Gotham: The Evolution of Batman’s Hometown

In honor of the Gotham season finale, we look at how Gotham City has evolved throughout Batman history.

Gotham City began its comic book life as one of countless ficitonal cities inspired by New York City. Batman first hit the newsstands in spring of 1939, but it was the winter of 1940 before Bill Finger and Bob Kane got around to naming Batman’s hometown. Gotham soon began to develop its own personality, with ports, museums, amusement parks…and prisons…all its own.

Gotham was still an amalgamation, to be sure, but it was a sensible one. It maintained its northeastern roots, it was just a city you had never gotten around to visiting.

But the first time it had a profound impact on popular culture came in 1966, with the premiere of the Batman TV series. The Gotham City of television was a glistening West Coast port city. Of course, the show shot in California, so this was unavoidable but perfectly appropriate for the brightest version of the Dark Knight ever portrayed.

This Batman, operating mostly in the daytime, fit amongst the shining skyscrapers with the giant objects and signs, a tool to easily convey meaning in the comics that became an aesthetic trademark of the series. Though not deeply developed, this city fit its hero.

Ad – content continues below

“Decent people shouldn’t live here, they’d be happier someplace else.”

Over the next twenty years, as the comics drifted away from the pop art sensibilities of the Batman TV series, Gotham City became a composite of the worst parts of America’s cities and reaffirmed a distinctly Midwest/East Coast vibe. Gotham had harsh Winters…but then everything in Gotham was harsh. This would become the general aesthetic of Gotham City, and remains so to this day.

“[He was] Imagining what New York looked like from a foreigner’s perspective.”

– Nigel Phelps, Art Director on Batman (1989), concerning Anton Furst’s work, 2005

This dark vision was first presented to film audiences in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster, Batman. Criticisms of the film’s devotion to the source aside, Burton was very much committed to Gotham’s dark image and the city’s  influence on its defender. Burton’s black and spiky Batsuit matched the late Anton Furst’s Neo-Gothic Gotham.

The 1989 film presented a disjointed, illogical piling of architecture on top of other architecture. As Burton described to Anton Furst, Gotham City should look like “hell burst through the pavement and grew.”  In Burton’s mind, the city was an alternate New York, out of time, one that never improved from the rampant crime and disorder of the early 1980s. “Didn’t want to make it period,” said Burton in a 2005 interview “…didn’t want to make it 1940 or 50 or whatever, didn’t want to say 1989 either.”

Ad – content continues below

In 1992, the release of Batman Returns broadened this idea. Bo Welch injected some American fun and Fascist iconography into the darkness, but kept the grand scale of Furst’s original design. Welch played more with interiors than Furst, creating a twisted cartoon feel which permeates the entire film. Perhaps Welch’s greatest contribution comes from the fresh fallen snow and flowing water that dominated his additions. Gotham City moves in new ways in Batman Returns. The spires and gargoyle’s of Burton’s smash hits still influence images of the city, but here the influences go deeper than just aesthetic.

The Batman of Burton’s movies is a direct product of his city. Gotham is hopeless, crime ridden, and run by buffoons. Figures like Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent are little more than pawns of the vast criminal conspiracy. The Dark Knight lacks true allies and the hope they could bring him.

Batman isn’t quite the beacon of justice that he is in other stories, but another monster that the city has created. The kind of guy that might back Johnny Gobs off a roof and not bother to catch him. The kind of guy who might blowtorch an evil Russian clown. When Keaton was under the cowl, Batman was not a real role model, but how well he fit in his city covered much of the hero’s flaws. He was the Batman of his Gotham. Brutal and, perhaps, insane.

The look of the Burton films would prove so popular that it it in 1992 would make its way into the comics by way of a story called “The Destroyer”. Here, a mad bomber destroys much of Gotham City, revealing that Furst’s designs had been there all along.

“In my mind, it was sort of like what if the 1939 World’s Fair had gone on another 60 years or so.”

– Paul Dini, Writer, Producer and Editor, Batman: The Animated Series

Ad – content continues below

Batman: The Animated Series piggybacked off of this, but made one important modification. In the animated series, not all of Gotham’s infrastructure was corrupted and thus Batman could take on more allies. Even some of the oversized objects from the classic comics returned. It was here that characters such as Lucius Fox made their first wide appearances. Batman: The Animated Series is still one of the most influential versions of the character to date. Taking plenty of influences from the comics, producer Alan Burnett stated that the concept was to build on what was and had been, and not to reinvent it.

Liberated by animation, this Batman could be as over the top or as subtle as the story needed. Set pieces in the city could be created and destroyed on a whim and the shows so-called “Dark Deco” design allowed for an interesting take on the city, one that was neither contemporary nor period. Producer Eric Radomski made the innovative call to put the backgrounds on black instead of white. “At night, you only see elements, you fill in the gaps.” Radomski noted in a 2004 interview.

This Gotham could be whatever it needed to be, though the writers were quite careful to keep things from getting too goofy. Batman shared this, using over the top technology in some instances, but always ending as the heroic detective. Oh, and it had blimps! That’s pretty cool, too.

“I didn’t want it to be just monolithic or Gothic structures, I wanted it to have some life to it.” 

