Visualising Cities Part 7: Gotham, A City Devoid of Life

Gotham, a city devoid of life

I finally got round to seeing The Dark Knight Rises at the weekend. Don’t worry, this is not a review; but what struck me throughout the film (and in a sense, throughout the trilogy), is the narrative surrounding the city of Gotham itself, and how the director Christopher Nolan used it, for me, incorrectly. There a number of pieces of work (notably this one) about Gotham’s role in the Batman universe – the dank, dark, overtly gothic and crime-ridden city makes for a fantastic fictional playground of urban dystopias. However, for the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the Gotham seen in Nolan’s trilogy.

Played by Chicago in the first couple of films, and then unmistakably New York & Pittsburgh in the final film, Gotham is always portrayed as the ‘thing’ that is being fought for. Gotham is portrayed as a city in isolation, only in the latter stages of the film do we see the President of the United States and the federal forces, until then Gotham could be the only city in the world (the rest of the scenes take place in remote non-urban conditions). However, what slightly irks me in these films is that Gotham, more precisely, the inhabitants are portrayed as a singular entity; ‘the’ people or ‘the’ city. Regular readers of my blog will know I have a problem with this ontology, as it is woefully inadequate when representing cities. Also, the sequences in the films are eerily people-less. Clearly, given the obvious logistical difficulties in filming action sequences in New York with three or four 20 tonne+ vehicles, it is no wonder there are no actors around, health and safety would have had a field day otherswise. Also, Nolan is often (correctly) praised for using as little CGI as possible in his films. The  fight scene toward the end with over 2,000 extras is a welcome change to the digitally enhanced expansive battle sequences seen in Middle Earth (for example). However, there are some sequences in all three films where Gotham seems chronically devoid of people. The snowy streets in the latter stages of the film were for me, laughably empty for a city supposedly cut off from the rest of the world (did Bane blow up the airports too?) The chaos and tumultuousness of a city that had all its leaders murdered or expelled would be far more obvious. An empty street is not worth fighting for in my opinion.

Despite this, ‘the city’ is heralded at the utmost of worth and the ‘people’ of Gotham are the golden goose to be saved. Bane, having just executed a city-wide demolition job including the visually striking razing of the Gotham Rogues Stadium playing field, orders Gotham to “take control of your city“. He is supposedly trying to succeed in reducing Gotham to ashes, a feat that Ra’s al Ghul failed to do in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight‘s climax, the Joker claims to be “an agent of chaos” and that the city’s people belonged in the madhouse as much as he does, but the fact that neither boat blew the other one up suggests, to Batman at least, that the city is worth saving. His final act of redemption in The Dark Knight Rises shows that only in death did he do enough to save Gotham from total annihilation (and get rewarded with a nice statue). The eulogy that Commissioner Gordon reads at Bruce Wayne’s ‘funeral’ was therefore aptly taken from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. 

But for me, the problem is that it reduces the city to a hapless bystander; a damsel in distress that is constantly tied up to the tracks, only to be saved at the last minute. As such, Gotham feels more like a blank slate, a passive actor in battleground between good and evil. The city’s affect on the main characters of the story is quite clearly missing. Gotham’s multiplicitous being, the constant flux, ebb and flow of social processes are very rarely touched upon to any depth. This would have added so much more to what is a fairly linear and rather predictable rhetoric. It seems that Nolan really missed a trick, in that he could have used Gotham less as a singular entity to be fought over, but more as the rhizomatic cyborg that any city is. Perhaps then we really could believe that the city was worth fighting for.

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