Who is the best character in the Batman universe? After ample consideration I decided it’s Gotham City. Not the Joker, not Scarecrow, Harley Quinn or the younger version of Penguin in the Gotham television series, whom I all love dearly. No, the biggest and best character is that damned city. I decided a long while ago that I love Gotham, but I found it hard to put into words why that is.
At first it was just a matter of aesthetics. I love the quote from comic book artist Dennis O’Neill who characterised Batman’s home turf as: “Gotham City is Manhattan below 14th street, at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night of November.” A lot of comic books and the early Batman movies have carried on that vision, with the typical neo-noire elements like tall buildings, shady alleyways, steam-vents and a mixture of gothic and art deco architecture. This includes the Tim Burton movies, the Arkham videogames and the aforementioned FOX television series.
Gotham captures the spirit of cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit at their lowest. Crime runs rampant, the police and council are corrupt, poverty and derelict buildings contrast with high-end architecture and decadent wealth. And no matter how hard Batman, James Gordon and the other vigilante do-gooders and cops try, it never breaks out of this cycle. Prisoners escape, crime bosses stay out of trouble, the police force remains corrupt.
The Pointless Cycle
Part of this is due to the nature of comic books and comic book story arcs. We want to keep our favourite villains in the loop, so we can’t kill them off or redeem them. We want Batman to keep doing his heroic work, so we can never let the trouble in Gotham end. On top of that, the Comics Code Authority mandated a strict policy against blood and gore in the 1950s and 60s, plus a requirement for villains to be apprehended and punished by the end of the story. Although these rules are hardly enforced anymore; the cycle of Batman never killing his foes and the same figures from his infamous Rogue Gallery always resurfacing became a staple of the Batman mythos. Gotham is doomed to be forever caught in a cycle of crime, corruption and classism.
For a long while, I didn’t see Batman and Gotham as more than criticism of contemporary culture, a way to appeal to the rudimentary fears of the readers and do so in a stylised, romanticised detective noire setting. But recently it clicked why I like these stories so much and what they’re saying about our society.
As folks way smarter than me have pointed out before, Batman is a pretty lousy superhero. Bruce Wayne is one of the richest guys in Gotham, but instead of doing something about the economic misery, he keeps most of his money for himself apart from some charity causes he donates to. He invests money in high end gadgets and weaponry to fight crime, which usually comes to beating up and scaring pretty criminals or putting super villains in prison. Prison that they either escape from or are being released because a lawyer was paid off. Bruce appears to be completely unaware of this pointless cycle or unable to imagine how to break it. He doesn’t invest money in The Narrows, doesn’t support a police union so that they might get better wages and don’t turn to corruption, doesn’t bother to have the employees of Wayne Industries be paid better and encourage other CEOs to do the same.
Tragically Beautiful Libertarian Failure
Gotham City is one big example of a failing libertarian society. Conservatives don’t seem to have a strong grasp on things, there’s no strong role for the church, no restrictive rules on abortion rights, marriage equality or euthanasia. In fact, there seems to be no rules or regulations at all. Companies have free hand in matters like waste disposal or building permits, science can go unbridled, there’s no health care for the poor. The city is ran by mob bosses, corrupt CEOs, politicians and lawyers. Everybody fends for themselves and rely on crime or kickback to make due. At same time, there seem to be no presence of liberalism or socialism either. What little unions Gotham has, are run by the mafia. Help for the poor and unfortunate is limited to charity and the goodwill of the rich and protest movements only come in the form of anarchist gangs.
Nope, the only political tendency that seems to get a hold of the city is brutal laissez-faire capitalism, and this sad, ironic and slightly over-saturated hellscape is what makes Batman and his city so tragically beautiful. It proves the point of progressives and the purpose of socialism. Gotham needs unions, needs high taxes and worker control over its biggest industries. But instead is has a traumatised rich kid who tries his best to fight crime but keeps feeding it from the bottom up, perhaps without realising it. Just as his biggest adversary, The Joker, keeps reminding him: Batman is destined to maintain his status quo forever because if he actually solved it, his purpose and persona would cease to exist.
I love Gotham, not only because I love the stylised, cliched aesthetic. I love Gotham City because it constantly shows me that I’m right.