was in fact coined as a nickname for New York in ever disparaging terms by Washington Irving in 1807; from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town.”Batman: The Lite Knight

Unsurprisingly, Irving took the name from the English midland town – and the all-consuming history of the Dark Knight had grown by Detective Comics #880; enough for the Joker to literally assert that Gotham is “a safe place for goats”.

When the Dark Knight Trilogy had concluded a couple of years ago, the monorail and Kowloon of Batman Begins had given way to a broad representation of New York, perhaps the greatest and most ambitious take on Gotham as a character and one of the best onscreen representations of the Big Apple.

Tim Burton once described his two part stab at big screen Caped Crusader as “Batman on Ice” in comparison to Nolan’s monumental trilogy some two decades later. That may be slightly misleading when you consider how homicidal Burton’s Batman was, contrary to Nolan’s more accurate portrayal. But in terms of exploration and expansion of the myth there’s little doubt that this is the fight between a Grimm Brother and Tolstoy.

But of the many iconic things Burton’s adaptations unleashed (up there with Nicholson’s Joker, that car, that box office), was create Gotham as a character – one that we’d never seen onscreen before. Prior to 1989 we’d never seen the metaphor unleashed beyond comic book pages.

From page

New York at night-time

It wasn’t until Batman #4, just over one year after Batman’s debut in Detective Comics that Gotham was named in The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus. From those early days as a loose representation of New York, its fictional status has allowed it to be pushed, pulled and developed by various creators over the years as the archetypal city that can consume or be consumed.

Legendary figures behind the Dark Knight have described it differently. There’s a clear analogy with New York of course. As editor Denny O’Neill described it: “Batman’s Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November”. Dark Knight Returns-creator Frank Miller was perhaps a little more obvious if a little less specific, describing Gotham as New York’s night, just as Metropolis is its day. A city overrun with mobsters, before and after the masks had arrived, perhaps legend of the 1970s Neal Adams is more on the dollar when he leaves the East Coast to compare it to Chicago. That’s a city with almost 2,000 miles of alleys after all, unlike Manhattan. Fittingly and tellingly, that’s where Nolan headed to film the majority of Batman Begins’ Gotham City.

To Screen…

Within a few years, Batman had made it to the big screen in serial circulation that portrayed the Caped Crusader and Robin as agents foiling a dastardly Japanese plot during the Second World War. By that first adaptation, there was no way the character, no matter how unrecognisable, could exist without his City.

Batman (1943, Serial)

Traversed in the daylight and by chauffeur

In 1943, Gotham was freshly printed. When this Batman sprung up from behind his desk, beside the filing cabinets, in the Bat Cave (an addition that quickly made it to the comics) it was a city mainly traversed in the daylight and by chauffeur – the trendsetting pencil-tached Alfred. Alleys and the back of the car made for good changing rooms, but this was all about a national threat, at a time of emergency. Fights, invariably lost by the Dynamic Duo take place in streets, warehouses, rooftops and even out of a fairly standard town.  But for all the pulp influences, there’s a glint of true silver age Batman in the villainous Dr Daka lurking at the end of an amusement ride…

Batman (1966)

Not an incredibly high-rise Gotham… Despite the famous wall climbs

The 1960s television series also presented a state-sanctioned Dynamic Duo; official lieutenants of the Gotham City Police Department with a hot lined Bat Phone. But in the cult adaptation that spanned 120 episodes, a film and a reunion, there was at least time to explore the heroes’ city. With Gotham usually placed as a North Eastern seaboard port town, the opening set-piece infamously takes us out onto the Atlantic, with a yacht related trick that casts back to Catwoman’s first comic appearance. As the film takes us back to town, helicopter shots show that despite the series’ famous wall climbs, this is not an incredibly high-rise Gotham. With Batman and Robin wandering the city with impunity, it’s no surprise that this United Underworld of Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman draw much of the action out to the city’s docklands – a key location in the Batman story, though not often in this form. When the climax switches to central Gotham, after an invasion of the Bat Cave, a strangely skewed riff on the Tower of Babel shows one thing – Gotham’s an internationally important city. “Our job is finished” says Batman unconvincingly, an attitude that sums up the 1960s series.