– Joel Schumacher, Director of Batman Forever 

Though Batman: The Animated Series and comics would continue to portray Gotham as a dark and dangerous city, Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin would modify this image. Once again, Batman’s backdrop would be a shimmering, clean Gotham City with a a stable, adoring public. Production Designer Barbara Ling and Art Director Joseph P. Lucky were given free reign, not tied down to use what the previous two efforts had produced.

Ad – content continues below

Along with Schumacher, Ling and Lucky decided to keep the grand scale of Furst and Welch but changed the city to feature more organic shapes and bright, moving colors. Like HR Giger covered in neon. Admittedly influenced by the ’60s TV show, “…the sense of scale heightened to be bigger than man.” as Ling put it. Batman returned to the admirable superhero he had once been.

While Batman Forever was a success, Batman and Robin lost the spirit created by the first two films completely, and replaced it with a two hour toy commercial. Gotham may have been shiny and new, “bigger and taller” as Schumacher described it, but it lacked substance. When the city’s most powerful people went from corrupt or controlled to simply incompetent, The Bat lost his edge. Batman’s city had lost its meaning, and in turn, Batman lost his.

“He felt the settings should reflect the psychological underpinnings of a dark character who’s driven by tragedy in his life. With that goal in mind, we tried to create a unique urban environment, something much different than what appears in the other Batman films.”- Wally Pfister, Director of Photography, Batman Begins, in an interview with American Cinematographer, 2005

While the comics marched on, Batman films were at a standstill for nearly a decade. It took Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to put Batman back in the public eye. Nolan ultimately chose a new home for his vision of Gotham City, Chicago. The Second City was the perfect place to build a new Batman.

As New York became more Disney’s Time Square and less Jason Takes Manhattan, Chicago’s history of organized crime, political corruption, and rising crime rates became the focus of national news. In a sense, the Chicago of 2005 was already Gotham City in the minds of the public. Also, aesthetically, and this observation comes from a former resident of the city, Chicago is simply a darker place at night. A more believable site to hide in the shadows. While downtown has its fair share of neon, most of the city maintains an older, darker design. At the turn of the Millennium, Chicago checked all of the boxes for a good Gotham.

Nolan’s Gotham is also perhaps the closest to the contemporary comic portrayal. While maintaining the crime and corruption of Burton’s version, Nolan introduced Batman’s many allies into the film world. Gone was the inept Commisioner Gordon, replaced with the hard nosed lawman of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. Gone was the solitary Bruce Wayne, now he would employ Alfred and Lucius Fox to assist in his public image. He’d even have Catwoman and Robin on his side by story’s end.

Ad – content continues below

This attention paid to Gotham City was intentional, as Production Designer Nathan Crowley noted that the development of Gotham’s visual aesthetic was crafted alongside the film’s script. As the series rolled on, Gotham City’s role was ever present and evolving along with the hero. The Dark Knight utilized locations even more so than its predecessor, organically creating a more expansive Gotham.

The Dark Knight Rises furthered this. By the last film in Nolan’s trilogy, Gotham City had absorbed parts of Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Newark and even the original Gotham, New York. In an interview with Film Comment, Nolan commented (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) “We wanted to get out of the notion of Gotham as a village, as a claustrophobic sort of otherworldly environment which is what it had always been before.”

Gotham is more than just a city in Nolan’s films. In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul targets the city as the cause for modern corruption. Batman, a product of the city and its citizens, proves him wrong. In The Dark Knight, The Joker initiates a series of attacks to prove that the city is hopeless and that all can be corrupted. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane holds the city hostage and believes he has destroyed its soul, The Batman. Batman proves both of them wrong. In the Nolan films, Batman is Gotham. Though city may be brutal, dark and twisted, but at its core it is good. And evil cannot destroy good.

“What makes a town so crazy? What makes a town so out of control that villains begin to wear costumes?” – Danny Cannon, Executive Producer, Gotham, in a 2014 Documentary

In 2014, television audiences were presented with Gotham, a series about the city before The Bat crept on rooftops. Visually, Gotham‘s Gotham (that’s a new one) seems an amalgamation of Nolan, Burton and even a bit of the animated series, which itself was a combination of numerous influences. Beautiful, lush interiors transition into the digitally modified skyline, creating a city that feels just beyond reality.

Gotham shoots in New York and this was an important requirement to the shows creative team. Show Writer and Executive Producer Bruno Heller cited the works of Lumet and Friedkin in this decision, a Gotham on the knife’s edge as New York itself once was. With a solid following, Gotham has an opportunity to do something that hasn’t even been done in the comics. It can tell the story of a growing Gotham City alongside its growing defenders, explaining the reaction to Batman by illuminating the harsh reality Gothamites were exposed to before criminals had something to fear. Gotham‘s Batman isn’t formed, but neither is his city

Ad – content continues below

In 2016, we will be treated to a new Gotham City in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The first glimpses of this Gotham have been revealed in the first teaser for the film, but what kind of impact this version will have on Batman remains to be seen. Gotham City has proven to be an important tool in the creation of compelling superhero narratives, and in their impending box-office war with Marvel, Warner Bros. will do well to keep that in mind.