New York City is Gotham and Gotham is New York City but The Dark Knight Trilogy drew an indelible connection between Batman’s hometown and Chicago.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Batman’s Gotham City is based on New York City.
This may be because Batman was originally going to live in New York City, before writer Bill Finger created a fictional city with a name pulled out of phonebook in order to create a city “anyone could identify with.” It may be because the fictional city of Gotham exists geographically in New Jersey and has been described spiritually as “Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November.” Historically, crime in New York City, particularly during the ’70s and ’80s period when the Batman comic returned to his dark roots, was not un-Gotham-like, even if it is, as Gabrielle Bruney wrote in Esquire in response to Joker‘s Gotham, “a New York as seen by a scared outsider who’s been fed tales of urban terror.”
It certainly helps, too, that Gotham is a nickname for New York City that predates Batman. (Hence the jeweler’s name in the phonebook Finger plucked from.) In any case, Metropolis is New York in the daytime; Gotham is New York at night. That’s the saying. A little unrelated conflation. Some serious repetition. Gotham is New York City.
Still, when Christopher Nolan decided to shoot Batman Begins, his gritty, ambitious Batman reboot, in Chicago, he unearthed a link between Gotham and Chicago that has only grown more profound in time. Gotham, in setting and story, has Chicago in its DNA now.
Like Finger, Nolan has said he aspired to create a Gotham that could be any city and perhaps he was successful — I couldn’t say. If you recognize a city from its details, you can only see that city. Special effects transform Chicago’s El tracks and Board of Trade building just enough in the opening sequence of Batman Begins to disguise the downtown and Nolan understandably eschews distinguishing shots of the skyline or lakefront. The locations that stand out to a Chicagoan aren’t places you would take a tourist. There’s no dramatic Sears Tower moment, but there’s that now-iconic chase scene on Lower Wacker. No sign of the Bean or the Art Institute (or its lions), but there’s Franklin Bridge and my dad’s favorite place to get ribs.
It’s fun, as a Chicagoan, to see Chicago stand in for Gotham — after all, we actually have alleys here and alleys are a pretty big deal in Batman. But location Easter eggs are not going to overwrite decades of New York aesthetic association.
No, where Nolan — likely inadvertently, bless his Evanston-living little heart — really invokes the spirit of Chicago, affirming the city as our 21st century Gotham, is in the narrative he chose for his Batman.
Joker’s desire to watch the world burn aside, the through-line of The Dark Knight Trilogy is the question of whether Gotham can (and should) be saved from its history of violence. It is a crime-ridden city, but a city, as directly articulated by the script, where the depression isn’t over for the working class, where criminals are motivated by desperation and created by hunger. The cops are corrupt and mob leaders take advantage to assert their own underground order. It’s a city with a gun problem, where the police predict an escalating arms race to automatic weapons. It’s a city where the wealthy don’t do more than attend benefits and your average upstanding citizen acts first and foremost for self-preservation. In its “cleaned up” form, it’s a city where thousands are imprisoned with mass sentencing, the homeless are pushed out of sight and the powers that be call it prosperity.
It is, simply, Chicago.
I don’t want to get into a contest over whose mayor sucks the most, nor do I want diminish the history and present day reality of New York or any other city currently dealing with any of the aforementioned conditions, but it seems hardly a controversial take to assert that Chicago is America’s long-reigning go-to city for racist dog-whistle handwringing about crime. Just this week, Trump continued his crusade against the city and announced his intention to send federal forces to Chicago to “help manage” violent crime.
There’s a resonance, then, between the Gotham ofThe Dark Knight Trilogy and Chicago that goes beyond our alleys and underground streets. Nolan’s Gotham is a city weighed down — condemned — by its reputation for crime, but it is crime that is, explicitly, created and exacerbated by the failure of civic and social services. It’s vulnerable to true comic villains like Joker and Bane because of the economic policies the League of Shadows weaponized in an attempt to the destroy the city. Gotham doesn’t need a vigilante Batman, it needs to defund the police, abolish Blackgate and reinvest in Arkham.
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To be clear, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy doesn’t work as any kind of extended analogy or morality play. The class politics are scenery dressing and quickly complicated by all sorts of questionable alignments along the lines of hero and villain. But in scene-setting, by picking Chicago as the U.S. city to stand in for Gotham, Nolan picked a more appropriate city than he could have imagined.
The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t shot in Chicago — it was shot in Pittsburgh, New York and Los Angeles. There are reasons speculated for this — running out of Chicago locations, spicing things up, the ability of the city of convey working class — but none of them are particularly convincing. The suggestion that Chicago could not convey a working class city is especially offensive. One is inclined to believe it was a simple business decision. Tax breaks or scheduling. Some such detail. In any case, it doesn’t matter.
Chicago’s Gotham bonafides were well-reinforced through all three of Nolan’s Batman movies. At first through its setting, but ultimately through story.
For more Christopher Nolan, explore the Nolan Week hub on FanSided.com.