Batman (1989)

“Gotham City. Always brings a smile to my face” – The Joker

It’s a bold and definitive shot that opens Tim Burton’s 1989 film. While the film as a whole would be derailed by character mis-steps, it’s a brilliant touch to start with the small family stumbling from the hustle of Gotham streets into those infamous alleys that are so un-Manhattan. Of course, that isn’t the Wayne family and Batman is already fully-formed, albeit new. A myth, this version is no agent of the law.  The mini-narrative of this opening neatly establishes not only the corrupt nature of a huge city built on crime and the mob but also a city of repetition and interconnectedness.

Above the bustle lie Anton Furst’s incredible and monstrous stylings, the spires of a timeless city that easily reflected the 40 year history of the Dark Knight. It’s a bustling metropolis and the film takes time to takes in some key parts. From the steps of City Hall to Axis Chemicals to the frequently recurring Monarch Theatre and Crime Alley where we discover – through Vicki Vale – Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. The production design ensures that tragedy is never far from the action and a subtle anchor for a city that has its cake and eats it. It’s a rugged, solid city that suits tommy guns; it’s an unreal city that suits mime artists. When novelties like an art museum appear, admittedly as a major set-up for the Batmobile, it’s a wonder that it’s needed in Gotham.  A key part to Furst’s design, the brilliantly named Flugelheim is a geometric  monstrosity the designed compared to a locomotive.

In this fairytale, Gotham is not so much a character as a canvas for the grotesques. Furst’s set-design helps establish the players here and that’s something that Burton is a master at playing with: The Bat Cave and mansion sat away from town, allowing for the long sweeping autumn shots of the iconic Batmobile returning to roost; Axis Chemicals, the nursery and lair of the Joker; The bat signal on the Police headquarters’ roof. That said, it’s not a city without a country. It’s never more Manhattan than during the closing parade, or magisterially comic than when the Joker takes to his hastily branded copter and Batman to his Batwing. Having already taken to the air, the simply defined “you made me” argument is almost dwarfed by the destruction of Gotham’s impossible cathedral. It’s monumental, expressionist, referential and brilliantly iconic.

In a town that often talks about depression, where a myth rises to become a vigilante guardian, the exaggerated size and height of Gotham isn’t quite enough to break the clouds. This Gotham is a vertical one, ridiculously high-rise from the extravagantly animated shadow of cowl and cape on the roof that introduces us to the Dark Knight to the climax near the apex of the impossibly tall Gotham Cathedral. Dwarfed by Nietzschean supermen and grotesque stone work, festival parades stand little chance of breaking the overarching gloom of depression. Furst’s fusion of dark and twisted art deco and art nouveau stylings introduced the large statues and epic architecture that would become canonical in the comics, there authored by the 19th century architect Cyrus Pinkney.

But amid the bustle, crime, corruption, bullets, gargoyles and industry, at the centre of this city Bruce Wayne’s daylight visit to crime alley with two roses is probably the greatest spin on Batman’s origin committed to film.

Batman Returns (1992)

Returns finds a city waiting and willing to take a greater role in villain creation

For a film that can’t hide from being a remake and fine-tuning of Burton’s original Batman, Batman Returns changed Gotham radically. Crucially Anton Furst was contractually unable to join the production and though it was distilled from his concepts and is clearly the same city, it’s as distilled as the animal metaphors that run up, down and around it. The action is reduced, boiled down to a central plaza that’s unexpectedly… small. It’s the practicality of a city constrained by the walls of a film set, although ironically the magnitude of the set and its many details can never quite be grasped on screen.  That said, the stylisation works in pushing up the unreality stakes – particularly at Christmas. And Gotham at Christmas is superb.

