The Problem with Christopher Nolan? He's Fundamentally Uninterested in Cities
Christopher Nolan doesn't care about Gotham City, or any city.
What a difference four years make in the discourse of hope and change—and the course of cinematic urbanism. When The Dark Knight was released in July 2008, the junior senator from Illinois had just defeated the junior senator from New York for the nomination of the Democratic Party. On screen, Gotham City—its very name taken from an old Washington Irving sobriquet for New York City—had morphed into a very recognizable Chicago.
But, being a charitable lot, we came around. Before a single star was cast or
car Tumbler1 chase shot, conventional wisdom already asumed that Christopher Nolan’s Batman would be about recovering the dread realism, the urban rot, that surrounds our only superhero without super powers, and shaking off the black rubber camp that tends to accrue every few decades. Batman Begins (2005) accomplished this, sort of, with pure dreariness.
The world wanted an adult crusader, and Hollywood obliged with dime-store Jung (“I want to be be a symbol!”) and Oprah’s-couch Freud. Christian Bale, reliably great, dug deep to deliver something of a demented sequel to American Psycho: Here was (Patrick) Bat(e)man, after enough therapy to have lost all humor and gained tedious introspection—but a few sessions short of actually quitting the maniacal nighttime S&M sprees. Critics toasted the psychological acuity of Nolan’s reboot.
If The Dark Knight was an infinitely better film than Batman Begins—and it was—might even NYC fanboys now admit that the improvement was because of Chicago, not in spite of it? Yes, we can. Riffing off canonical urban-crime dramas (Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, Heat), Nolan’s second entry found a specific key for unlocking his absurdly broad (and just plain absurd) remit to ground Batman in realism: In the real world of big cities, the scariest crimes happen in broad daylight, with banks open, children in school buses, and hospitals packed.
Aesthetically, this meant the first modernist Gotham City. In The Dark Knight, bright, bland expanses of glass and steel ironize the deep, unrelenting opacity of civic disorder. To great mordant effect, the city’s heroes face down the pitch-blackness of Jokerian terror from glass houses of the International Style. Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon, and Mayor Garcia govern from sun-drenched offices in Gotham’s civic center (the former IBM Plaza by Mies van der Rohe). Bruce Wayne broods in the open-plan top floor of his company’s HQ (the Richard J. Daley Center, Chicago’s actual civic center) and the open-plan penthouse duplex of a gleaming condo tower (Mies’s 111 East Wacker and nearby Hotel 71). With Wayne Manor burnt down at the end of Begins, Batman roosts in a downtown bunker that's more subterranean art gallery or brutalist parking garage than any cave found in nature.
There’s plenty of anonymous corprorate modernism in Manhattan, of course. But to set Batman in an identifiable version of New York has always meant precisely to eschew the boxy towers, wide sidewalks, and gracious, CCTV-surveilled plazas (i.e., “privately owned public space”) of Park Avenue in Midtown. In the end, this is less about any inherent orderliness of postwar architecture than a certain gestalt baked into the urban fabric long before Mies or (Robert) Moses walked the Earth. Or, put in the language of DC dialecticism: Superman’s Metropolis is Manhattan above 14th Street, mid-morning, in May; Gotham City is Manhattan below 14th Street (if not Houston or Canal), late autumn, at dusk. If imagined as New York, Batman’s hometown has to be the city’s nether regions—skyscrapers and church spires and bridge towers casting shadows on each other without recourse to street grid or zoning laws—writ large across terrain and psyche.
Such a New York is plenty scary, but in a way that tends toward the theatrical: Taller! Darker! More gargoyles! In The Dark Knight, Nolan stripped the Batman story of the fantastical filigree. He wanted a Gotham that wasn’t Gothic, that was appropriately grand but also generically American. Chicago offered this: Unlike New York’s instantly recognizable coastal archipelago, Chicago unfolds across a flat lakeside floodplain.
