Gotham in the Dark Knight trilogy
July 20, 2012 8:35 PM   Subscribe

Why did Christopher Nolan "recast" Gotham City in each of the Dark Knight films? (Question is spoiler-free, but answers might not be.)

One of the interesting things that became very obvious in watching the Dark Knight trilogy in one setting: in each of the films, Gotham City is presented very, very differently. In Batman Begins, Gotham is very comic-booky: it's got the futuristic rail system, it's always very dark, there are no readily recognizable buildings, and there are elements like the Wayne Tower and the whole island with the Narrows and Arkham Asylum, all completely fake.
Then, in Dark Knight, Gotham has been recast as Chicago, and it seems that Nolan made no attempt to even pretend that it was anything other than Chicago, even showing recognizable landmarks. Gone are any of the "fake" elements from the first film.
Finally, in Dark Knight Rises, he again moves the city, this time using New York, and once again being obvious about it - both the Empire State Building and the new tower at the World Trade Center are visible, the bridges are shown repeatedly, etc. And again, any of the obviously fictional elements from the first movie are gone.
So I'm giving Nolan the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this was a very deliberate choice, but I'm very curious as to why he made this choice. Why so obviously move the city from the totally make-believe to the totally real, and from one real city to the next?
posted by robhuddles to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Another, less sexy, reason is that Pennsylvania offered some pretty big tax breaks for filming in Pittsburgh.
posted by ikaruga at 8:48 PM on July 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Batman Begins was shot in Chicago as well, but I don't recall that ever being obvious in the film. I was paying particular attention because I had been inconvenienced at least once by the filming. (Why, yes, closing the bridges so they can have a helicopter shot of the river with no cars or pedestrians on the bridges is in no way going to create a large group of frustrated pedestrians thinking they're going to miss their trains and have to hang around for two hours because it's a Sunday.)
posted by hoyland at 9:08 PM on July 20, 2012

I liked this short tidbit from io9; I think it compliments your analysis well:
Gotham City is a major feature of all three films. We spend a lot of time looking at its structures, both social and architectural [...] all along, Nolan has been asking what makes cities — by showing people trying to un-make them.

In a year with a lot of apocalyptic films where the apocalypse is weirdly abstract, Nolan makes the apocalypse concrete. A lot of the images that stick in your mind after this film aren't of fight scenes or explosions, but just of urban desolation — plenty of these images are in the trailers, but they get pretty relentless in the actual film.
posted by raihan_ at 9:14 PM on July 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

As far as I know in the comics Metropolis was a stand in for New York, Gotham a stand in for Chicago and Coast City as a stand in for Los Angeles. My best guess is beyond the obvious financial tax/financial incentives, Nolan wanted his version of Gotham to be removed from a definitive existing metro area.
posted by Drumhellz at 10:04 PM on July 20, 2012

As vague fictional cities Metropolis and Gotham city are reimagined all the time for comics and often aren't very consistent. I suspect that the details are simply reimagined to for the plot as the Chicago Tribune article notes. However, they both commonly feature New York style land marks. Batman in particular was created by a native New Yorker and "Gotham" is a real world nickname for New York, so that one isn't particularly subtle.
posted by Winnemac at 11:48 PM on July 20, 2012

Actually, The Dark Knight Rises was not able to claim the PA tax credit as 60% of the production costs did not take place within the state. I don't think any additional tax breaks were given.

While I haven't seen TDKR yet, so I can't comment specifically on how Gotham is portrayed, but isn't It supposed to be a large sprawling metropolis (not to be confused with that other Metropolis)?
posted by buttercup at 3:56 AM on July 21, 2012

Why so obviously move the city from the totally make-believe to the totally real, and from one real city to the next?

Thematically, the first film is a child's fantasy, while the last two show the gritty reality of that fantasy. The move from Chicago to New York probably had to do with the plot of the Dark Knight Rises, which needs an island.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:21 AM on July 21, 2012

This comment, from last night's thread on the blue, is an alternative take on that io9 review:

An example of this bizarre doublethink from this article, discussing Gotham's representation across the films: it's conveniently forgotten that the entire cityscape abruptly morphed between the first and second films from fantastically noirish, sepia-illuminated futurist-art deco to... modern day Chicago as shot by the Law & Order crew? Okay, shit happens during big-budget sequel productions (not often on the scale of completely scrapping the established visual aesthetic, mind) but isn't that kind of noteworthy in an analysis of the city's portrayal? Lesser details of the visual production are given attention. Let's everybody discuss the 28 subtle blends of fruitiness in the Kool-Ade, just nobody mention the disturbing aftertaste.

