words Charles Holland
Batman’s Gotham City hasn’t so much lost its gothic qualities as internalised them, says Charles Holland – and the result is disturbing.
Batman’s Gotham City is a dystopian mirror image of New York. In both Frank Miller’s comic book and the earlier films of Tim Burton, Gotham is appropriately gothic – a steaming, creaking metropolis full of dead-tech. It is a retro-futurist nightmare, an outlandish conflation of Hugh Ferriss and Alien.
So what to make of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which situates Batman explicitly in the contemporary city? The opening shots swoop through Gotham’s towers, but they are familiar glass and steel skyscrapers, less extraordinary than the ones now going up in the Middle East. In both The Dark Knight and Nolan’s earlier film, Batman Begins, there are still elements of the gothic lurking in Batman’s cyber punk-style costume or his monstrous Bat Mobile. And, with his cracking and peeling makeup, the Joker looks like a recently dug-up version of The Cure’s Robert Smith. But this is where the visual similarities with recent incarnations end.
According to DC Comics’ fictional narrative of Gotham, the city is redesigned at one stage by Superman villain Lex Luthor. Luthor replaced the art nouveau and art deco skyscrapers with modernist ones. It is this Gotham that is evoked in The Dark Knight. In fact, Nolan’s Gotham City is a digitally enhanced Chicago, and not New York at all. Bruce Wayne lives in a stylish apartment rather than the gothic Wayne Manor, and there is no Bat Cave. Instead, Batman works out of a space that is a cross between a corporate office and a contemporary art gallery.
The city may not be exactly friendly, but it is familiar, no longer anything to be scared of. What does have the capacity to scare us though is that this carefully ordered world might succumb to anarchy. And in this sense the film can be seen as either endorsing a Bush era fear of so-called terrorist states, or as something more complex and ambiguous.
Nolan certainly ramps up the contemporary geopolitical associations. Not only 9/11 but Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are alluded too, both literally by a boat full of orange boiler-suited criminals and implicitly in the blurred lines between good and evil. The fragile split between the two finds literal embodiment in the character of Harvey Dent. He is the mirror image of Batman, Gotham City’s White Knight. But he suffers hideous burns and is transformed into Harvey Two Face, a dark force intent on revenge. Harvey’s charred features and subsequent rage reads like an allegory of America’s recent political past and its response to the similar disfigurement of the Twin Towers.
The city in The Dark Knight may look familiar but the gothic darkness has not vanished. The film suggests that it is a product of our own desire; not an alternative world so much as the dark side of our comfortably affluent lives.
The Dark Knight is on general release