Unlike Manhattan’s long, narrow blocks fed by a handful of north-south arterial avenues, Chicago’s grid comprises near-perfect squares fronted by proportionally wide streets on all sides. Elevated highways cut through downtown Chicago, making possible the key set-piece pursuits in both Begins and Knight (that somersaulting 18-wheeler); compared to New York and its East Coast sisters, Chicago really is a city of broad shoulders, not least on its transportation network. Its buildings can certainly be very tall, but even when CGI-enhanced into the Gotham skyline, a certain squatness reigns.
Barely CGI-enhanced Chicago as Gotham in The Dark Knight.
Thus putting The Dark Knight in Chicago did more than tap into—and, I’d argue, feed—the air of inevitability that grew around the South Side’s Barack Obama in 2008. It cannily played to the odd narcissism of middle America’s post-9/11 hysteria: All evidence to the contrary, we convinced ourselves that that al-Qaeda didn’t target the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan as sui generis symbol, an utterly unique two-of-a-kind avatar for American hegemony.
Rather, we imagined the terrorists as interested above all in scaring us, and spent the better part of a decade concocting scenarios that would put our own cities in the cross-hairs. With his camera trained on the street level of ho-hum urban-renewal (dotted with the occasional masonry-and-brick survival), Nolan’s Chicago/Gotham could have been Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Oklahoma City or, indeed, the liminal space where Aurora, Colorado leaks into Denver proper.
After all, the climactic sequence in The Dark Knight takes place in a building the film called “Gotham General Hospital,” but which, surrounded by acres of overgrown vacant lots, looked for all the world like the decommissioned suburban candy factory it was. Its initial appearance was so jarring, one had to wonder: Even setting aside madmen in nurse outfits, if this was really the central hospital for a metropolis the size of Gotham (or Chicago), did anyone in critical condition ever survive the ambulance ride?
Taken by itself, the urban-fabric disconnect of the hospital scene was something of a minor nitpick. Gotham seemed otherwise so fully realized as an alterno-Chicago that that those of us not intimately familiar with the real thing assumed Nolan was painting a city that did what Midwestern cities do—that is, fade more or less continuously from the skyscraper density of downtown to the industrial outskirts, then suburbs and exurbs and cornfields beyond. (Or, in other words, something that island-bound New York simply does not do.)
In hindsight, Gotham General should have been the first clue that fans were giving Christopher Nolan a benefit of the doubt he didn’t deserve. Might the generation’s most self-important auteur really just roll IMAX in whichever locations throw him the most generous conditions and lucrative tax breaks? On a business level, that’s the case, and rightfully so—when you’re helming a $250 million mega-production, you go to war against the backdrops that are willing.
Aesthetically and narratively, however, the great directors—and many, many middling ones—who shoot on location use those locations to create a compellingly alive, internally self-consistent filmic universe that might exactly mirror, subtly take off from, or have nothing to do with the reality they’re working in. Hence the great urban centers of cost-effective movie-making: Toronto does a fine job playing itself on screen, but in recent years it’s also seamlessly stepped in for Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, New Haven, Washington DC, Raccoon City, and, above all, New York more times than anyone can count.
But any stager of Batman enjoys an advantage beyond the bald fact that effective storytelling and compelling mis-en-scene—plus a few days of second-unit work—can turn most North American cities into reasonable facsimiles of most others past, present, and future. Unlike, say, Mary Harmon on American Psycho (NYC played by low-cost Toronto) or Sam Raimi on Spider-Man (NYC played by no-expense-spared NYC), to say nothing of every biopic and rom-com in the pipe, Nolan’s locations only have to ring true to the Gotham of his imagination. This freedom to create, from whole-cloth, a city teeming with architecture and neighborhoods and history and institutions and (non-mutant) people would seem the great appeal of Batman over, ahem, lesser comic-book Marvels.
That Nolan actually shot most of the second film (and much of the first) in Chicago might have been a function of the Daley Administration’s arts incentives or Warner Brothers’ actuarial math. That The Dark Knight‘s Gotham so decidedly was Chicago in appearance and spirit onscreen had to have been a primary aesthetic choice; not an accident of production, but the crux to understanding its urban cosmos.
