Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film II – Cracked Actor in the 21st Century

Gotham II Bane

The tale of a paved and cracked actor. As Gotham turns one of the most the famous fictional cities into a television character, a look at how the city that has Batman as its guardian has fared on screen since the tun of the century…

THE FIRST PART OF THIS RETROSPECTIVE TOOK A LOOK AT THE FICTIONAL CITY AS IT WAS PORTRAYED ON THE BIG SCREEN THROUGHOUT THE 20TH CENTURY. With a new century the hero was fast entering his seventh decade, so what could that mean for one of America’s oldest cities? Well, the cinematic adventures of the previous decade had forced the bat glove, with a need to reboot and retune. It was time for something darker, edgier and less comic book. So, Warner Brothers turned to Christopher Nolan.

Batman Begins (2005)

Bruce Wayne couldn’t simply be a creation of his home town

It would be wrong to simply describe Batman Begins as more realistic, but its palette was instantly expanded to include it. No film had really touched the origins of Batman; the nearest stabs being 1989’s freshly minted suit and Forever’s trawling through childhood trauma. Starting with the discovery of the Bat Cave in the grounds of Wayne Manor, on the outskirts of Gotham’s Palisades, Begins then takes us out of Gotham for long swathes. Bruce Wayne couldn’t simply be a creation of his home town.

Returning to Gotham, in flashback and present day, we discover a traumatised Bruce Wayne and a learning Batman. From the eye-catching scenery of the Himalayas, Gotham is strikingly real compared to the previous films, away from the back-lots.

“We fall so we can learn to pick ourselves up” is the lesson Thomas Wayne teaches his son, and this is just the city to make that a valuable life lesson. It’s a city built by the Wayne dynasty, With cheap transit provided to stem depression, congregating under the Wayne Tower. It’s knowledge imparted to Master Bruce on the fateful journey to see not Zorro but the themically alarming Die Fledermaus.

Theatricality and deception are powerful agents after all; as taught by the other father Bruce’s finds in this film. When Ra’s identity is revealed, Gotham has a palpable threat. The return of the League of Shadows, as part of their millennia-long quest to return cities from their ‘civilised decadence, after earlier attempts at economic destabilisation that were partly combated by the Waynes.

When Bruce arrives back to Gotham at dusk it’s New York generic, or rather Chicago. In this city we’re back to the mob, following the highly styled retconning of recent comics. Care is taken to visit parts of the city, from the court house to Falcone’s hood, while we discover more about Wayne Enterprises and the underground of Wayne Manor.

Arkham… such a compelling part of the myth that it’s difficult to see how the early Batman films managed to ignore it

Bat’s first appearance is staged like a horror film, but starts the larger reveal of the city, a believable metropolis. We return to the docklands where Wayne enacts justice on Falcone; we see the end result in Arkham, where Falcone ends up and; we see the young Batman learn his first mistakes in the Kowloon-styled slums of the Narrows, the river island that holds Arkham at its heart. This Arkham is far more realistic, and such a compelling part of the myth that it’s difficult to see how the early Batman films managed to ignore it so much. Of course, this trilogy would grow out of it itself, as the world it created grew and Gotham changed. In a rugged, though not stylised city, the Tumbler is a perfect match.

Although, the cost of the film’s story is great. Wayne Manor is razed to the ground, the network of Wayne financed, raised metros in Gotham heavily damaged and the Narrows forcibly cut-off from the surrounding city. Keeping Wayne Tower at the heart of the city is a compelling move. While Gotham isn’t quite a character, neither is it a canvas for grotesquery. This is a cruel city that will make or break its inhabitants, and the stronger you become the more you have to lose. There is no escape from vigilantism, no sustaining of the myth as Batman 1989 did. But at the end, a rather inexplicable bat signal sits atop Gotham City Police Headquarters as Jim Gordon passes a card to the Dark Knight. A card that will put the City at the centre of the franchise…

Gotham Knight (2008)

Arkham’s an island district now

The portmanteau prequel to The Dark Knight, Gotham Knight fills in the myth while bridging the gaps of the early years of Batman. It’s a curio, a welcome one, and as much about expanding the universe of the young and learning Batman as setting Gotham up for the film that followed. A sign of the strict structure of Nolan’s trilogy, this is a chance for a prequel not presented by Batman Begins or The Dark Knight Rises. Six tales take us from the docks to the metro, with interesting results. The first tale is a great segue from the Scarecrow gas infused stylings of Batman Begins effectively told backwards through the recollections of four teenagers, with mythically represented versions of the Batman recalling various points of the comic history. However, it’s the even numbered episodes that are of most interest.