If Batman was described by Burton as a duel of the freaks, Returns is the war. The mob’s gone. The freaks are in control, leaving the rich free to exploit them and the Gothamites packed into the tiny square.

While Gotham provided the canvas for the creation of Batman and Joker in the first film, Returns finds a city willing to take a greater role. Beneath the streets of the City it’s the sewers that take the abandoned youth to his nursery in Gotham Zoo. It’s the City that breaks the fall of Selina Kyle, that nourished the felines that come to her aid.

Returns has a tremendous start. The Circus Gang take-down, although epically murderous, remained the best comic to screen adaptation for years… From the lonely Wayne Manor with the mirrors catching the Bat-Signal to the Batmobile’s flambéing skills.

The zoom over the Zoo, a master class of miniature model-making, raises the game from the first film’s Axis Chemicals run. Though this is a smaller gathering, it’s even more vertical than the first film, mainly thanks to the natural tendencies of the Cat and umbrella powered Penguin. It all helps to create a further stylised illusion, concave verticals focussing on the city’s inside.

While the Mob has turned to politics, Batman’s romance from journalist to villainess, this guardian is not only one with little motivation but one called on and newly sanctioned by the City. The Square takes a political role, replacing the Monarch Theatre of the last film while danger lurks further afield or high above. Gotham is clearly neglected. After the Joker gained control of Axis so easily in the previous film, you can’t help think that the citizens of Gotham would get a morale boost from the Zoo opening up again.

Gotham Zoo stages the climax of the film, after the Hamelin/biblical assault on Gotham’s first born and the gloriously crazy march of the penguins. Gotham was a canvas once again, but as the glorious final shot showed, it was the perfect one for the best representation of Bat and Cat yet filmed.

Two films and two attempts to destroy a damned city utterly foiled by the man in the best mask.  Having distilled his vision, perhaps circumstance was right to wrest control from Tim Burton…

Batman Forever (1995)

Even the city doesn’t quite know when to stop…

Batman Returns may have been a great success, but Warner Bros needed something a little more kid friendly. While Burton took a production credit, a new director and crew brought a change of tone and a change of town.

Joel Schumacher’s Gotham could be seen as an evolution of Burton’s, although a far cry from the cramped stone fortress of Returns. Stylisation was limited, but amid a mash of Japanese and Classical styles, there was a clear grab at a future Manhattan – a neon mash that recalled science-fiction rather than urban fantasy. Batman Forever certainly kicks straight into gear with a high-rise showcase of Gotham after Commissioner Gordon summons Batman to the Central Bank. The subsequent heist may be averted and the perpetrator Two-Face escapes, but not before defacing the city’s Statue of Justice. And there lies a problem. You can’t really see it. This is a more vibrant, packed city, and one where the definition of darkness as been slightly lost in translation. With Neon gangs lurking under this huge New Jersey metropolis there’s too much going on.  The flighty camera style and packed cast struggle to get that balance right. Even the city doesn’t quite know when to stop, with its architecture even breaking inside the canvas of the Circus big top that introduces Robin.

Occasional tours around the architecture reveal the most vertical Gotham yet. Huge statues prop the city up, gargoyles line gigantic shafts with freeways suspended an incredible distance from the foundations.  Wayne Tower sits right in the middle of Gotham, its first representation on film. A sign of art deco industrialisation, the broadening of Bruce Wayne as a person – who Val Kilmer isn’t bad at portraying at all –shows us more of Gotham.

The film is intercut with stately, if slanted shots of Chase Meridian’s offices and Wayne Manor – with a strong regency architecture – but also neon infused runs to the heart of town. This is a place of skylines, a collision of future and past, but they are often presented with little purpose. The Batmobile may look completely unroadworthy but it’s rib-like design works on the rain soaked streets. It’s just a shame that Two Face was happy to wait for it to take a run to the shops, even with a thrilling vertical ascent finish that could just be an extension of 1960s television series.

