Why the Dark Knight's relationship to his city is unlike that of any other superhero.
In 2008, Batman went a little crazy.
It wasn’t his fault. He’d been intentionally pushed into a semi-delusional state by a villain called the Black Glove. Standing on top of a typically gothic Gotham City skyscraper, Batman—maybe hallucinating, maybe not—hears the gargoyles talking.
"You ever see the grids?" one asks. "Takes slow-vision to see the grids."
Before Batman’s eyes, the cityscape resolves into a glowing green checkerboard, a hidden pattern taking form. Suddenly, he sees Gotham City for what it is: "A checkerboard. A blueprint," he says. "A machine designed to make Batman."
Why is a comic book character paraphrasing Le Corbusier? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it was a way for the writer of Batman RIP, Grant Morrison, to remind us that Batman is connected to his city like no other character in popular culture.
Sure, other members of the capes-and-tights brigade love their hometowns. Superman has Metropolis, that perpetual World’s-Fair-City-of-Tomorrow. Will Eisner drew the name of his proto-superhero the Spirit into the actual buildings in his books’ opening spreads. The citizens of Central City built the Flash a museum. (One of the brilliant modernizations instituted at Marvel Comics in the 1960s was to set stories in relatable, non-fictional New York City. Spider-Man of course lived in Queens, and Avengers Mansion was on Fifth Avenue. When I was a kid I once tried to visit the mansion.)
But the comic-book incarnations of all those towns feel generic compared to Gotham. The city that birthed the Dark Knight was a wretched hive of scum and villainy way before Mos Eisley. "If Gotham is healthy then you don’t need a Batman,” says Greg Rucka, who co-wrote Gotham Central, a critically admired series about the Gotham City police department. "Gotham has to be dysfunctional enough to justify Batman, and then to justify characters like Joker."
Gotham is a darkly inflected version of the real-world American 20th century metropolis. (Lower-case M.) Batman premiered as a character in 1939, so if Bruce Wayne's parents are gunned down roughly ten years earlier, give or take, that would coincide with the city entering the Depression. Gotham suffers the same slide that every great industrial port city did in the decades before World War II. All the things anyone has ever been afraid of about cities—a criminal underclass, monsters in the sewers, toxic pollution, corrupt politicians, broken infrastructure—are things Batman fights. He’s the fantasy of scared city kids who wish that a disintegrating urban fabric had a superhero to stitch it back together.
True, Batman's mission can seem a little noblesse-oblige. He is, after all, a rich white dude who commutes into the city in a nice car every night—sometimes he even takes a helicopter—and beats up poor crazy people. But let's not be cynical. "The beauty of Batman is his pathos," says Rucka. "It’s the Don Quixote desire he has of going out every night to keep what happened to him from happening to anyone else, and knowing he’s going to fail." Batman, in other words, believes in Gotham City more powerfully than any other Gothamite.
That's why the best Batman stories are the ones with an existential threat to the city and only the city. Superman saves planets; Batman saves downtown. The Joker’s very first fiendish plan was to poison the Gotham reservoir. Since then at least three mad bombers have tried to blow up Gotham skyscrapers. The city has been quarantined due to an Ebola-like plague. In the late 1990s, an earthquake leveled the whole place. There’s a magic swamp outside town that creates murderous zombies. The cops are all on the take and the local asylum, full of superpowered freaks, has a revolving front door. "Did Gotham form Batman or just reveal something that was already there?" asks Jimmy Stamp, who has written often about Batman’s hometown on his architecture blog Life Without Buildings. "Maybe what it revealed in Bruce Wayne was a terror of the city itself. And in order to confront that he becomes a part of that city, he takes on some of those terrifying characteristics and goes on to scare others."
Any story that’s lasted as long as Batman’s has many authors, and so building Gotham City is a collaborative effort. After that city-erasing earthquake, DC Comics put together a standard map of the city that all of its writers and artists could use. (You can find an early version by the artist here.). It evoked Manhattan and the boroughs, but it was also the kind of imaginary place-making that makes the maps at the beginning of fantasy novels so compelling—the city is fictional, but a map also makes it, let’s say, concrete. "It’s a city of fantasy and nightmare all at once, which makes it wonderfully American," says current Batman writer Scott Snyder. "It’s completely locatable and totally nowhere, all at once."
These days, much to the chagrin of some continuity-obsessed fans, writers and artists are again allowed to add geography to the map. So for readers (and for Batman), Gotham City rebuilds itself night after night, as if erected by Robert Moses but planned by Italo Calvino. New elevated train lines appear for Two-Face to derail; the Scarecrow has a never-ending supply of abandoned chemical factories in which to mix his fear gas. The city’s architecture—whether the Hugh Ferris-inspired, streetlit grandeur of the comics, the steampunk Gothicism of the Tim Burton movies, or the rectilinear perfection of Christopher Nolan—is always changing.
In fact, one of the most elegant things about Nolan’s Gotham in the newest film, The Dark Knight Rises, is that, thanks to editing and visual effects, Gotham is an urban amalgam. In Nolan’s first two Batman movies it was a computer-enhanced Chicago—a modernist glass-and-steel counterpoint to Burton’s version, as the architect Charles Holland wrote on his blog, Fantastic Journal. But in the third movie (with, again, a bomb-centered threat that isolates the city from the world outside) Nolan’s luxurious establishing shots show a CG-modified New York, several chase sequences take place along the streets of downtown Los Angeles, and other street-level scenes were shot in Pittsburgh. It’s like Snyder said: Locatable but nowhere. Gotham isn’t just any city; it’s every city.
Yet as often as Gotham shifts and reconfigures itself, Batman is never surprised. Ostensibly Batman doesn’t have any magical powers other than an infinite bank account. But I’d argue that Batman’s ability to harness the city—his organic understanding of Gotham’s checkerboard blueprint—is a superpower.
Snyder’s recent work on Batman mines the city and Batman’s relationship to it as deeply as anyone ever has. "Gotham is, for me, both villain and love interest," he says. In his current story arc, the Gotham skyscrapers built by the Wayne family conceal, on hidden 13th floors, a conspiracy known as the Court of Owls. With its animated undead soldiers and an underground labyrinth of doom, the Court has all the usual trappings of supervillainy. But it’s the fact that the Owls are as tightly woven into Gotham as Batman—and that he never noticed—that makes them so dangerous.
It's no spoiler to say that Batman wins in the end. No one can use his city against him for long. Batman is Gotham’s designer and its tool, the city’s rooftops, fire escapes, and fortuitously placed flagpoles and streetlights his to use. He breaks every rule of civilized communities. He enters and exits through windows, not doors. He rides on top of trains, walks up walls, drives on sidewalks, flies aircraft between buildings, pilots a submarine in the rivers. It all belongs to him.
Anyone who loves cities has had the same feeling, usually at night. Get to know a city well enough and sometimes you think you can see fleeting, hidden patterns. You can almost hear it telling you its secrets. Batman is a superhero because even if it seems a little crazy, he hears that whisper in Gotham City all the time.
Top photo: Christian Bale as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action thriller "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM & © DC Comics.