Put another way, one would expect that even if politics or accounting had intervened to prevent extended filming on Wacker Drive or outside Daley Plaza, Nolan would have found a way to imbue Toronto or Vancouver or a backlot in Burbank with the ethos of the Windy City. Surely, he always had his platonic Chicago/Gotham in mind—that vision provocative and rigorous enough to turn around those of us who long imagined Gotham as an another place entirely. Surely it’s no accident that the creepiest part of Heath Ledger’s characterization was that diabolically flat Midwestern accent.
Or so we thought. Even before the confoundments of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s urban geography was less resilient to scrutiny than his gritty realism insisted. Self-righteously rejecting CGI, his Gotham General needed to be a real building really destroyed, and Chicago could only provide one on its outskirts. Fine. Less explicable was the thumping finale that followed. A Joker hostage (Anthony Michael Hall channeling Glenn Beck) announces over the airwaves that Gotham’s bridges and tunnels have been wired with explosives; citizens who don’t get out of the city in time can expect murderous anarchy. Nolan then flashes to an overhead shot of total gridlock, with the National Guard dog-sniffing the only bridges evidenced (and shot beautifully) in his Gotham: the myriad bascule spans over the tiny Chicago River.
Um, really? You're afraid of these bridges blowing up?
Which should have raised some near-fatal questions: Destroying these bridges hardly seems apocalyptic. With makeshift flotation devices and a tetanus shot on the other side, even Gothamites who can’t swim should be able get across just fine. More problematic, of course, is the fact that this channelized stream (the one they dye green on St. Patrick’s Day) doesn’t actually represent a geographical, political, or psychological divide of any kind. Unlike the rivers surrounding Manhattan, it placidly flows through downtown and downtown rises on either side.
It emerges, then, that after two hours of persuasively giving us a Gotham that, like Chicago (or Milwaukee or Cleveland or Miami), sprawls along and inland from the waterfront, Nolan had in mind a Manhattan-style island all along. Or rather, his Gotham transforms into a watery Escape from New York deathtrap at the drop of a dime and at the service of plot contrivance.
Topologically, it remains the same Chicago as always, which sinks his pièce de résistance—that game-theory ferry scene—into utter incoherence. We never, in fact, see any New York–scaled bridges or tunnels that might be rigged. Thus for fear of driving for a few seconds on any of the dozens of minuscule Chicago River crossings (which the vast majority of Chicagoans live and work nowhere near), the citizenry will avoid road travel towards open interstates north, south, and west, and take to the Lake instead? Where are those ferries headed anyway? Highland Park for the civilians? Gary, Indiana for the prisoners?
The answer, of course, is that Christopher Nolan hadn’t really considered any of these in-universe logistical matters—nor, for that matter, considered them things worth considering. And it didn’t much matter for non-nitpickers of The Dark Knight because the accident of having shot essentially all the location scenes in a single city gave Gotham a geographical and conceptual coherence in spite of its creator. We—meaning the generous viewer legitimately enthralled by the work—read Nolan’s reluctance to use CGI or camera tricks to mask Chicago’s Chicago-ness as a substantive statement about that city, about its appropriateness as a Gotham of banal glass and steel, flat roofs and parking decks.
I suspect now it was more a matter of Nolan simply not comprehending that a familiar building or recognizable streetscape—or even a totally fantastic one that feels recognizably walkable—can generate the same frisson of uncanny magic in an audience as an expertly choreographed stunt. For him, the real Chicago landmarks studded throughout Knight could serve only the utilitarian purpose of that real Parisian cafe in Inception: as visual materiel to be commandeered and bent into bravura dream-images of the director’s sole making.
Plaster of Paris.
This is the paradox of Nolan’s much-vaunted realism: His commitment to using real-world locations in the Batman trilogy comes not from an elevated appreciation for the existential affinity human beings feel toward our cities—our understanding that, even if it goes unnamed on screen, that is Lake Michigan—but rather a conflation of all built environments to the level of movie sets. Again, reviewed in hindsight, this basic orientation becomes glaring.
The grubby Gotham of Begins, a sterile and largely CGI creation which looked nothing like its successor, introduced distinct features into the urban fabric solely for the purpose of destroying them. The Wayne-financed monorail doesn’t even attempt to be legible as transportation network; it’s pure Chekhov’s gun. More interesting is The Narrows, an island slum district modeled extremely faithfully on Kowloon Walled City. Its leveling forestalled the obvious questions: How did this bit of Far East morphology find its way into the seafront of an American city? What does this island have to the do with the tidal strait in New York Harbor it’s so obviously named after?
