It’s become a bit of a cliché to refer to a story’s setting (especially TV or film) as a character in and of itself—but when it comes to Batman and Gotham City, it is absolutely fitting. Initially just an unnamed setting for Batman stories, then a stand-in for New York, Gotham City has gone through as many transformations throughout the years as the Caped Crusader himself. And like Batman himself, most people have a version of the city stuck in their heads. Maybe it’s Burton’s nightmarish and gothic “hell burst through the pavement and grew” Gotham, or Schumacher’s futuristic, colorful and over-the-top Akira-inspired dystopia.
Or maybe it’s Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City, a version of the burg that got less “comic-book-y” with every installment of his series. Nolan’s Gotham served to connect the city’s past as a New York stand-in, to the transformative effect a grounded and realistic Batman would have on an urban environment.
When Christopher Nolan was hired to bring Batman back to life after the financial disappointment of Batman & Robin, he envisioned the character as a real person and Gotham as a place that could exist in the real world. In a 15-year-old DVD extra for Batman Begins, Nolan describes his vision for Gotham having a recognizable texture, a “New York on steroids,” in his words. It’s not hard to see that comparison when watching the film. The first of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy brings the back alleys of Chicago as well as its L train and digitally mixes it with a more New York-like layout that divides the city into boroughs interconnected by rivers. The result is a metropolis that feels both instantly recognizable yet also clearly belonging to a darker version of our world, in the same way as the Batman comics of the ’70s illustrated by Neal Adams took heavy inspiration in Chicago for his version of Gotham.
But what makes the Gotham of Batman Begins stand apart from the rest of the trilogy is the focus on the different boroughs, especially the one dubbed The Narrows. Heavily inspired by Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, the Narrows is the encapsulation of Nolan’s vision of the corruption in Gotham, and how that corruption has rotted away both the foundations of the city and its people. Though it still takes inspiration from the real world, the Narrows is the closest Nolan gets to a proper comic-book version of Gotham City, with its maze of claustrophobic and narrow alleyways, and towering buildings all connecting with each other with hundreds of clotheslines hang from.
But then, by the time Nolan returns to Gotham in The Dark Knight, the city is completely redesigned, to the point where The Dark Knight all but declares it is done with comic-book concepts and throws Batman into our reality. Gone are the Narrows and most of the digital embellishments Batman Begins used to separate its Gotham from a specific location, and instead the film becomes indistinguishable from Chicago. Wayne Tower becomes a slightly modified version of the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago, and the film’s big set car chase set-piece takes place in the city’s Lower Wacker Drive, basically devoid of digital touch-ups.
Nolan uses the passage of time to show how much Batman has impacted the city of Gotham and how much the city needed a Wayne in order to keep itself from falling into chaos. As Joker says in the film, the tables have turned and it is now the criminal who is afraid to go out at night because of the Batman. Because of this, Gotham City now looks lighter and more colorful than in the previous movie. But corruption can never end in Gotham, so the criminals move away from the slums and into the skyscrapers, banks and police precincts. The scariest crimes happen not in the back alleys at night, but in broad daylight, while children take the bus to school and banks and hospitals are filled with people. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan reiterates the importance of the Waynes to Gotham, as the moment Bruce is driven out of the city by Bane, the moment Gotham falls into chaos.
In many Batman stories (including Nolan’s interpretation of the character), it is the Caped Crusader himself who created or inspires many members of his rogues gallery, as the Bat’s existence brings out more colorful and insane villains to meet the challenge. This causes the city of Gotham to grow more and more over-the-top with time, as villains take over, destroy and otherwise re-decorate parts of the city—bringing it closer to its more “comic-book-y” like its portrayals in Burton’s and Schumacher’s films.
Nolan takes the complete opposite approach. When Bruce Wayne first arrives in Gotham City after years in exile in Batman Begins, he finds a city in decay, as if ripped out of the dark a comic books of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but the longer he’s around to fight the good fight, the more grounded his world becomes and the closer both Batman and Gotham City get to our reality.
Following Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, a series of big-screen superhero stories tried to ground their heroes in our world. First, it was Zack Snyder’s own Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, but there was also Fox’s prequel series Gotham, which based its titular city on the New York of Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin movies, while also using Nolan’s own idea of the Narrows (which was also implemented in the Arkham series of video games). Nolan’s grounded approach to Gotham City continues to inspire to this day, as last year we saw a Joker origin story that barely made an effort to disguise New York City as Gotham. Even Matt Reeves has claimed that his Gotham City for The Batman is heavily inspired by real cities such as Liverpool.
Gotham City may have started out as an unnamed stand-in for New York, one that Nolan memorably realized on the streets of Chicago, but it became a reflection of our real-world issues, enhanced by comic-book theatricality. In the middle of all, however, that lies Nolan’s Gotham City—a bridge that manages to both honor what came before, and forever change our vision of Batman’s home of Gotham City.
NOLAN/TIME is a series exploring how we’ve watched the clock in Christopher Nolan’s films.