A Tale of Two Gothams: Burton v Nolan | Batman’s City in the Movies
In 1989 Tim Burton’s dark view of Gotham was well-received and praised as realistic, but as the world changed, the flaws became all too glaring. “How stupid are the people of Gotham to not entertain the thought that maybe the guy who has been poisoning their beauty products could possibly be up to no good when he wants everyone to gather to get free money?” complained one savvy blogger. It seems to be the view of Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, who declares “all these civilized people will eat each other.” But that is the view of a sociopath. Batman, who is far from psychotic as the Burton crowd would like us to believe, has faith in the people of Gotham, and they grapple with the moral questions before them in such a way that does credit not just to Batman’s universe but to people in general.
In 1989 Tim Burton received major kudos in making a Batman movie that took The Dark Knight seriously. The camp of the 1960s was forgotten. Nothing was played for laughs. It was said that the actors “didn’t seem aware they were in a comic book movie.” Michael Keaton brooded a good deal as Bruce Wayne, and his Batman spoke in a deep gravel that has become an iconic feature of the character. Jack Nichelson’s Joker stole the show, although how anyone could say he was unaware he was playing a comic book villain is hard to understand. The sequel Batman Returns upped the ante, adding not one but two new villains to the mix: Oswald Cobblepot, The Penguin played by Danny Devito and Selina Kyle, The Catwoman played by Michelle Pfeifer. This time it was Catwoman who stole the show, although for different reason. With Joker, it was the sheer volume and presence of the character. With Catwoman, the sex appeal of the skin-tight costume, the power and fascination of the whip-wielding woman made a colossal impression on a generation coming of age. History repeated itself, just as a generation of boys became men watching Julie Newmar in the 60s, the new generation imprinted on Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan brought a far more realistic Batman to the screen in the person of Christian Bale in Batman Begins. Its sequel The Dark Knight added the Joker played by Heath Ledger, who won a posthumously-awarded Oscar for the role, and the upcoming Dark Knight Rises in 2012 will show us his Catwoman in the person of Anne Hathaway. Comparing the marquee characters could be interesting, but it is far more illuminating to look at the anonymous people of Gotham City as a whole.
Burton’s Gotham City are a mob of unthinking animals. Not a week after Joker has held the city hostage with a product tampering scheme, they turn out in force to a parade he stages because he promises them money. As one critic recently put it “Imagine if Osama bin Laden had invited the people of New York to a cook out in Central Park in late September, 2001. Does anyone of any nation, of any religion, of any place on the political spectrum believe anyone would have showed up?”
Apparently one does: Tim Burton.
The people of Gotham perform similarly in Batman Begins (sic). First they idolize Oswald Cobblepot for no reason except his instant celebrity, then they turn on him when their idol falls. They do a similar 180 about Batman when Penguin frames him. Burton’s ordinary people are irrational and stupid, and if they were a single person their characterization would be dismissed as absurd. There is no realism here of any kind.
The Gothamites of Nolan’s The Dark Knight are another breed entirely. They have kneejerks and obnoxious outbursts when faced with their Joker, a terrorist, saying he will kill people unless The Batman turns himself in. But during the climactic Ferry episode, when faced with the prospect of killing their fellow human beings to buy their own safety-even if those fellow human beings are criminals on a prison boat-they elect to do the right thing.
Heath Ledger’s Joker – like Tim Burton – asserts that “When the chips are down, these civilized people will eat each other.” That is the position taken by the comics that inspired Burton, the comics of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, the comics that reject the very idea of heroes, of heroism, of ideals.
In giving us people of Gotham who behave like human beings, Nolan restores the concept of heroism on a far deeper level than restoring it to Batman alone. It is ironic that so many characters deny that he is one in the course of a movie which presents the anatomy of a hero as no other since High Noon.
Speaking of irony, the ultimate hero portrayed by Gary Cooper was Marshal Will Kane. And the ultimate villain that sought to destroy him and everything he stood for was Frank Miller.