By planting The Dark Knight much more firmly in the real world, Nolan cannily circumvented such aesthetic conundrums. If casting blocky, modernist Chicago as Gotham robbed him of an iconic, Manhattanite flight between neogothic towers, no matter. His plot could simply return Batman to Hong Kong and that city’s even taller postmodern substitutes.
Not Chicago-as-Gotham, but Hong Kong-as-Hong Kong.
But never mind all that. As you know, to go by The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan was a Big Apple enthusiast all along.
Now, radically changing the look of Gotham between Batman pics is something of a series tradition. In 1989, Tim Burton’s original Batman made the city a realistic, if particularly bleak, version of contemporary New York. Three years later, he exchanged nightmarish Dinkins for phantasmagoric Dickens.
Shot entirely on soundstages, Batman Returns cements its legacy with every new processor-intensive, anti-aliased extravaganza as the last great gasp of old-fashioned set-design. (Not unrelatedly, many also consider it a final neglected masterwork of German Expressionism.) Burton’s sequel was actually a bit of a trailblazer in using CGI to round out its swarms of bats, cats, and penguins. But, determined by the limits of 1992 technology rather than atavist ideology, Burton’s Gotham would have to be, like Nolan’s, analog.
Curiously, Returns is also, like Rises, set in the dead of winter with a stout villain (Danny DeVito’s Penguin) laying siege from the sewers while a morally ambiguous Catwoman/Selina Kyle tussles with Batman/Wayne in the skies and society balls above. The drastic visual discrepancy between the films is thus doubly instructive. Burton’s “locations” simply couldn’t exist in the real world in the sense of physical spaces human beings could live in. His plywood-foam-and-elbow-grease Gotham uses all the state-of-art stagecraft of the 1920s: Painted backdrops, forced perspective landscapes, extensive miniature work. But the net effect is more than the sum of all material conditions (skyscrapers and skybridges; cemeteries and sewer caverns and department stores) needed for setting up action sequences. The city feels alive and traversable beyond the confines of plot, even as the viewer understands intellectually that what we’re viewing is a collage of Potemkin villages and scale models.
The heart of Returns is Gotham Plaza, with which Burton recalls Rockefeller Center at Christmastime by blowing the Art Deco architecture and brooding Übermenschen statuary to truly menacing, Wagnerian proportions. In Rises, by contrast, Nolan praises his own timely considerations of 9/11 terror and post-Lehman class war by throwing in repeated, lingering aerial views of the real 1 World Trade, under construction.
Unlike the previous film’s Chicago, here Rises is counting on our recognition of the former Freedom Tower as a visual shortcut to conceptual (dare I say emotional?) immediacy. But again he fatally misunderstands what such recognition is about: The city-dweller—indeed, even the dedicated Wikipedia tourist—uses landmarks to orient ourselves in, and to, a particularist zone of compressed space–time totally distinct from all others. We make mental maps of our environs, cinematic and otherwise. Now, Nolan might have used a building that looks exactly like 1 World Trade to plant a semiotic flag in a Gotham otherwise of his own creation. More daringly, he might have just dispensed with niceties and turned Gotham into precisely New York City, circa 2012. Instead, he offers a view of Lower Manhattan that’s nearly true-to-life, except there are bridges on the Hudson River as well as the East River side.
Why, given the opportunity to create a civic universe at a scale Burton could only dream of twenty years ago, would this be how Nolan decides to deploy CGI? Indeed, The Dark Knight Rises may be the first popcorn movie in which the establishing shots are the most disorienting thing of all. Again and again, he helicopters us over a Manhattan that’s not quite Manhattan; he turns New York’s skyscraper canyons into uncanny valleys for no discernible aesthetic reason beyond inoculating himself to later charges of geographical un-realism. We learn soon enough (spoiler alert) why a trilogy which seemed to stake itself on Chicago-as-Gotham so insouciantly reversed course: This time, Bane’s pilfered fusion-orb means the get-off-the-island trope can’t be a last-act flourish, but the raison d’etre of the whole works. (Whether there was a real-life break that made Warner skip Chicago locations altogether is perhaps a question for Rahm Emanuel.)
