I first noticed it in the opening scenes. Over a moody, dramatic voiceover, Robert Pattinson, as Bruce Wayne, explains that the Batman’s power comes from fear. Criminals stare down darkened alleys, shadowed doorways, and disused train stations. This is when I rolled my eyes a little. Whatever city Gotham is trying to imitate, it isn’t really New York City, despite all the set dressing hinting that this is, indeed, New York. I don’t think there’s an alleyway in Manhattan that’s been dark since 2000.
Now, I know that this film wasn’t shot in New York City. I know that this is supposed to be an amalgam of gothic architecture and darkened alleyways that hint at any number of other cities. There are some overhead drone shots of the City That Never Sleeps, but for most of the outside set pieces, this film was shot in the UK, in Liverpool and Glasgow. There was some CGI added into a lot of those UK shots to make NYC-esque skyscrapers happen. I get all that.
But in the final act? When the sea walls break? That’s all New York. The accents? New York. The newspapers, magazines, political infighting? New York. The architecture? New York. The corrupt institutions, haunted by their past? New-Fucking-York. This film tries so hard to make this aesthetic mish-mash vibe exist within the real-life struggles of our own Gotham that it practically hurts to watch Pattinson zoom down a derelict tube tunnel rather than a decommissioned subway station.
Instead of understanding Gotham — which itself in the comics has always been a mishmash of various real-world inspirations, New York including — and making the effort to really critique the city for which it is named in-part, Matt Reeves’ film decides to create an off-centre version of New York City aesthetically, all the while retaining the narrative set pieces that tie Batman to New York. The problem is that without a critique of New York City, as it is now, The Batman becomes a much emptier film, the three-colour scheme that encompasses its retro-modernity failing to fill the gaps left when anyone has even a minor understanding of New York City. The worldbuilding here is in the Gotham of our collective imaginations, rather than in the film itself. We, as viewers, are asked to do the heavy lifting in order to figure out the kind of place this is, because the world is so disjointed. There is no sense of place because this is a city removed from place; it is to the detriment of The Batman that it is set in this nowhere city, while also being so clearly inspired by New York politics and understandings. There is no removing Batman from New York City, and no removing New York City from Gotham.
In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, when Bronze Age-era Batman comics turned the character to grittier and gorier tones, they emphasised the gothicness of the setting, the corruption at the heart of the city. The New York City of that time was mean; Times Square was full of grindhouses and drop points. The mob really did run the economic infrastructure of the city, and the police force was so corrupt that it organised raids on innocent people via police radio. And all this is clearly and definitively reflected in The Batman. Look no further than this New York Post picture of Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, NYPD detectives convicted of corruption, who look like the spitting images of Commissioner Pete Savage (Alex Ferns) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). This is probably a coincidence, but these men have been burned into the narrative consciousness of New York City’s history. It’s no surprise that some tropes have surpassed intention, appearing as if Reeves has actually created a masterful analogy to a pair of New York City’s most corrupt cops and not just co-opted their look out of a collective visual library of “gangsters.”
Moving past the cops, when I watched The Batman, I didn’t immediately see the Zodiac killer parallel in the Riddler. Instead, I recognised the Son of Sam. New York City had its own deranged serial killer in the ‘70s, a man who evaded the police for a full year, leaving taunting messages, writing letters to the cops on his case, and later claiming to be a part of a murderous cult. Like the Riddler (and Bruce Wayne) of The Batman, Son of Sam kept notebooks full of his thoughts, arsons, and drafts of the messages he sent to the police during his killing spree. In a surprising irony, Bob Rozacis, the lettering editor at that time for DC Comics, was asked to analyse the Son of Sam’s handwriting. Time is a flat circle, apparently.
But the New York of the ‘70s, ‘80s, or even ‘90s, is not the New York of today. And the Batman comics of those decades truly did great work when they took Gotham as it was and turned it on its head, creating a horrific mirror to the reality of the city. But now? When there are no more darkened alleys in Manhattan? The parallel between Reeves’ version of Gotham and New York in 2022 falls apart almost immediately. It no longer becomes a satire, but a stunted fantasy, stuck half in the past, with its vintage cars and mob bosses, and half in the future, with extremism live-streaming for the masses.
Right now, there are no drug lords “running” New York City, now more of a racially coded stereotype than true to the fact of the city. The Mob is a political machine reduced to combating tax evasion on its Brooklyn warehouses in Zoom court. The real problems in New York City come from real estate moguls gentrifying the city, shitty infrastructure that was the source of most employment in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and speculative investment bankers destroying the economy. These aren’t the villains that Batman fights. The New York City The Batman takes inspiration from doesn’t exist any more, and when you take the stories of NYC and remove them from their place in the city’s history, even in the extrapolation of Gotham itself, you create a noirish fantasy land where Batman can play cop and sort the good bootlickers from the bad ones with some degree of moral impunity. The emotions of the film become muddled and uncertain, with so much time spent on investigating corruption The Batman loses its nuance within the three-hour cat-and-mouse detective chase through its facsimile landscape.
Gotham is a place of fiction, of course — this isn’t like, say, a contemporary Daredevil beating up hardened criminals in Hell’s Kitchen. But at this point we have to recognise that the image we have of Gotham now has little to no political basis in present-day New York, no matter how badly Reeves wants us to see the political and cultural narrative parallels there. The Batman’s desire for a noir aesthetic is hampered by its own assumptions of the city, dragging us back into the past half-heartedly, but still hoping we’ll believe all the tech in the Batcave. If this series continues it risks looking back rather than pushing the genre forward; in order for Reeves’ Batman to survive in this kind of neo-noir Gotham steeped in 1980s NYC references, there needs to be worldbuilding independent of assumptive nostalgia of what Gotham is. The Batman’s version of Gotham is a stereotype of a stereotype, but there is nothing interesting about this city — about this set of buildings next to those, attached by slim connective threads and no neighbourhood names, disjoined from history and emotion.
If Reeves truly wants Gotham to be a character, if he wants this city to have character, then the work has to come from the film itself. Relying solely on worldbuilding that exists in the marginalia of past films will only further cement this series as discordant, an echo of a past time when Gotham really was as mean as this movie portrays it, and when Batman really was the “world’s greatest detective” and not just a vehicle for another superhero blockbuster. I want to believe in this film, for the most part I enjoyed it, but the noir-fantasy has to live up to real life expectations or else risk looking dated and out-of-touch.