What do you think of when you think of Gotham City?
As one of the most famous and well-known fictional cities in popular culture, it’s kind of amazing that there is almost zero consistency in how its been represented from one popular Batman adaptation to the next.
From the excessively Gothic architecture of Tim Burton’s Gotham in 1989’s “Batman” …
… to the slick, timeless Art Deco of Bruce Timm’s animated Gotham seen in “Batman: The Animated Series.”
There’s something about Gotham City that inspires creators to craft their own version of the city to match their version of “the Batman.” This even happens when the adaptations are made by the
exact same people — consider how different the city looks in each of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films.
The new video game “Batman: Arkham Knight” is the latest pop culture riff on the famous comic book city, and the first one in the “Arkham” trilogy of games to be explicitly set in the entirety of Gotham. The first game, “Arkham Asylum,” was entirely confined to the titular institution — although it hinted at the city’s aesthetic when it featured its skyline in the distance.
The second game, “Arkham City,” came closer to depicting the actual city, portraying the eponymous Arkham City as a walled-off slum-turned-prison complex in the center of Gotham — but it was hyperbolic by nature, an exaggerated playground for the game’s villains, with themed areas for each villain. Yet the general aesthetic remained consistent — splashes of neon, buildings built out of grime, steam vents and graffiti galore.
For the final game in the “Arkham” trilogy (we’re going to exclude “Batman: Arkham Origins,” a prequel developed by a different studio), the developers at Rocksteady games have completed their slow zoom out on Batman’s world, opening up the entirety of Gotham for players to explore. And the most surprising thing about it is that the “Arkham” take on Gotham has a lot in common with some of the worst Batman movies.
Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies — “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” — get a pretty bad rap. A lot of it is for a pretty good reason (“Batman & Robin” is as close to objectively awful as a movie can get), but some of the hate is rather unfair.
For one thing, it’s easy to forget in our age of hyper-serious and record-breaking superhero cinematic universes, that Schumacher’s Batman films were marketed to and perceived as being for kids — boys, in particular. They weren’t Nolan’s brand of serious adult entertainment, but more kid-friendly family fare (“Batman & Robin,” in particular, was described as a “toy commercial” by those involved.)
Since Schumacher’s films pale in comparison to the modern era of superhero movies, it’s easy to overlook the best thing they did — Gotham City.
Schumacher’s Gotham is unlike anything else committed to film, something we’ll probably never see again. Where Burton depicted the city as a goth hellscape, Schumacher’s was a neon-drenched theme park, full of giant, dramatic sculptures and impossible architecture.
If Burton’s Gotham was Hot Topic, then this was Spencer’s Gifts — less moody and scary, and more straight-up goofy and fun in a way that evoked the Adam West TV series or the exuberant weirdness of Batman’s comic book adventures in the ’50s and ’60s.
What’s incredible about “Arkham Knight” is
how crazy similar it is to this specific interpretation of Gotham.
In a way, there’s really no other option — Schumacher’s Gotham is a theme park, after all, and if you’re going to “Be the Batman” like the “Arkham Knight” publicity campaign insists, then Batman’s world needs to feel larger than life, exaggerated to be an exciting backdrop to set vicarious vigilantism against.
This Gotham is vibrant and full of character, well-suited to being something you play through and interact with rather than passively watch for two hours. On film, a dark, uniform urban landscape can work, but a big part of playing games is learning their systems and environments — why wouldn’t you want them to have as much character as possible?
Of course, like the previous “Arkham” games, this Gotham changes and mutates over the course of the story, showing new shades of itself as the hours go on. Some are cartoonish, others are creepy, but for the most part they’re all distinct.
Gotham City is frequently described by comic book creators as a character unto itself, a very real presence in almost every Batman story. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with current “Batman” writer Scott Snyder about his critically-acclaimed run on the DC comic book with artist Greg Capullo, and his take on Gotham in particular. Snyder sees Gotham as a mirror, something that reflects his fears and anxieties of living in a modern city.
Similarly, the Gotham of Frank Miller’s seminal comics is reminiscent of his native, vice-ridden New York of the ’80s, as Tim Burton’s Gotham is a gothic reflection of his distinctive personal aesthetic.
Perhaps then, there is no one true interpretation of Gotham, much like there is no one true interpretation of Batman — he is Adam West and Kevin Conroy and Michael Keaton and George Clooney and Christian Bale (ok, maybe not George Clooney). Gotham is large, and contains multitudes.
Regardless of how you feel about the plot or gameplay of “Arkham Knight,” its take on Gotham feels rich and full of interesting stories. In its own way, it fulfils the promise of Schumacher’s films, actually letting you play around on sets designed to sell toys.
Maybe that’s inconsistent with the tone of the story, but who cares? It’s fun as hell.