Gotham city map, from The Dark Knight Manual, by Brandon T. Snyder
In 2012, Gotham needs to be an island, with serious bridges to dynamite. It needs locations that scream Occupy topicality, lest the lazier 99-percenters confuse Rises with just another summer blockbuster. Nolan thus engages ersatz NYC as a basically mechanical solution: a sterile rental vehicle for moving plot and, more desultory still, pedaling “ideas.” How uninterested is he in the aesthetics of the City, Gotham and New York both? When Bane’s bombs finally blow, the money shot has suspension bridges crumbling in succession: the Williamsburg, the Manhattan, the Brooklyn. These three sisters appear unaltered—or, rather, were painstakingly computer-modeled on NYC reality, when the same effort might have created Gotham-unique landmarks. What’s more, even the surrounding East River waterfront (including Governors Island!) seems totally true-to-life.
It takes a side-by-side comparison to reveal the truth. Perhaps in a moment of painterly pique (thought not one piquant enough to actually paint his own picture), Nolan mirror-flipped the composition: Looking south from the “Williamsburg Bridge”, “Manhattan” is on the left and “Brooklyn” on the right. This is a subtler transmogrification of a human city than the Ellen Page character accomplished in Inception but, for that reason, more perverse. Nolan, the total(itarian) dreamer, bends New York on a whim, because he can.
Which is to say, the half-hearted inoculation fails. Rise‘s Gotham is New York City, full stop. Except, of course, that New York would never be as wide open to on-location shooting as Chicago was for the previous film. When he can’t—can’t get the permits, can’t align the built environment to his plot points—Nolan defaults to pursing a “close-enough” resemblance that only underlines the disjuncture.
Rises wants its stock exchange—interior and exterior, body and soul—to be the NYSE. But, with the big board apparently unavailable or unwilling, Nolan’s solution is almost childlike in its obliviousness: Gotham’s stock exchange turns out to be the JP Morgan building at 23 Wall Street, across the street from the Exchange! For the roughly three billion people familiar with the colonnaded (and often flag-bedecked) facade of the real thing, Bane’s daring securities plot and the frantic police response devolves into bewilderment whenever the action moves outdoors: You’ve got the wrong building. The right one’s over there.
There are, to be sure, reasons to keep such a heist in the neighborhood even if the particulars have to be warped. For insinuating raw power and sheer claustrophobia, nowhere else comes close: those competing phallo-capitalist cathedrals looming over winding, incongruously narrow streets from old New Amsterdam; that incomparable view down Wall Street to Trinity Church, its awesome god turned puny by commerce. This is the New York Bob Kane was thinking of when he christened Batman’s hometown Gotham.
But rather than play to the drama inherent in this built environment, Nolan appears to have landed in it by accident (“Taxi to the local bourse, please!”). Once again, he demonstrates a preternatural ability for making the real world look like a backlot. What could a director sensitive to cities have done with a few days on Wall and Broad Streets and a tenth of Nolan’s budget? Happily, that movie actually exists: Inside Man (2006), Spike Lee’s terrifically underrated heist flick, casts as its target bank 20 Exchange Place, just around the corner from the NYSE (and GSE). (Like Rises it also features Willem Dafoe playing against type as a good cop.)
Hollywood’s (and, pace Woody Allen, New York’s) arch-urbanist, Lee stages his Wall Street as a super-dense membranous organ, pulsating to a hundred arrhythmias. Though largely bottled by its plot inside a few square blocks, Inside Man never suffers for aesthetic variety. Denzel Washington and Co. navigate an ever-shifting anatomy of liminal spaces—between indoors and out, public and private, high finance and local retail, MOTUs and bums. Nolan, like Lee, revels in the sight and sound of wailing cop cars and hostage-negotiator tech careening down tight Financial District streets; in his hands, however, they converge on a site utterly devoid of organic street life.
