Last night I took my son and a troop of teenage boys to see the last installment of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Batman trilogy. One thing that struck me about the new film was how the image of the city has evolved over the course of the series. I have been thinking a lot about urban environments lately for NPR's Cities project. From that perspective, Nolan's move from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight Rises raised some interesting questions about cities in the popular imagination.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne lived in a fully fictionalized Gotham. With monorails and sneering gangsters, it was explicitly a comic book city, half-1940s vision of the future and half Blade Runner vision of the past. That first take on Gotham was not any city we in the real world lived in. Then, in The Dark Knight, Nolan gave us a city we recognized. This Gotham, terrorized so effectively by Heath Ledger's terrifying Joker, felt familiar (much of the movie was filmed in Chicago). What made the second film so startlingly scary was a vision of a very real city forced into a state of very real fear and chaos. I think few viewers expected something so disturbing from a superhero movie. Using echoes of our experience of 9/11, Nolan and Ledger managed to a create a Gotham that was truly modern in the darkest sense of the word.
With The Dark Night Rises the connection with 9/11 is explicit. Gotham is New York. It's an island city that can effectively be cut off from the rest of the world and left to its own dark devices. While this third film is not nearly as effective as the second, it's use of the city as a theater for the collective imagination is compelling. With echoes of stock market bungles and battles between the 1 percent and 99 percent, it picks up the modern urban zeitgeist, making its vision of Gotham resonate with our own. Nolan's camera lingers on Gotham from high above as explosions bring down bridges and, later, smoke billows into the sky. Its a vantage point we are, unfortunately, familiar with.