Such a significant stylistic u-turn doesn't speak to the esteem that these films inexplicably seem to be held in. And pretending it does only speaks to the mendacity of cherry-picking reviewers, engaged in a propagandistic circlejerk around a second-rate filmmaker foisted into the limelight through industry need rather than actual artistic merit.

I gather the argument there is that giving Nolan the benefit of the doubt that the shift was a very deliberate choice with important artistic meaning may not be the most useful strategy here.
posted by mediareport at 6:23 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have yet to see the movie at this point, but I know that parts of it were also shot in Newark, NJ (where I was doing some fieldwork at the time). Newark is close enough to NY that you can actually see parts of its skyline, but it also has a good amount of poverty and wealth disparity. People in the region tend to think of it as pretty dangerous, though it's nothing compared to Camden (Most NJ residents with experience will tell you it's the worst city in the state, which, contrary to popular opinion, is actually pretty nice outside of the cities, which are the worst part).

It's also one of the largest seaports in the U.S., and has a history of heavy polluting industry, etc., etc. In some ways, I think it's probably more emblamatic of Gotham than every other city it's been shot in. On the other hand, its skyline and downtown is less exciting than even Jersey City's, so they clearly couldn't shoot the whole thing there. But for depictions of the rail system, downtrodden areas, etc., yeah, it'd work pretty well. In some ways, the parts of it that are older (yet decently maintained) infrastructure look a lot like what you'd imagine Gotham to look like, or as it has been depicted in the past.

As far as I'm aware, they shot mostly in the downtown/ "main street areas", but those are a lot less glamorous than the ones in other cities. I drove through them all the time to get to my field site in the warehouse/shipping areas, which look a fair amount like urban wasteland, though they're getting better.
posted by Strudel at 7:02 AM on July 21, 2012

As far as I know in the comics Metropolis was a stand in for New York, Gotham a stand in for Chicago and Coast City as a stand in for Los Angeles.

Gotham was a nickname or New York City long before there was any DC Comics and Batman. As far as I can tell, although local references in the cities have moved around here and there depending on the writers, both Gotham City and Metropolis were conceived and have largely functioned as stand ins for New York City. I'm not aware of any comic book major and enduring city that could serve as a stand in for Chicago (i.e., a dense, old, major city specifically in the Midwest).
posted by slkinsey at 7:35 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the Tribune article WCityMike posted is closest to the truth. There are a number of shots in the film which show the contrast between soaring skyscrapers and more older, somewhat rundown and definitely less aesthetically pleasing housing/tower developments. Some of them actually reminded me of the River Place apartments in Rosslyn across from D.C. (which stick out next to glass towered buildings).

The skyline in the movie really was an amalgamation of different cities and often had that sense of being almost recognizable, but not quite. I would argue that the shift was in part to make the city a little less grounded as a recognizable city, but into a city that represented "big city America." The movie is very much one about an American city that undergoes social upheaval and I would expect that Nolan wanted a city that seemed familiar to everyone versus "Oh, Chicago is having a French Revolution!" Thus, Gotham represents every city, not one specific one, and by moving shooting locations, Nolan was able to better achieve this effect.
posted by Atreides at 8:05 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The move from Chicago to New York probably had to do with the plot of the Dark Knight Rises, which needs an island.

Didn't The Dark Knight have Gotham set on an island? The Joker had wired the bridges with explosives or something, which meant that the only way off the island was the ferries, which led to the scene with the passengers on the two ferries.

I specifically remember this because there was an aerial shot of the Chicago River with trapped on one side of the river, and I couldn't help but think to myself, "Damn, just take Lakeshore Drive. The South Side isn't that unsafe."
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:08 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The short answer is because Gotham represents any and every city.

BTW: just saw TDKR, and while a lot of the cityscape is Manhattan, the downtown L.A. skyline makes it in there, too.

Personally I miss the fictional elements from the Gotham of Batman Begins (monorail, and the Narrows especially).
posted by mediated self at 10:17 AM on July 21, 2012

I just came back from a viewing and most of what you see from the ground level is Pittsburgh, especially in the second half of the move. The exterior of Blackgate Penitentiary, most of the alleys, the stadium, the concrete plant, and almost all of the shots with the bomb truck driving around the city are Pittsburgh. The big scene with the battle between the police and Bane's army cuts back and forth between NYC, Downtown Pittsburgh and part of Carnegie Mellon University. Oh and Foley's little row house was in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
posted by octothorpe at 2:07 PM on July 22, 2012

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