The cops and robbers and broker–hostages are placed like chess pieces; a garbage truck appears to accidentally block an escape path (we learn later that, of course, it’s part of the plan); and every other vehicle, animal, mineral, and vegetable typical to city streets is scrubbed from the scene. Scratch that, there’s plenty of mineral—but Nolan manages to turn the street-level foundations of some of the most extravagant trophy buildings ever erected into a backdrop of nondescript gray. The steps of Federal Hall appear briefly, out of focus and truncated; we never glimpse George. Forget Spike Lee–level urban clamor. For all the life Nolan gives Wall Street’s iconic slabs of marble and limestone, we might as well be back at the quarry.
Again, this is not a matter of Wall Street not supposing to be Wall Street in The Dark Knight Rises. If it were, you’d think at least one production assistant would have been tasked with disguising the subway entrances, with their glowing green orbs and MTA signage clearly visible on screen. No, Nolan is counting on you recognizing his stock exchange as, give or take, the one stock exchange everyone knows, in New York City. He just doesn’t give this feeling of placedness the narrative or ontological salience a normal person would.
All of which culminates in what has to be, dollar-for-dollar, the most problematic sequence committed to celluloid this century. Forty-five minutes into The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan transitions from heist to chase. Clutching human shields, Bane and his henchmen escape on motorcycles. Then it happens. Wally Pfister’s masterful cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score can only partially smooth over the moment, and then only on a first viewing. The bad guys tear through the narrow side streets around the exchange. Cut. The cops load in their cars to follow. And—CUT—everyone is instantly teleported to a straight, empty, luxuriously wide tree-lined boulevard totally out of scale with anything in New York, let alone Lower Manhattan.
The lapse in earthly continuity lets Nolan run his chase, which ends with the debut of Batman’s hovercraft, through five minutes and untold acres of deserted blacktop: at-grade city avenues, the florescent-lit lower level of a double-decked roadway (a favorite setting from the Chicago films), freeway on-ramps, freeway overpasses, sunken freeways, elevated freeways. If this sounds less classic Gotham (or New York, or Chicago) than gas-guzzling California, there’s good reason: Most of the chase was indeed shot in downtown Los Angeles. More profoundly, L.A. arrives as undisguised as Chicago in Knight or Wall Street a few minutes ago in Rises. At one point, an aerial shot peers down between two of the city’s tallest, most familiar skyscrapers. With a few seconds of Google Maps triangulation, the curious viewer can pinpoint Batman’s location: Heading north on the Harbor Freeway, around exit 23.
Think about it: Would even the lowliest hack in remedial film school dare stage a pursuit that starts on Wall Street, ends near the Staples Center via Pittsburgh, and demands to be taken deadly seriously as a statement on urban crime, class, and sacrifice? Once Bane’s diabolical plan is put in motion, the narrative and geographical incoherences feed off each other in a sort of infernal codependency. Every new liberty Nolan takes with atomic physics or League-of-Shadows mumbo-mysticism enables a bigger bout of spatial disorientation, and so on.
When Bane announces his presence at Gotham’s football stadium—Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, still in Steelers black and gold—are we on the benighted island or off? Jets efforts aside, there hasn’t been a pro football or baseball venue on Manhattan since the days of the Polo Grounds. It’s of course no great effort to imagine Gotham’s “Manhattan” having a major-league stadium, except that Nolan insists on epic-height aerial shots that situate the building on an entirely distinct riverfront, in a place more like, well, Pittsburgh. Or Queens. Or New Jersey.
Gotham gifs by Matafari
Once Bane finishes his JumboTron manifesto, we never again see the stadium among all the mismatched bits of NYC, L.A., Pittsburgh, Newark, and even Glasgow. Do the fans, trapped in an island within an island, immediately descend into anarchic hooliganism, then tailgate cannibalism? Or are they the luckiest people alive, having slipped out of Dodge to Flushing Meadows or the Meadowlands, and the meadows of America beyond, before the crossings were blown?