It’s just as self-contained as the Burton Gotham, despite the first mention of Metropolis on the Screen. While the city streets have fallen to neon-daubed gangs, the masks of the piece have yet more extravagant lairs. Two Face’s pad seems costly, though easy for the Riddler to find. The Riddle master’s fortress takes the Dynamic duo back to the harbour and sea for the first time since the 1960s, showcasing the Batplane and Batsub.  These lairs are less comic-honouring nests than extensions of the extravagant villains.  An admittedly difficult character, the Riddler’s very MO is tied to his character development and his base a physical and metaphorical costume.  It’s particularly telling that, after the cut opening scene, the close of the film marks the first appearance of Arkham Asylum on film. At least this time a villain survived to check-in to it, and the box office thrived to return.

Batman and Robin (1997)

More easily known as Bobbins

Batman and Robin, far more easily known as Bobbins, is notorious for many things. It’s main failing is un-reigned in excess, and its treatment of Gotham symptomatic of that.

Again, it runs straight into the action again, but the setting is an unfortunate return to the city’s cultural quarters, this time Gotham Museum. Amid the over the top CGI, inexplicable villain, terrible one-liners and many frozen corpses there’s not much room for anything else. It’s a poor sequel to the Joker’s, admittedly pointless, trip to the gallery three films before.

Perhaps most notable is that Batman and Robin takes the action away from Gotham for the fist time. A right budding of DC super villains we find not only Poison Ivy, but Bane and Fluoronic Man Jason Woodrue in South America before the red head temptress and the wasted pro-wrestler make it to Gotham.

This Gotham has steam rising from the streets, spiralling up to an observatory held aloft by the giant hands of ever larger statues. Entire set pieces can and do end with Bat- and Robin-mobiles making jumps, or attempting to make jumps from the arms of these giant statues. The constructs are huge and despite the obvious traction, Robin and Batman’s vehicles’ near destruction prove that they are even less made for this Gotham than the Burton Batmobile, with its huge turning curve, was for his.

Ivy imports her powers to Gotham, joining forces with Freeze to create lairs that are a further  extension of Two-Face and Riddler’s in Batman Forever. In comparison to Green and Blue here, the former really is reduced to the shouty gangster Tommy Lee-Jones portrayed.

Unsurprisingly for a film completely derailed by its own excess, Batman and Robin features the most extravagant portrayal of Gotham on film, or perhaps any medium. Out of the City and the pimped up villain lairs, sits the frankly astonishing Arkham. A monastery held high against rolling clouds and turret-full it’s even more ridiculous than you’d expect for a building containing a cryo-locked villain and a one-size catch all cloakroom.  Bordered by impossible drops it’s exactly the nonsense it should be.

It’s just as well that so much time is spent inside Arkham – including the stand-out scene of Mr and Mrs Freeze.  Outside there is a greater mix of gangs, including the Neons, Droogs and… Coolio. While it showcases the city, it also highlights the pointlessness of huge budget race sections without the Dark Knight. Surely a script would include him? Not this one.  When the end game kicks in, with character continuity as bizarre as the incredible lack of tension, we perhaps see more of the city in one go than ever before.  But at the mercy of Freeze’s ice ray we‘re not left in peace to savour it.  Between ridiculous set-pieces, life lessons, Batarangs as excessive as Kevlar nipples and Wayne satellites there just isn’t the chance. Justice League, come in – Gotham really needs you.

At the end of Batman’s longest run at the cinema, Gotham’s become too sprawling and too influenced to make a character in its own right. Or perhaps it’s just as chaotic as it should be – but lacks the necessary focus of its symbiotic partner, the Batman.

To reboot the character on film, that would need to change.

Next: Gotham on Film II – Cracked Actor in the 21st Century

5 replies »

Leave a Reply