The fourth and sixth introduce legendary DC villains Killer Croc and Deadshot, the first villain taking us into the sewers that Bane would later make his own, the first into the underground. But the second, penned by comic alumnus Greg Rucka, follows Major Crime Unit detectives Allen and Ramires on a trip to the Narrows where plot strands collide. It’s clear that the events of Batman Begins have had a significant impact on the city.

Begins did a fantastic job of setting Gotham up, with the Waynes at the heart of it and a history of trauma and poverty thanks to people who wanted to take it down. With significant development in both areas, what of the mob families and of Arkham itself? With nearby residents exposed to the Scarecrow gas, the Asylum ruined the island of the Narrows has been given up, the entire landscape part of the Asylum grounds. It’s a compelling change, a strong indication that Begins signalled a change, that this is a changeable city and setting it up for the coming of the masks. On the island, the detectives are saved from a fitting gang crossfire, involving the Russian, before the Dark Knight sees the Chechen and Sal Maroni’s mobs finished for good. A city further divided, Arkham’s an island district now.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The emergence of this death-wish Joker into a city of new hope…

Division and collaboration, order and chaos. The Dark Knight is a huge Venn diagram, so much larger in scope than its prequel, although it’s so much more rooted in the Caped Crusader’s city. While it’s a Gotham so in need of the Batman that wannabes in “hockey pants” mimic him, there’s time for a trip to Hong Kong in the first half. Tellingly, the very referential Batman International trip to the high-rise Pearl of the Orient, is to bring a criminal back to the jurisdiction of Gotham.

While horseplay between District Attorney Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne about whether Wayne Manor sits in the Gotham City limits may be a neat play on duel-personality and the inherent difference between the Bat Cowl and the Wayne mask, it’s also a signal of the film’s larger remit. Still filmed predominantly in Chicago, The Kowloon of Narrows has disappeared giving way to the high-rise penthouse and inner-city bat bungalow. At first little is seen of the city except the sliding shot into the first heist and later into Wayne Tower. Following a series of interiors, there’s seldom shot of the exterior of the Wayne penthouse – the only place in Gotham the alcohol starved need stand under to get some free Champagne.

 Not bad for a film following a man without a plan

It’s the funeral parade in daylight where we first significantly see the broad streets, also a scene that makes one of many neat references to the Joker’s first comic book appearance through his disguise. As the story progresses, Dent’s sentiment that the night is darkest just before the storm proves to be a very Gotham one despite so much of the film taking place in the daylight hours. Then the dark does descend it brings disarray as the force of chaos that is this Joker takes precedence. The convoy chase of Dent’s police van proves to be one of the highlights of the franchise; a perfect characterisation of the Joker’s comic insanity and the lengths Batman needs to go to and just cannot go to, to stop him.

From the tunnels to the Bat Bike emerging from the Broken Batmobile (yet another destroyed by this city), to the air cavalry that brings the classic stand-off amid the blocks and grids of Gotham, it’s a thrilling ride through two sides of the city. The emergence of this death-wish Joker into a city of new hope hangs together extremely well through strung-out, perfectly plotted set-pieces. Not bad for a film following a man without a plan. There’s the Die Hard-style Hospital threat leading to the destruction of Gotham General, the Joker again referencing his paper origins by using the media, a wonderfully claustrophobic net across the city when leveraged well. And also a neat opposition to Batman’s improving sonar. Then there’s the far deeper run through of the dilemma that ended Batman Forever, this time focussing on two ferries on the city’s interlinking water ways.

To defeat this implacable foe, the Dark Knight utilises unethical sonar, where the cell-phone using citizens of the metropolis are his unwilling irregulars a far different use to Joker’s control of media. While this allows a neat tower assault, long shots over Chicago bridges showcase the dilemma on the water.

The Joker’s confusion at the end of Batman’s thrilling takedown in a rather anonymous tower on Gotham’s harbour (a suitably anonymous construction site, making an inverse re-run of the Gotham Cathedral finale) is only part of the story. Elsewhere the deceit that the Two-Face end game leaves the city guardianless and built on lies.

The Dark Knight features a city at war, brimming with not just menace but flashes on gunpowder trails that lead to huge kegs. Unsurprisingly, Michael Mann’s Heat was called a “sort of an inspiration” by Nolan. This was designed not only to be epic, but also the idea canvas for one of the most legendary balanced rivalries in fiction. A necessary part of that was to formalise the city and de-texture different areas such as the Narrows. The Chaos would expand the role of the city’s figures in its place. From politics to media to law to insanity The Dark Knight is phenomenally successful because of that breadth. But ironically, as the Joker survives, the agent of chaos is bound for an Arkham that would disappear still further from view in the Batman’s story as he becomes the hero that “Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now”.