About those crossings. The master plan leaves one route on and off the island open: The Queensboro Bridge (or, if you prefer, a bridge that looks exactly like the Queensboro/59th Street/Ed Koch Bridge). Thanks to Pfister, it looks great, perhaps better than it ever has. Nolan successively puts tanks, terrorists, and a school bus of orphan boys on it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the finest actor in a very fine cast, spends the grand finale heroically fuming and speechifying under its canopy of criss-crossing iron girders. But, after all of Gotham’s inexplicable globetrotting, can anyone watch (spoiler alert) proto-Robin emerge here and really believe there’s a good reason it has to be this bridge?
I mean this in two senses. First, within the plot, why would Bane choose the Queensboro? (Best explanation I can come up with: the close proximity of Bain Capital’s NYC HQ at 57th and Madison.) More seriously, why would Nolan? From a preference for its hulking double-cantilever aesthetic in a harbor full of agile suspension bridges? From a fondness for Roosevelt Island, the fortuitous mid-river anchor point that made said cheaper cantilever construction possible? (Are long-suffering Roosevelt Islanders considered full Gothamites under the terms of the siege, or free to leave?)
When Sam Raimi used the same location for his grand finale a decade ago, we got a pulp tableau that could only be where it was: Green Goblin performing a pas de deux with Spidey, who’s forced to choose between Kirsten Dunst, flung from the bridge’s towers, and a gaggle of trapped passengers, dangling next door on the one-of-a-kind Roosevelt Island Tramway. (Like the Gotham ferry passengers’, this turned out to be one of those rare moral dilemmas best answered by “I choose both.”) Altogether less ambitious and altogether more satisfying, Spider-Man made real-world locales like Queensboro matter as consequential places rather than incidental backdrops.
Indeed, it is a bad sign for his hold on the suspension of disbelief when a director’s choices knock the viewer into dark conspiratorial thoughts about the municipal micropolitics of film permits. Is there a secret City Hall agenda that shunts superhero productions looking for an East River crossing to 59th Street? (Best explanation I can come up with: the close proximity of the Bloomberg Tower.) Whatever the real motives, Nolan’s Queenboro Bridge reads like a technicality; Raimi’s (and Scott Fitzgerald’s, and Woody Allen’s, and Archie Bunker’s), like a necessity.
Of course, the latter was also more than a bit cheesy. Having made the real-world Tramway a climactic element of the fantasy, Raimi used the full arsenal of soundstages, green screens, miniatures, and computers available to recreate it, the better to destroy it.1 But CGI was less than ripe ten years ago and will likely never shed that last layer of waxy, cartoonish sheen.
The is the irony, of course, when making movies predicated on physical destruction: On-location shooting is never sufficient to create a full-spectrum simulacrum of a real-world location. Which is another way of stating the Nolan Paradox: His judicious use of CGI—the Queensboro suffers some generic post-production explosions in Rises but otherwise plays itself —comes less from an elevated sensitivity to the real world than utter indifference to it.
I am, like most sane civilians, willing to accept plot holes the size of Bane’s stadium crater at service to the higher logic of movie magic. Visual splendor, conceived purposefully in gnomic monomania, can easily trump the laws of nature, and one’s knowledge of basic human geography besides. In Memento and Inception–both flawed masterpieces at best, classy pulp entertainments at worst—Nolan had the advantage of inventing his own rules, his own self-contained (meta)physics. But Batman can bear neither dreams within dreams nor Möbius non-linearity.
So in ferry-scene retrospect, The Dark Knight ran on a string of head-scratchers. To wit: the Joker breaks into the Wayne penthouse looking for Harvey Dent, gets distracted and defenestrates a Gyllenhaal (“I’ve figured out how to quit you”), sending Batman scrambling after her, and then, er, leaves?
But it succeeded unlike any Nolan flick before or since because the genius craftsman seemed to finally be relating to existence as such, tying together the IMAX set-pieces with elemental moments of human-scale terror and ecstasy. There is the disappearing pencil. The bedside chat. Joker, the car-chasing dog, with his head out the prize. Harvey Dent, man of the law, slipping imperceptibly into messianic hubris after a courtroom performance straight out of the (non-recursive) wet dreams of Rudy Giuliani or Elliot Spitzer. Everyone knew these were the best, most inventive scenes of Knight.
