In 'The Batman' Gotham City Is Finally as Gross as They Say
Make Gotham gross again.
Gotham City is gross. I know this because I am told about how gross Gotham is every time the city is the setting of any major conflict involving superheroes and supervillains that tend to fashion themselves after animals and/or comedians. Exchanges of dialogue about how Gotham is corrupt, diseased, and rotting from the inside are as essential to any Batman movie as the caped crusader himself, so much so that we have taken it for granted that the actual sets will reflect any of that. It's not enough to have mere scenes where characters mutter and moan about the deterioration of their city if we can't actually see what they're talking about.
In recent years, in fact, Gotham has looked downright pristine. When Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy ushered in the modern era of superhero movies for adults, the director's commitment to realism meant that his films needed to look and feel as grounded as possible, famously subbing in Chicago and Pittsburgh whose streets looked swept almost to a shine. Zack Snyder's films, stylized as they are, took the same approach, simply hiding regular city streets and augmented nighttime skylines behind layers of rain and mist. There's nothing wrong with any of this, by the way, except that I fail to see in any of these movies what exactly makes Gotham City a hive of scum and villainy.
The realist angle of superhero cinema is a fun experiment, and led to some downright incredible movies, but the inherent problem with bringing fantasy characters into the real world is that they don't belong here. As silly and heightened and fantastical as they could be, Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns (and, to an extent, Joel Schumacher's less beloved Batman Forever and Batman & Robin) created an outrageously heightened world where one would believe immediately that a rich guy would fight crime by dressing up as a bat to save the city from itself.
With The Batman, Matt Reeves accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of meshing our modern expectations of action movie realism with a very strong sense of atmosphere: Not since Tim Burton's Batman films has Gotham City looked so nasty, a city straight out of our wildest imaginations or our darkest nightmares.
The character of Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27, first published in May 1939, when America's metropolises were in the grip of the Art Deco design movement—particularly New York, on which Batman's hometown is heavily based ("Gotham" has long been a nickname for New York City since the 1800s). The sweeping lines and glittering lights of Manhattan's skyscrapers lent their bold geometry to the pages of Batman's comics, and created a unique aesthetic that's been tied to the character ever since. It's not Batman unless we're gliding past nighttime vistas lit by floodlights and guttering street lamps.
Because The Batman is a reboot not only of the character but of Warner Bros.' depiction of their comic universe, sort of, the movie reintroduces us to Gotham City for the third time in 20 years. In its moody opening, below its phalanx of buildings arcing above the skyline, criminals scuttle around in mucky streets, stealing from bodegas with streaky windows, hiding in the shadows of rickety elevated train tracks, and passing through subway cars streaked with layers of grime an inch thick. It rains pretty much every single night, so characters are constantly wiping drips from their faces and splashing through puddles. Police cruisers look dusty and unused; every character, hero and villain alike, lives in a set straight out of Dark City or The Crow. There is one nightclub full of scary weirdos, and every public figure save for one politician (and one wealthy recluse) is a sniveling conniver in the pocket of someone even more villainous.
It's so gross. It's so good. There's a deliberate unreality to a lot of it, but its commitment to style never distracts or takes the audience out of the action. Rather, it enhances the more dramatic bits by backgrounding the lives of these characters with gothic architectural sets and vivid lighting cues that augment and amplify the strange dramas playing out in front of them. And now, whenever any character mutters darkly about the corruption running rampant in their city, I can't help but agree that something really ought to be done about it.