 The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

 The chase is a great scene, frustrating for all the right reasons, that builds character and puts the metaphor of the city at the fore

Gotham had already evolved during the first two parts of the Nolan re-envisioning. For the first time in the trilogy we don’t start in Gotham, but the incoming danger is in no doubt. With the greatest threat yet descending on Batman’s City, threatening the status quo established on lies following the Harvey Dent melt down, it would change again.

When we reach the city, it’s eight years after The Dark Knight. The opening shot clearly shows New York, while up at Wayne Manor the repercussions of the previous film are made clear. There’s a delicate balance and the audience are party to it. With Arkham forgotten, the mob has been defeated with over a thousand detained in Blackgate Prison without appeal. We have moved from Narrows, asylums and Scarecrow gas to real fears, to the financial district, boardrooms and physicality. While the Bat may have learnt to fly, it’s far more fitting that The Bat takes to the skies over an even more identifiable city.

The Bat Signal still there, broken, but as the film is at pains to tell us, Gotham is now at peace. The reward onscreen is access to a bigger city. On arriving at the town, Bane establishes a literal underworld while Bruce Wayne has rejected an energy reactor gift to the world and also hidden it… Under the river.

Though never named as such, Catwoman is a fine addition to the myth, bringing with her the East of Gotham and a clear social structure for the coming “war” to thrive in and on. Using the machinations of the upper business community gives Bane his stability, rising from the sewers to savagely hit at Gotham’s financial district. It’s a rout that brings Batman back – this time on Bat Bike from the off, and assuming his correct role as vigilante/symbol of hope. That chase is a great scene, frustrating for all the right reasons, though not as riveting as the Joker chase. It builds character and puts the metaphor of the city at the fore, but could never be as thrilling in a film where hope needs to be crushed. Similarly the Cat and Bat rooftop fight and later trawl into the underworld is great, but under-nourishing.

 Batman inadvertently gifting an enemy who knows the city better than him with all he needs

Rises presents the GCPD as an even larger part of the city life, swollen in peace time. There’s room for Modine and Joseph-Levitt to flesh this out as the character base expands considerably. And once all the players are in place, it couldn’t be more about the city when the film kicks into gear. It’s the underworld bout that breaks the Bat, of course and again, at the centre of town, under Applied Sciences – Batman inadvertently gifting an enemy who knows the city better than him with all he needs. It’s no surprise that just before this reckoning the city’s guardian stands atop a bridge overlooking his Gotham for the final time.

The broken Batman is dispatched to the ‘Old World’, rather empowered by its lack of placement or detail. That’s the heart of this trilogy in many ways, as much as Gotham. It is the pit, the hell that created Bane, that unknowingly led to the creation of Batman and now acts as his prison.

Meanwhile Bane takes control of the city with tactical savvy. In an inverse of Begins water trap, the city’s police force are marooned in the sewer system thanks to explosions rigged throughout the city. Gotham acts as their prison. The explosions are brilliantly captured, with a focal point provided by the football game where Bane can capture attention. The bridges are blown in wonderful cinematography that makes no attempt to hide that it’s New York.

As Bane mumbles, “Impossible”

Once again Gotham is abandoned, Manhattan cut off from the outside world. As the president says, “The people are resilient”. The central court, presided over by Scarecrow Jonathan Crane is a neat reference to the Dent court of the No Man’s Land comic story arc, perhaps when Gotham has never been more abandoned. By this time Catwoman is in Blackgate, but not for long as Bane rips the status quo apart to release the unjustly imprisoned victims of the fascist Dent Act. The sun sets over Gotham as the city falls to the new order.

As the city provides a prison for the police, so it also acts as executioner for the court; the frozen lake taking its exiles. Earlier Bane’s treatment of the Special Forces had acted not only as a symbol for the outside world, but also a catalyst for Bruce Wayne’s recovery and escape. The River fittingly acts as a setting for the new Bat sign, but this time it is not a call for the Dark Knight but a message from him. As Bane mumbles, “Impossible”.

At the climax, the future of Gotham is decided by street battles and Tumbler races as Bane rails, “So, you came back to die with your city”. Rises sets the brilliant The Dark Knight out on its own, providing a thematic solution but drawing directly back on Batman Begins to complete the League of Shadows plan, this time focussed through Talia al Ghul’s vengeance. As much as the City, in its even less cluttered form, becomes ever more crucial to the story, it’s a great character piece for the allies of the Bat. Gordon does what he does best while Modine’s Foley even gets a redemptive death and as for Robin, well…

Talia, disguised, had acted as the one stable element throughout the collapse of the Wayne empire, commendably hitting on points of the character’s comic arc, although her death is rather subdued. “Feels the fire of 12 million souls you failed” she slumps. But of course, Talia indirectly sets up Batman’s final act well. The generosity of Bruce Wayne, turned into weapon, dealt with at great cost by Batman. Rising above the city, past the docks and again, out into the Atlantic. Of all the analogy, this truly is the Dark Knight rising.