Everyone, in the end, but the man behind them. After nearly a decade of hype met and records broken, the Christopher Nolan Batman Trilogy turns out to have been nothing more (or less) than a high-functioning autistic: Occasionally quite right, for all the wrong reasons. And so bombastic, bathetic Rises appears on DVD this week. If, on second (or fifth) viewing, it seems far sillier and more inept than anyone thought this summer, don’t just blame the smaller screen or availability of a rewind button.
Indeed, Nolan’s final vision of Gotham—the riot of mismatched Pittsburghs and L.A.s and Newarks and backlots hammered into an ersatz Manhattan—could yet have been redeemed if, in fact, a city under siege is experienced as precisely that: Dislocated. Discontinuous. Dissociative. A disjointed slideshow of the not-quite-real. After all, was the phenomenology of 9/11 not more or less described that way? Were all the citizens who called that day “like a movie” not identifying something like a Nolanesque illogic to the catastrophe?
Perhaps, but the area struck eleven years ago was a sixteen-acre superblock, not a city. The Dark Knight Rises may yet go down as the last 9/11 movie, the last film that could claim disembodied semiotic shadow plays--roughly, moviegoers watching people on screen watching screens of the carnage--as The Way We Live Crisis Now. Because, remarkably, four months after its premiere, something not dissimilar to Rises ’s no-one-off-the-island disaster scenario actually happened. Its fantasy could be tested against a factual data set.
And what did Hurricane Sandy prove? (Besides the fact that it’s a rising East River, not a frozen-over one, that we have to fear.) It proved that in a true Gothamwide crisis, Nolan’s insouciance to geography, topography, history, and ethnography would be as ludicrous as the comic-book costumes. Matters of life and death—or at least, comfort and outrage—were settled in a battered city by the minutest details of physical space: Midtown or Downtown, Zone A or Zone B, 34th Street or 35th, west side of Avenue C or east.
We were suddenly, brutally reminded that it's not undifferentiated real estate under our feet, but bluffs and flood plains, landfill atop tidal estuaries, islands turned into peninsulas, and wooded creeks become industrial cloacas. As electrical substations exploded and water treatment plants gushed sewage, we saw the messy, analog materiality of networks usually encountered as on/off abstractions. Bereft of the subways, we experienced our surroundings as continuous, torturous space. If it’s almost possible, via a functioning northbound 4/5 train, to buy Nolan’s Wall Street-to-L.A. joy ride, we now understand disaster, crisis, catastrophe as disrupting exactly that sort of cinematic sleight of hand. In extremis, the space (and time) between points A and B does not fade into irrelevance; It becomes the crux of survival, the lodestar of urban reality.
Bob Kane and Tim Burton knew this implicitly. Their Gothams weren't inert dioramas, but characters as seethingly alive as the teutonic (i.e., gothic) forests of the Brothers Grimm.3 Lesser lights have understood it as well. Consider J.J. Abrams' Cloverfield (2008), which subsumed a traditional creature feature into a quasi-real-time trek up the spine of Manhattan Island in a blackout, from the Lower East Side to Columbus Circle. Forced underground, the beautiful, terrified young New Yorkers on its "found footage" take to arguing over the best subway tracks to follow uptown--a predicament pitch-perfect, mordantly hilarious, and more than a bit profound.
Batman (1989), for one, opens on a straight-laced couple and their son scrambling for a cab amid the hookers and winos of downtown squalor. They take a wrong turn down a deserted alley and are mugged, as much by the alley itself as the two-bit criminals harbored there. It's a simple, startling scene to watch in light of the Nolan trilogy--in which all crime seems "organized," all criminal acts bravura set-pieces, and (by the end of Rises) all bystanders end up out of sight and mind as good brawls evil. We all know Gotham is a crime-ridden place. To see crime qua crime in space--physically manifest as an oppressive, all-consuming gloom; as streets that swallow up families on the way home from the theater--gives Batman's vigilantism a resonance beyond super villainy.
In the future, it won’t be Grand Guignol madmen like Bane or Osama bin Laden, releasing multimedia missives and lurking in transnational Leagues of Shadows, who haunt our worst-case contingencies. It'll be the exigencies of embodiment on an angry planet.