Batman: The Character Of A City

Anton Furst chose to die by architecture. It’s darkly fitting, because the production designer of Tim Burton’s Batman films had hinted to us that architecture could kill — specifically, that a city could be a mad thing, hostile to the point of homicidal. It kills, and by killing, creates. Furst’s adopted city was the mechanism of his suicide.

Burton and Furst understood Gotham as a cauldron — a Shub-Niggurath breeding its own monsters. Gotham City nurtures them, and they in turn fight for their mother’s affections. It takes a sacrificial act to create each one. Gotham kills Thomas and Martha Wayne, and creates Batman. Batman lets his villain fall into a caustic vat, and creates the Joker. It’s not clear what Burton’s Batman is fighting for, really, other than acting out the catharsis of his childhood trauma — there are no native innocents in his Gotham to defend (the mugging victims of the film’s opening are tourists), not much logic beyond that found in dreams, no civic life that doesn’t evoke a rotting funhouse.

It’s obvious in The Dark Knight Rises that cities are on the mind of director Christopher Nolan — leaning heavily as he does on Dickens, in whose stories cities are living things.¹ Well before a funeral oration taken from A Tale of Two Cities, there’s the vanishing of lost children into Bane’s sewer kingdom, a la Oliver Twist; the purloined letters that cast unwelcome light on the origins of prosperity; the Orphan Brigade set out to warn the city by Detective Blake, their daylight Fagin; the drumhead court presided over by the Scarecrow, with Bane its shadowy bailiff: “long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old.”

Gotham, like all cities, is an ideal as well as a place. It’s territory to be conquered, but it’s also a state of mind, which warring factions in Nolan’s trilogy fight to subdue or preserve. Where Furst gave Gotham a shape and a personality, Nolan (throwing fantastical architecture completely out the window) gives it a frail, corruptible soul. We meet some people in this Gotham who are wholly corrupt, some on the bubble, some worth defending.

But in Nolan’s telling, Bruce Wayne/Batman is Gotham’s only true son. The Joker arises out of nowhere, sparked perhaps by Batman’s theatricality and as committed to unhinging Gotham as Batman is to anchoring it — but beyond that, he seems to represent a free-floating force of anarchy. He could have alighted anywhere; Gotham simply offers him the largest laboratory for his experiments. The results of those experiments, which bestow murderous power on fallible citizens, are profoundly disappointing to a man who just wants to watch the world burn.

The forces of Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins and those of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises are, it seems, purely external — judging Gotham from afar and vowing to decimate it for its unrighteousness. But both archvillains, tellingly, weaponize the infrastructure of the city itself  — strategies that require years, if not decades, of planning and subterfuge, of burrowing at the city’s roots.

This co-opting of the city is the real story of The Dark Knight Rises. Bane’s hamhanded political maneuver is the least of his accomplishments, particularly because it does nothing to build his power base. His minions are just minions, either myrmidons imported from his mercenary days or inmates he freed from Blackgate Prison. The regular folk hide in their homes, and the guardians of order are quite literally forced underground. This “rising,” as Chris Braak astutely notes, is a long way from a popular one.

The people of the city are not the story; they are less than the sum of the place they live. Gotham is as much a character as Batman, or Bane, or Jim Gordon. Batman’s most challenging foes turn this largest of all characters against him, by poisoning its water or installing explosives in lieu of foundations. Gotham variously allies itself with Batman, and then betrays him to his enemies. In this way Gotham City is as mercurial, as selfish, as human, as the people who inhabit it.

¹ Dickens is not the sole literary touchstone. Although Bane’s filmic origin point appears to be in Central Asia, the comics character is Latin American, and the hellhole where he was born and where Bruce Wayne finds himself entombed has echoes of Jorge Luis Borges. The Escheresque stairs between cells, the blind keeper of secrets, the ceremony that has evolved — over centuries? — to mark each escape attempt are all evocative of the Argentine master. back

Doves — Some Cities

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