Dawn of Justice (2015)

By its conclusion, the Dark Knight trilogy became the most successful comic film series in cinema history. Its legacy is huge, but aside from the dark, the balance, the scope, it also served to redefine Gotham’s role in the adventures of her greatest son. There was no doubt that Batman would soon reboot on the big screen, this time folding into the new Man of Steel universe that itself owed a debt to the Dark Knight.

There have been slow reveals of Batman and Superman’s coming together in Dawn of Justice. Superman standing on a rain drenched rooftop that can only belong on the Gotham skyline. Ben Affleck’s Batman lurking by his Batmobile on the fog-smothered streets. Perhaps best was Zack Snyder’s Star Wars jibbing: a stormtrooper bundled into the back of a GCPD car as the neon lights flash against hard Gotham walls.

It’s Batman versus Superman, and in line with Frank Miller’s assertion about Gotham’s identity, it’s Metropolis versus Gotham as well.  What appears to be the rubble of Wayne Tower suggests that Gotham may take the same kind of pummelling that Metropolis endured last year.

Gotham (2014)

Potentially the longest running showcase for the city…

So successful was the Dark Knight trilogy at creating a palpable Gotham, it’s no surprise that its billing was raised. Gotham is ostensibly “Young Bruce Wayne”, but the title and graphics with the neon lights glancing on the rugged title font are more telling. Again, the young Penguin here talks of a coming war while the Batman we know is still a decade away.

But this is the city that makes both the hero and the greatest rogues gallery in comics, with Detective Jim Gordon the force for good in a department riddled with corruption. Characters from Ed Brubacker’s Gotham Central, Allen and Montoya, make it into the show, unchronologically, and thematically opposed to Gordon who’s usually their head at the Major Crimes Unit.

Danny Cannon called the shots on the Gotham pilot, his first foray into comics since taking on another comic character defined by his city with 1995’s Judge Dredd. And the city was clearly something they needed to get right. In the opening it’s the young Selina Kyle who takes us down from the rooftops to the bustling streets and then alleyways of Gotham where she witnesses the city’s darkest night. It’s an unshowy way to jump into the Wayne murders, laying out a rich seam of storytelling before it.

In a first episode that packs a lot in, Detectives Bullock and Gordon are our guides through vast swathes of the city. From the docks where Gordon is perceived to have executed Cobblepot to the dens of Fish Mooney, the child abduction for the Dollmaker in the second episode, there’s a real chance to flesh the city out before the masks overwhelm it. At present it’s the mob town of lore, with Don Falcone expanding the legend in the second episode when he explains the balance that existed between the Families of Gotham, including the Waynes.

There is room to create a myth in the present day (as long as you can accept that Bruce Wayne was born in the 21st century), with the derelict Arkham reopened by the Wayne Foundation, where future episodes will find legendary allies of the bat like Leslie Thompson.

But as a Television show, there’s little chance to give Gotham the scope it had on the big screen. Establishing inserts do well at showing different slices of Gotham, a stylised but versatile metropolis. Constant shots slid from right to left (with more variation in the second), showing hell red side alleys and quarters giving way to crammed squares and huge masonry. It’s a vertical city, and a constantly overcast one, capturing the effect of old matte paintings hanging over contemporary streets. But seldom looks better than in the opening shot, Catwoman at the front, turrets of smoke and mashes of architecture behind. On the street, many scenes, shot in gritty shades and shadows are pelted with rain. Maintaining the pattern, Gotham was filmed in New York, with production designer Doug Kraner settling on the most dangerous New York of recent years, in the late 70s and early 80s. With everything framed with the question of whether it is Gotham or not, it looks like a collaborative effort that is showing Gotham well. But here the story is a different one, about a city destined to struggle to retain its identity. Harbingers gather as future players are moved into positions that will change the city forever.  As potentially the longest running showcase for the city, Gotham presents the longest chance of discovering the eponymous city on screen yet – and most importantly explore its symbiotic relationship with its famous inhabitants.

In 2014, Gotham has never been so referenced, the shorthand for the darker side never so pronounced. As the DC Universe, with Arrow patrolling Starling City, Flash zooming around Central City it looks like it will remain the top dog in the DC universe for some time.

Previously: Gotham on Film I – Ill Met by Moonlight in the 20th Century

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