Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Goodness Grips Gotham

Sharon Wildwind

Since I blogged twice last year about bats, and since Christian Bale is my favorite Batman, you should have known this blog was coming. Yesterday, I went to see The Dark Knight—in IMAX no less. To truly appreciate this, you have to understand that I have a morbid, shrieking at the top of my lungs, fear of heights.

As the movie started with an arial view of Gotham City, I remembered that a lot of Bat-tricks involved leaping from tall buildings and that for the next few hours I would be trapped in a full theater, watching those leaps on a six-story screen. Poor planning.

I did okay. I kept my eyes open, whimpered only once, and learned to love that “popping” sound the Bat-cape made as it deployed. It was the violent scenes where I closed my eyes. People hurting other people for fun got old quickly.

It was the portrayal of Gotham City where the story lost me. Everyone assumes, of course, that Gotham is really New York City. In the nineteenth century the American author, Washington Irvine, used “Gotham” as a nickname for NYC.

Some of us have another idea. I share an alternative theory with comic book artist, Neal Adams, and with Christopher Nolen, the director of the Christian Bale-as-Batman movies, that Gotham is, in fact, Chicago.

Gotham was not just relegated to the Batman universe. It crossed over into Superman’s territory, and Swampthing, and Shadowpact, and Mr. Scarlet, and Wow! Comics, and even into H.P. Lovecraft. It’s location was also rather mobile, especially in relation to its sister city, Metropolis.

Wherever and whenever it was, Gotham was supposed to be a dark place. Middle-of-the-night, middle-of-winter, abandoned-by-all-decent-feelings dark. Art-deco dark. One of the powerful images I carry from childhood was the way the comic artists drew the graceful curve of Batman’s back as he knelt on one knee in rubble, with his head bent and his cape spread out on either side of him like broken angel wings. He knew he couldn’t win and he knew he couldn’t quit.

The Dark Knight tried—and, in my humble opinion, failed—to portray the city’s darkness through dialog. There was all the talk of how corrupt the city was, of mobsters and constant danger to everyday citizens, and cops on the take. But in the background, out of all of those glass windows at Wayne Enterprises or Bruce Wayne’s penthouse apartment, or even police headquarters, we saw a colorful, clean city going about its business, with even one might say, a perky attitude. When The Joker essentially said to the city’s entire population, “Leave Gotham now or die,” citizens queued nicely and waited to evacuate. There was no panic, no pushing, not even a little wailing and gnashing of teeth.

This Gotham-the-Good was a example of what the writer, Sherry Lewis, calls “perfectly nice syndrome.” What this movie needed was fewer monologs about how knives can be used to hurt people, and more ordinary Gotham citizens trapped in situations where they couldn’t win and couldn’t quit. A crippled newsboy would have helped. Or a welfare mother in hock to all those mobsters. I’d have even settled for a lost dog.

As writers, we frequently talk about raising the stakes for the characters. We also need to raise the stakes for our settings as well. Here are four ways to do it.

It’s as old as the hills surrounding Sodom and Gomorrah, but there’s nothing like a natural or man-made disaster to have characters pinging off of one another. Put the town in physical danger and give the heroine a limited ability to save what is dear to her. Explore what she would save, why she would save it, and how she would do this.

Damage the man-made landscape. The Dark Knight would have worked better in a city that had more garbage and fewer sidewalk cafes.

Make a small change in the physical environment create a significant change in a character’s belief system. For a great example of this, watch the wall mural scene in Pleasantville, and the compromises Jeff Daniel’s character is willing to make before the town council.

Create an imbalance between the overwhelming angst pushing down on the character and a small moment of pleasure, in which the character fights to remember all the good things about being human.

I hope that the Bale-Nolen team do something different with Gotham for their next movie. Maybe not as far as in Batman Begins, where the city was wrist-slittingly depressing, but something that gives the old girl a bit more character and gives Batman a heck of a bigger reason for giving up any hope of a normal life in order to defend her.

Writing quote for the week:
“I made a promise to my parents that I would rid the city of the evil that took their lives.”
~Bruce Wayne


Sandra Parshall said...

I found The Dark Knight disappointing in too many ways to enumerate. But maybe I shouldn't say it disappointed me, because that implies I had expectations, when I had none. The only worthwhile thing about it was Heath Ledger's performance, which is amazing enough to make you cry at the thought of the potentially great career that died with him.

This kind of simplistic set-up of Good vs Evil is difficult to pull off in movies or books. Life is complex, with many subtle shadings of meaning and morality, and great art reflects that. This movie, OTOH, has all the depth of a roadrunner vs coyote cartoon.

Julia Buckley said...

Well, as a woman who has seen almost every superhero movie with my two sons (and husband), I have to give The Dark Knight high marks, although I see your point, Sharon. I guess as a Chicagoan I was looking more at how Chicago came off in the filming, and pointing at buildings I recognized, rather than evaluating whether it was an effective Gotham.

But I keep everything at a superhero level--we've read endless comic books that give us the backstory of these characters, but they are meant to remain super-heroey rather than complex human-y, IMHO.

To me the disappointment was Maggie Gyllenhaal, who brought only blandness to her performance and made me wonder why two heroes were in love with her.

Lonnie Cruse said...

And why should superheros have to give up romance in order to save the world? Why can't his gal pal help? Grrrr.

Anonymous said...

Lonnie, because the hero has to pay a price for saving civilization.